Above Rwanda's Madding Crowd, Mountain Gorillas Reign

Mugombe, a silverback gorilla, tranquilly snoozes on a bed of nettles on a Rwandan mountaintop in Volcanoes National Park, oblivious to the human multitude pouring into villages several miles below.

Stretched out languorously, like a man on a sofa, the giant patriarch occasionally stirs to look askance at eight tourists witnessing his midday nap.

Mugombe and his family of 28 live an enchanted life. Youngsters play freely in the rain forest, wrestling and beating their chests. There are enough bamboo trees and wild cherries to eat. Armed guards keep intruders away.

But local environmentalists worry that protecting the rare mountain gorillas may be increasingly difficult. More than 500,000 Rwandan refugees have returned from Zaire - and many of them are heading toward the gorillas' habitat. Rwanda is one of the world's most densely populated countries. Authorities are concerned there won't be enough land for the masses returning home.

Denys Uwimana, a senior Tourism and National Parks official, says the government has launched a plan to educate returnees not to kill gorillas or encroach on their habitat.

"We will try to mitigate the negative impact of the refugees' return," he says. "We are trying to ensure that they do not come into the park - and that local leaders are ... sensitizing the population about protecting the gorillas."

Until the refugees' return, environmental officials were pleased with efforts to protect Rwanda's mountain gorilla population, which Mr. Uwimana estimated to be at least 300 - about half the world's total population.

Poaching was a problem before the current government came to power in 1994, he says. But since then about 70 armed guards and soldiers have been dispatched to protect the gorillas. Authorities are also reforesting areas where trees had been cut down and have banned farming near the reserve.

The gorillas' home is difficult to access, even for those desperate for a plot of land to call their own. To reach the gorillas, it is more than an hour's hike to an altitude of 8,400 feet.

But it's clear that people are willing to live in this seemingly inhospitable area. The trek goes through terraced fields of potatoes, peas, and beans, past grazing goats and hamlets of thatched huts where villagers beg hikers for money. They are poor and do not benefit from the proceeds of gorilla tourism.

A rain forest suddenly appears at the misty summit - one so dense that guides must cut paths with rusted machetes. To leave the gorillas in peace, authorities only allow two families to be visited by a maximum of eight tourists each day.

Inside the rain forest, members of Mugombe's family come to greet their guests. A young gorilla lumbers by so close visitors can touch its soft fur. The five-foot-tall animal grunts at the visitors and assesses them seriously with its amber eyes. They seem to pass the test: When it stumbles on a branch, it places its big, leathery hands on the shoulders of a startled tourist to steady itself.

The gorilla saunters on and leads the visitors to a clearing, where the rest of the family is munching on leaves and dozing. Mugombe watches warily, but neither he nor his deputy, Kurira, feel the need to chase the intruders away.

While the gorillas relax in their haven snacking on bamboo, several miles away the roads are clogged with refugees returning home from Zaire.

Even if space can be found for the returnees without invading the gorillas' territory, the animals are far from safe, Uwimana says. He points out that the primates roam far, sometimes crossing the frontier into Zaire, where poaching has always been rife. "Unfortunately, gorillas do not know political borders," he says.

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