Gunfire is nothing new to the mountain gorillas of Rwanda's Volcanos National Park.
They have heard it many times and have seen family members killed. So now, when they hear a shot, these huge creatures with disturbingly familiar facial expressions know what to do.
"They get really quiet and move away in single file," says Liz Williamson, who, like her famous predecessor, American researcher Diane Fossey, knows each of the park's 310 gorillas by name.
Ms. Williamson has spent the last three and a half years studying, or rather, trying to study the behavior of the mountain gorillas, an endangered species living at the foothills of Rwanda's volcanos in the northwest of this beautiful, yet deeply troubled country in central Africa.
She records the parents of each new offspring and can tell how their individual nose prints differ from one another. After an excruciating wait, she has the chance to observe two young, powerful males, or silverbacks, dividing the loyalties of a once united social group.
For the past few years, the gorillas have been inaccessible. Rwanda's 1994 genocide, in which an estimated 800,000 ethnic Tutsis were killed by Hutu extremists, and its violent aftermath made it impossible for her and her assistants to venture into the park.
Despite a deadly incident in neighboring Uganda earlier this year, Rwanda's park reopened July 15 to limited groups of tourists, who eagerly get up at dawn to follow one of many trails in search of the huge creatures. The gorillas are easy to find and don't seem to mind visitors: They appear as interested in humans as humans are interested in them.
"The park is safe," Williamson says, although she would rather have its furry inhabitants to herself, especially now that one group is undergoing a process of division between two males similar to one she started observing in 1996. "I had to stop watching them because of the insecurity," she says, "This group is definitely going to split and I'm definitely going to watch them."
Safety is a prime concern following the murder of eight Western tourists in March in Uganda. The tourists, who had traveled to Bwindi park to observe mountain gorillas there, were targeted by Rwandan rebels known as the Interahamwe, or "those who kill together."
The Interahamwe, members of Rwanda's Hutu majority, fled Rwanda after a Tutsi-led army gained control of the country in July 1994 and dispersed in the jungle of the neighboring Democratic Republic of Congo (the former Zaire). Because the border area between Congo and both Uganda and Rwanda is densely forested, it has provided ideal sanctuary for Interahamwe fighters. The group that crossed into Uganda in March found nothing to block its path. In the days that followed, the Ugandan Army admitted it had failed to provide adequate security.
"No one has any faith in the Ugandan military," says a researcher with the US-based Diane Fossey Fund, which is financing Williamson's studies. Rwanda has been more careful of its visitors, says the researcher, who declined to be identified. "Rwandans could have opened the park a lot sooner, and they didn't. They would close it if they thought it was inappropriate."
To help lessen the risk, the Rwandan government now requires anyone wishing to see the gorillas to travel with a military escort. The escort is free, but must be arranged in advance.
Williamson also must take along a few soldiers when she goes in. She doesn't mind, she says, as long as they don't interfere with her work.
(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society