On the steep, misty slopes of the Sabinyo volcano, far above the green rectangles of sorghum fields that press against the Parc National des Volcans, a family of mountain gorillas is frolicking.
As the huge silverback yawns, a small group of camera-toting tourists – each of whom has paid Rwanda's park system $375 to see this scene – click away. "It's amazing!" one woman exclaims.
Conservationists say she is right – the scene is remarkable. But that's not just because it showcases a few of the world's 700 or so remaining mountain gorillas, or brings much-needed foreign currency to this corner of northwest Rwanda. It is amazing simply because it exists, they say.
Despite a decade of war and environmental devastation, Rwanda's mountain gorillas and their habitat have managed to survive. And conservationists are taking a closer look at the region, suggesting that in these wet, lush mountains, there is a lesson for the world about how an environment can withstand conflict.
"I think it's really important to highlight what happened there," says Judy Oglethorpe, the director of ecoregion support at the World Wildlife Fund. "We asked communities, 'Why did you look after the gorillas?' They said, 'Because we made money from gorilla conservation – and we believed peace would come again and we would benefit again.' "
During the 1990s, this tiny country in central Africa erupted into some of the worst ethnic conflict of the 20th century. The peak of the violence came between April and July 1994, when Hutu militias slaughtered an estimated 800,000 Tutsis and other Hutus labeled "moderate." But smaller numbers of killings continued through the end of the decade.
The environmental degradation was also huge. Rebels and government officials fought in the national parks, soldiers poached wildlife, and refugees swarmed into protected forests. But according to a WWF-funded report and conservationists on the ground, local officials and international aid workers tended to pay little attention – compared to the human trauma, conservation hardly seemed to matter.
The Parc National des Volcans (PNV) was different.
The PNV encompasses the Rwandan section of the Virunga Volcanoes, a looming mountain range in the border region where Rwanda, Congo, and Uganda meet. It is home to the mountain gorillas made famous by researcher Dian Fossey and the movie "Gorillas in the Mist."
This area saw intense fighting during the war. Soldiers cleared swaths of bamboo forest, and skirmishes were regular in the higher-altitude alpine forests. But despite the danger, a handful of NGOs continued to fund conservation projects and rangers continued to work. The International Gorilla Conservation Program (IGCP) says locals supported the efforts.
Today, while other parts of Rwanda and central Africa struggle with the long-term consequences of war's environmental devastation – food shortages, deforestation, and deteriorating water quality, to name a few – the economy in Rwanda's gorilla region is growing.
"We were able to build a program that continuously had some presence in the field, on the ground," explains Eugene Rutagarama, director of the IGCP. "We didn't really stop for a month. We have been there always, even during the conflict."
Mr. Rutagarama says two main factors helped the gorilla program survive. NGOs in the area were able to piece together private funding, which allowed some park operations to continue. And, he says, junior staff members kept working despite the danger, even when people such as himself had to flee the country.
The funding setup was crucial, he says, since the government and international organizations tend to eliminate conservation funds during conflict or put restrictions on how money is used. But the private funds were more flexible, allowing park officials to pay for a patrol whenever it seemed safe, or to shift gears and run an education program for a week. They could make those calls day by day.
They could also help pay the park's junior staff. Those rangers ended up running conservation efforts during the war when it became too dangerous for their bosses, who were targets of the violence because of their higher education levels.
"The junior people bridged the gap from conflict to peace," Rutagarama says.
Digirinana François is 50 years old now, and still works with the Rwanda park service. Before the war, he guided tourists to see his country's gorillas. When the fighting ended Rwanda's tourism business, he stayed on to monitor the primate families he had come to love.
"We were tracking gorillas to see if they were healthy, to make sure there was no poaching, because sometimes we found snares in the park," he says. "When we were finding some gorillas not in good health, we asked doctors to come and help them."
There were times when he was scared, he says, and times he was overcome with anxiety for the safety of his wife and five children who lived in the nearby village of Kinigi. But he never thought of ceasing his work.
In part, Mr. François says, that was because he continued to get his salary – either from the government or from the IGCP. But more so, he says, it was because the gorillas were part of his life.
"I was in love with the park, with the gorillas," he says. "It was not only that I had a salary – I liked to be in that position, in the forest and around the gorillas."
The junior rangers would ask both rebel and government forces to check on the gorilla groups, Rutagarama says. Meanwhile, they helped remind their neighbors that the gorillas would bring money when the war was over.
"This was not cutting-edge conservation work," says Annette Lanjouw, the director of Africa and Americas programs for the United Kingdom's Fauna and Flora International. "It was basic patrols, trying to keep as much control over the areas as possible."
In many ways, locals had incentives to push into the protected parkland. Rwanda is the most densely populated country in Africa, with nearly every inch of land cultivated. Even the steepest hills are forced into terraced rows, and almost everyone needs more land.
But residents realized that gorillas brought in tourism money, and that the park's thick forest help to preserve soil nutrients, prevent erosion, and maintain a cooler, wetter climate, making nearby farms more productive, Rutagarama says. Moreover, people like François reminded their neighbors of that fact.
"Most of the people who live around here, they know how their place is different than the rest of Rwanda, how they almost always have rains, how their land is fertile," Rutagarama says.
There are unique aspects to the gorilla area that helped it to survive the war. Rwandans do not eat gorillas, for instance, so there was little pressure to poach. Also, because of the gorillas' fame, there was worldwide pressure on both rebels and government forces to keep the animals and their habitat safe.
Such pressure doesn't exist in other regions. Still, conservationists say, some of what saved this part of Rwanda could be repeated in other war-torn areas.
"The experiences of conservation efforts in Rwanda demonstrates that a committed team of nationals can maintain a presence and influence activities for conservation even during periods of armed conflict and political instability," the Wildlife Conservation Society's Andy Plumptre wrote in a 2001 report. "No armed conflict situation will be the same, and it is not possible to prove a recipe of what to do and what not to do. However, the actions suggested here can help to minimize the negative impacts of armed conflict."
Today, tourism in Rwanda's gorilla region is growing, and the soil is considered the best in the country – an important factor in a society where 90 percent of the population farms.
While conservationists say that in other areas it can be difficult to get local support for national parks, most people here seem to be on board.
Immaculee Uwamaliya briefly contemplates that question as she paints an intricate gorilla scene on a T-shirt in one of the local community craft centers formed to cater to the growing number of tourists.
"I want to protect the forests," she says without hesitation.
• Stephanie Hanes traveled to Rwanda on a grant from the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting (www.pulitzercenter.org).