National Geographic : 1995 Oct
Gorillas and Humans: An Uneasy Truce By PAUL F. SALOPEK NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC EDITORIAL STAFF N THE DRY SEASON the Virunga volcanoes are the palest shade of blue, translucent as old glass, a hue almost too delicate to hold the eye. Barely 40 miles long, the chain of peaks rises above the borders of Rwanda, Zaire, and Uganda like jagged shards of sky. On the upper slopes of the volca noes, primeval forests of bamboo and hagenia trees shelter half the world's remaining popu lation of mountain gorillas. Higher still, a soft wind blows over subalpine meadows from the south, from Rwanda. This wind carries the silence of the dead. At least 500,000 people died in Rwanda's four-year civil war. Entire families, most of them from the minority Tutsi tribe, were mas sacred last year in an orgy of violence that culminated in the overthrow of the Hutu-led government. Yet even while this human trag edy dominated the world stage, environmen talists warned of another potential disaster. The Virungas were a battle zone. The Rwandan side of the volcanoes had been seeded with land mines. And thousands of sol diers and refugees had trampled through the forests, exposing the gorillas to both gunfire and lethal human diseases. The world's most endangered great apes, it seemed, would only slip closer to extinction. For several weeks last spring, often on foot, I roamed the gorilla parks that encompass the Virungas, expecting the worst. But instead of casualties, I found gorillas in robust shape, go ing about their unhurried lives without disrup tion on the watercolor slopes of the volcanoes. Only one out of an estimated 300 Virunga gorillas has been confirmed killed in the fighting. A silverback, Mrithi, was shot in 1992 by frightened soldiers who mistook him for the enemy. The world's only other moun tain gorillas, some 300 animals out of the line of fire in the Impenetrable Forest of Uganda, have actually fared worse. Four adults were speared to death by poachers this year.