National Geographic : 1995 Oct
Gentle Gorillas, Turbulent Times By GEORGE B. SCHALLER N JANUARY 22, 1991, my wife, Kay, and I sat on the summit of Mount Visoke, one of the eight Virunga vol canoes that straddle the borders of Rwanda, Zaire, and Uganda. We had come to help with a mountain gorilla film. That morning we had left the Karisoke Research Center, the base of Dian Fossey's gorilla work from 1967 until she was killed by unknown assailants in 1985. Her hut of green corrugated metal remained, littered with remnants of her past. Still on the wall was a plastic Santa Claus, a poignant reminder that she died at Christmastime. Beside her cabin, shaded by moss-laden boughs of hagenia trees, was her grave, along with those of 17 gorillas, one dog, and one monkey. But it was not a day for us to dwell on tragedy. Instead of the swirling gray fog and rain-drenched slopes that are so common here, the volcanoes rose stark and clear above a shimmering for est. To the west, in the saddle between Mikeno and Karisimbi, the two highest volcanoes, was a place called Kabara. Kay and I had lived there in 1959 and 1960 while conducting the first inten sive gorilla study. Now, after three decades, we had returned to an idyll of our past. The gorillas on the slopes of the Virunga volcanoes-some 300 animals-inhabit a small forested island surrounded by a sea of people. Twenty miles to the north is Uganda's Impenetrable Forest, now protected as Bwindi Impenetrable National Park, Saddled with their in- another island with perhaps 300 gorillas. These 285 square miles fants, two female goril- represent the entire world of the remaining mountain gorillas. las lumber between Years ago, when I watched the gorillas' leisurely life, the ani feeding stops in Volca- mals eating and sleeping and tumbling in play, I was glad that noes National Park in they could not fathom their rarity and my concerns. We have a Rwanda, home to more common past, but only humans have been given the mental than a hundred of the power to worry about their fate. world's 600 mountain Now the radiance of those months returned as intense memo gorillas. Years of con- ries. Once again Kay and I followed a swath of head-high vege servation efforts in tation until soft grumbles signaled contented gorillas ahead. We Rwanda, Zaire, and recalled old gorilla acquaintances: Big Daddy, the silverback Uganda have so far halted the gorillas' leader of a large group, his power majestic even in repose, and halted the gorillas' decline into extinction. Junior, a reckless young male that liked to linger near us. Once "It'sone of Africa's a female with an infant on her back had climbed with startling success stories," says innocence upon a low branch to sit with me, probably the first one expert. "Yet it can collapse anytime." GEORGE B. SCHALLER, science director of international programs at the Wildlife Conservation Society in New York City, has written ten books about his work, most recently The Last Panda. MICHAEL NICHOLS has photographed apes in Africa, Asia, and U. S. zoos for the GEOGRAPHIC. His last story was on the Ndoki forest of central Africa (July 1995).