Gorillas' Safety Vital to Africa's Tourism Market

The gorillas of Congo are in danger while their neighbors in Rwanda thrive.

Aug. 8, 2007 — -- The gorillas of Central Africa have a lot in common with the people who live among them: their future tenuous, their fate so often determined by a line on a map.

These extraordinary creatures live in the Virunga Mountains, part of a region that has seen more killing than any other place on the planet over the last two decades. Their home is a border region that spans more than 50 miles between Rwanda, Uganda and the Democratic Republic of Congo.

In Rwanda and Uganda the gorillas are well protected and reproducing steadily. Governments there, with the help of wildlife organizations, pay and train jungle guards to protect the animals and that has brought back a booming tourism market.

But on the other side of the mountain range, in the Democratic Republic of Congo's Virunga National Park, mountain gorillas are a dying breed with little protection from officials focused on establishing a functioning government after more than a decade of civil war.

With minimal funding and few guards to keep watch over the species, the DRC's mountain gorilla population is decreasing rapidly, making extinction inevitable if the trend continues, say conservationists. According to the World Wildlife Fund, approximately 700 mountain gorillas live in the wild, approximately 150 of whom reside in the DRC.

July 22, four mountain gorillas — one male silverback and three females — were shot dead in the DRC. A fifth gorilla is still missing and a 5-month-old baby gorilla named Ndeze is now an orphan.

This killing alone reduced the mountain gorilla population in the Virunga Mountains by 1.6 percent, including the loss of five females, considered by preservationists as especially valuable because of their ability to reproduce, according to Conservation International, an organization dedicated to animal protection.

"This is the worst single incident in 30 years," said Russell A. Mittermeier, president of Conservation International, in a written statement to ABC News. "If we can't stop these attacks, our closest living relatives will disappear from the planet."

Without Gorillas, Tourism Is Impossible

The success of tourism in Ugandan and Rwandan wildlife preserves is used as a model by organizations hoping to improve the lives of mountain gorillas and Congolese natives suffering in the DRC.

While tourist groups in the neighboring countries participate in expensive guided tours in hopes of spotting groups of mountain gorillas, the DRC has no comparable program. Until recently, the DRC was simply too dangerous for tourists. Today, it is a lack of funding and unavailable government resources that make it hard to develop a tourism market.

"The Congolese Park and Wildlife Authority has authority over [the Virunga National Park]," said Erika Archibald, director of communications at the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund International, one of the wildlife organizations helping the DRC's preservation effort. "They have no money from the destroyed government and the [trackers and guides] are working with no money and no food."

Wildlife organizations such as the Fossey fund have made it their mission to enter the DRC and help the Virunga National Park become not only a sanctuary for the mountain gorillas but also a source of income for the struggling country.

Wildlife Organizations Take Action

A few days ago, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization responded to pleas for help from the Congolese Institute for the Conservation of Nature. With insufficient funding, the institute has been largely ineffective in protecting the gorillas.

UNESCO is planning a mid-August mission in the DRC where it will investigate the gorilla killings and work with the Congolese and the other wildlife organizations to "avoid an ecological and economic disaster," according to a media release on its Web site.

Meanwhile, the effort to train jungle guides and trackers as well as care for the injured gorillas in the DRC is already under way.

"We are providing training in gorilla conservation and biological and behavior so [the guards] really know what to expect with the gorillas, what normal behavior is and how to recognize the different gorillas," said Fossey's Archibald. "[We'll teach them] how to keep data like recording the gorillas locations, movements and health problems."

For the injured gorillas, the Mountain Gorilla Veterinary Project provides medical care in the form of an orphanage. Ten young gorillas currently reside in the facility, many of whom were left alone to fend for themselves — a predicament that would have ultimately led to their deaths.

"The gorillas range in age from 2 months to 5.5 years," said Mike Cranfield, director of the Mountain Gorilla Veterinary Project, one of the many groups that cares for injured gorillas. "We hold animals until they are 6 or 7 years old — when they would usually migrate from group to group — so that they will be accepted and they will have the know-how to look after themselves."

Many of the gorillas are injured when poachers take them away from their mothers as infants, carrying them in burlap sacks or wooden boxes to underground markets — that experts remain skeptical even exist — in the hope of capitalizing on tourists' desire to interact with African wildlife. To put it in purely economic terms, gorillas are worth more alive than dead.

Even the Congolese trackers and guides receive medical care, thanks to Mountain Gorilla Veterinary Project; they are tested for communicable diseases before they enter the gorilla habitats to minimize the risk of infecting the animals.

Tourism Has Risks, Too

On the surface, the benefits of tourism seem hard to resist — a structured tourism program in the DRC could earn millions — however there are certain dangers when humans interact so closely with the mountain gorillas.

"Tourism is good but it has risks, primarily [the transfer of human] disease," said Archibald. "We do take precautions. Only a few groups are designated for tourism, not all gorillas are seeing tourists, only the ones who are habituated to do so. Also, certain distances are required between tourists and gorillas and are strictly enforced by the guards."

While the risk certainly exists, how much impact human disease has is controversial: Some researchers argue that poachers and bush meat hunters are the real dangers to the gorilla populations.

"If we look at the last 100 deaths for which we've found bodies, 40 percent have died of trauma — killed for poaching of babies, killing in the old days for trophy and snares," said Cranfield, who has performed postmortem evaluations on many of the gorillas in the DRC. "If we look at the infants, the majority of the infants have died from infanticide [killed by their own fathers] and 27 percent have died because of pneumonia, which can be partially explained by interaction with humans."

The DRC and its neighbors face a choice: fund gorilla preserves in the hope of developing tourism or ignore them and focus on exploiting other natural resources. And sustainable tourism must balance the need to fund conservation and the risk of exploiting the animals.

'It's Like Seeing Humans Slaughtered'

When ABC News asked wildlife experts why people should care about gorilla killers, they all responded similarly. These are important animals and their remarkable likeness to humans makes the killings even more disturbing.

"The mountain gorillas are so closely related to us — they have 97 [percent] to 98 percent of the same DNA," said Cranfield. "If we can't save an animal that has such a high profile and is so closely related to us, then we'll have a difficult time saving some of the more obscure creatures."

"They are very bright animals and yet they're very passive and sort of happy, vegetarians in a great big salad bowl, so to speak," said Cranfield. "To look into their eyes and see how much power they have but how peaceful they are — it's just amazing."