Mak­ing a dif­fer­ence

In­dis­crim­i­nate ex­ploita­tion of for­est re­sources by lo­cal peo­ple was threat­en­ing the lives of Repub­lic of Congo. But thanks to a char­ity, they are get­ting a new lease of life, says Carol Davis One of the planet’s most fas­ci­nat­ing crea­tures – moun­tain gori

Friday - - News -

A char­ity is sav­ing go­ril­las in the Demo­cratic Repub­lic of Congo, while help­ing the lo­cal pop­u­la­tion at the same time.

ANat­u­ral won­ders at risk

s a chilly dawn breaks over the mistswathed vol­canic moun­tains ris­ing high in Virunga National Park in the Demo­cratic Repub­lic of Congo, a small group of ded­i­cated con­ser­va­tion­ists alight from their jeep. Tread­ing care­fully, they walk past fields of pota­toes and corn and around the stone wall built by lo­cals to keep buf­falo and moun­tain ele­phants away from their care­fully tended crops.

Walk­ing past tall wav­ing bam­boo, which ob­scures the skies, they climb high into the rain­for­est where sun­birds flit through the flow­er­ing ha­ge­nia trees. Sud­denly a ranger mo­tions the group to crouch down. Ahead of them is a group of na­tive moun­tain go­ril­las, a species that have lived in th­ese moun­tains for mil­len­nia.

First a young male, then a mother and baby, then a sil­ver­back ma­ture male, make their way through a clear­ing in the for­est. An in­quis­i­tive baby go­rilla gam­bols to­wards the vis­i­tors while the male glow­ers men­ac­ingly. “A growl­ing sil­ver­back is an awe­some sight,” says Jil­lian Miller, a con­ser­va­tion­ist who is part of the team. In 2010, there were only around 780 moun­tain go­ril­las sur­viv­ing in the wild. But thanks to con­ser­va­tion ef­forts by sev­eral or­gan­i­sa­tions, the num­ber to­day is around 880, she says. Es­tab­lished in 1925, Virunga, Africa’s first national park, lies close to Rwanda and Uganda, in an area that has seen ex­tra­or­di­nary con­flict over the past few decades and yet is filled with won­der­ful wildlife and awe-in­spir­ing nat­u­ral sights like the lava lake at Nyi­ragongo Vol­cano.

Were it not for the ef­forts of a ded­i­cated band of con­ser­va­tion­ists and their work with lo­cal peo­ple, the go­rilla pop­u­la­tion could be even fur­ther de­pleted, says Jil­lian, the ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor and founder of the award-win­ning com­mu­nity-led con­ser­va­tion pro­gramme The Go­rilla Or­ga­ni­za­tion. “Th­ese are won­der­ful, beau­ti­ful crea­tures and it would be very sad to live in a world that no longer has such an­i­mals,” she says. “One day, when the con­flict is over, th­ese go­ril­las will be a huge re­source for the coun­try [by at­tract­ing tourism] and we are proud of the work we have done to pro­tect them for our chil­dren and grand­chil­dren.”

Con­serv­ing the go­ril­las and their habi­tat means fol­low­ing in the foot­steps of Dr Dian Fossey, the Amer­i­can con­ser­va­tion­ist who be­came a le­gend in an­i­mal con­ser­va­tion, par­tic­u­larly go­ril­las. The story of her ded­i­ca­tion to re­search, and her mys­te­ri­ous and as yet un­solved mur­der in 1985, was mov­ingly retold in the 1987 Hol­ly­wood box-of­fice hit Go­ril­las in theMist.

Dian de­vel­oped an ex­tra­or­di­nary bond with the go­ril­las – who were un­der threat from poach­ers – and shared their pain too. When one of her favourite go­ril­las, Digit, was killed by poach­ers in 1978, she set up the Digit Fund that works to pre­vent poach­ing of en­dan­gered moun­tain go­ril­las.

It was Dian’s pas­sion and ded­i­ca­tion to wildlife pro­tec­tion that in­spired Jil­lian to set up The Go­rilla Or­ga­ni­za­tion, which is based in the UK. The or­gan­i­sa­tion is now driv­ing con­ser­va­tion ef­forts in the Congo and across Africa.

As the eth­nic con­flict – which even­tu­ally led to wide­spread geno­cide in Rwanda gath­ered pace – Jil­lian started ask­ing new ques­tions and gain­ing new in­sights about the na­ture of the prob­lem. Pri­ma­tol­o­gists knew go­ril­las were dy­ing, she says, and when she talked to lo­cal peo­ple she un­cov­ered com­pli­cated rea­sons why go­ril­las were suf­fer­ing. Th­ese charm­ing an­i­mals of­ten accidentally walked into traps

set by poach­ers to catch an­te­lope and duiker (an­other species of an­te­lope) killing or maim­ing them for life.

An­other fac­tor that was lead­ing to a re­duc­tion in the num­ber of go­ril­las was fires. When peo­ple set off smoul­der­ing fires to smoke out bees and gather wild honey, they of­ten spread out of con­trol, de­stroy­ing for­est cover and killing wildlife in­clud­ing the threat­ened go­ril­las. Also, lo­cal peo­ple fre­quently en­tered the forests to gather fire­wood for their cook­ing, grad­u­ally strip­ping away the go­ril­las’ habi­tat and re­duc­ing their for­ag­ing area.

An­other ma­jor rea­son for the de­cline in the go­rilla pop­u­la­tion was be­cause they were un­der threat from hu­man dis­eases af­ter peo­ple be­gan en­croach­ing on their ter­ri­tory in search of food and arable land.

When the Rwan­dan geno­cide shook the con­ti­nent in 1994, the im­pact on the national park was huge. “Over one mil­lion Rwan­dan refugees crossed the bor­der and set­tled in makeshift camps around the pro­tected ar­eas,” says Henry Cirhuza, a lo­cal so­cial stud­ies grad­u­ate who isThe Go­rilla Or­ga­ni­za­tion’s man­ager in Congo.

“When the pop­u­la­tion of a coun­try pours into an­other, they have no shel­ter, no food to eat or wood to burn to stay warm. They rely on the for­est, which is the nat­u­ral habi­tat of low­land go­ril­las and moun­tain go­ril­las.”

The mass mi­gra­tion of peo­ple into the for­est re­duced the go­ril­las’ ter­ri­tory even fur­ther and the an­i­mals were forced to for­age in a much smaller area. Even af­ter the refugees de­parted, con­ser­va­tion­ists’ ef­forts were vi­tal. “We needed sup­port to mit­i­gate the im­pact. Here we have no in­dus­tries or com­pa­nies – the only wealth we have here is na­ture,” says Henry.

The for­got­ten peo­ple

Win­ning the sup­port of lo­cal peo­ple in­clud­ing the Batwa or Pyg­mies was key to the con­ser­va­tion ef­forts, says Henry. “In the bat­tle to save go­ril­las, the Pyg­mies were left be­hind. They lived in the for­est be­fore the cre­ation of parks, and yet no ac­tion had been taken to help them. They had no land and no houses... and some com­mu­ni­ties even used them for cheap labour.”

While it was im­por­tant to pro­tect the an­i­mals, it was also im­por­tant to en­sure that the lo­cal pop­u­la­tion was not af­fected and could live in har­mony with na­ture. Jil­lian’s team re­alised that felling trees for fire was putting in­creased pres­sure on the go­ril­las’ for­est habi­tat, but for some of the world’s poor­est

peo­ple, gath­er­ing fire­wood for cook­ing and heat­ing was cru­cial for sur­vival. Even small chil­dren would help in col­lect­ing the wood but their ef­forts of­ten meant that they had lit­tle time to go to school to get an ed­u­ca­tion.

Work­ing with a lo­cal char­ity, Aide Kivu, The Go­rilla Or­ga­ni­za­tion vol­un­teers be­gan dis­tribut­ing fire­wood-sav­ing stoves that re­duce wood and char­coal con­sump­tion by at least 55 per cent. “Th­ese stoves are clean and hy­gienic and re­duce pul­monary dis­eases,” says lo­cal woman, Casimir Mu­lenda.

“I can cook well and quickly for my fam­ily. We are able to eat on time, so my chil­dren go to bed on time and they don’t ar­rive late at school any more.

“By re­duc­ing my use of wood and coal, I save at least $25 [Dh91] per month, which is the monthly fee for three chil­dren at pri­mary school. Thanks to this pro­ject, my fu­ture is bright.”

Light­en­ing the load

Since keep­ing bees and gath­er­ing honey and wax was key to the lo­cal peo­ple’s sur­vival, the char­ity now sup­ports them with new equip­ment to help them work more ef­fi­ciently. This new equip­ment also causes less dam­age to the en­vi­ron­ment.

The or­gan­i­sa­tion is work­ing with for­mer for­est dwellers to help them raise live­stock, send their chil­dren to school and ed­u­cate the adults as well. As a re­sult, the or­gan­i­sa­tion is chang­ing lives for the bet­ter, says Em­manuel Bugingo, the char­ity’s Rwanda pro­gramme man­ager. Now peo­ple grow dif­fer­ent crops, have new meth­ods of cook­ing that re­duce the im­pact on the for­est and save money while pro­tect­ing go­ril­las, he says. The lo­cal peo­ple agree that the char­ity has helped them.

Like his Batwa an­ces­tors, un­til a few years ago Jean de Dieu Hiti­mana lived from hunt­ing and gath­er­ing, glean­ing re­sources from the forests. Yet the work was tir­ing and danger­ous, with the fam­ily al­ways on the move.

Work­ing with The Go­rilla Or­ga­ni­za­tion, he has now learned to farm the rich land and raise live­stock. With help from the char­ity, he now has a house, his chil­dren at­tend school and the fam­ily can now af­ford to visit a lo­cal nurse for med­i­cal care in­stead of re­ly­ing solely on tra­di­tional herbs and medicines.

“The pro­ject has helped in so many ways,” he says. “Like the rest of my com­mu­nity, I am prac­tis­ing mod­ern agri­cul­ture and I have even started breed­ing chick­ens. My chil­dren go to school, and the pro­ject has paid their school fees and has given them pens and pa­per. As

a com­mu­nity, we need to work to­gether and man­age this pro­ject by our­selves,” he says. “This way can we im­prove our lives, and help pro­tect the forests and the go­ril­las.”

De­spite the on­go­ing con­flicts in the re­gion, in this re­mote area filled with vol­ca­noes and rain­forests, peo­ple fi­nally have a chance to live and thrive – and so do the peace­ful go­rilla fam­i­lies, now feed­ing undis­turbed in those ver­dant forests.

Over the past decade, life has changed for the go­ril­las and their num­bers are slowly in­creas­ing and their habi­tat is now pro­tected. But the area is still fraught with con­flict. The rangers carry guns for fear of the lo­cal mili­tia since fight­ing still spills into the re­gion, forc­ing the go­ril­las to re­treat deep into the for­est.

A-list sup­port­ers

Around the world, The Go­rilla Or­ga­ni­za­tion has high-pro­file sup­port­ers, in­clud­ing the ac­tress Daryl Han­nah, Sir David At­ten­bor­ough, and stage and screen star Adam Gar­cia. “The most fas­ci­nat­ing thing for me about go­ril­las is that they seem to have a soul – they are very gen­tle an­i­mals and very in­tel­li­gent,” says Gar­cia.

“I also love the way they look, the way they act and be­have and the sim­i­lar­ity they have with us. Go­ril­las add so much to our world, and I would en­cour­age peo­ple to sup­port a cause like this, to pro­mote go­rilla con­ser­va­tion and to help pro­tect their pre­cious habi­tat.”

Jil­lian with some chil­dren in the Congo. Her or­gan­i­sa­tion pro­tects go­ril­las in the re­gion and im­proves the lives of peo­ple in the area. More chil­dren are at­tend­ing school thanks to her ini­tia­tives

Mod­ern meth­ods of agri­cul­ture help peo­ple earn a liv­ing and en­sure the go­rilla ter­ri­tory re­mains un­af­fected. Left: a woman uses a fire­wood-sav­ing stove, which is safer and more ef­fi­cient than con­ven­tional cook­ing meth­ods Sigour­ney Weaver brought to life the char­ac­ter of Dian Fossey in the film Go­ril­las in the Mist

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