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
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.
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