I just finished reading In the Kingdom of Gorillas: The Quest to Save Rwanda’s Mountain Gorillas by Amy Vedder and Bill Weber. We were in Volcano’s National Park in Rwanda four weeks ago, walking among the mountain gorillas (Kwitonda Group). It is a humbling and breathtaking experience. It made us wonder what it took for these great apes to be protected. We knew some of the story behind the biological study of the gorillas as told by George Schaller and Dian Fossey, but much of the work in establishing and maintaining the Mountain Gorilla Project that led to the opportunity for us to visit mountain gorillas in their habitat has happened in more recent times.
The story of the mountain gorillas’ survival and growth as a population seems unlikely at best. It appeared they were doomed in the 1970s. They reside on high elevation volcanoes in bamboo and evergreen forests
on land that could instead support cattle or grow potatoes. Through the years the edges of the park have been encroached upon and threatened by schemes to make them more “productive” in an effort to feed the growing population of Rwanda. The competition for land, soil and acreage is intense. Rwanda is the size of Vermont but has eleven million people.
Amy Vedder and Bill Weber worked on the ground in Rwanda for World Conservation Society and USAID during this pivotal period from the late 70s to the late 90s, studying wildlife and analyzing agricultural and socioeconomic patterns around Rwanda’s forest reserves and national parks. Their work began when Dian Fossey was alive and bringing awareness of the gorilla’s plight to the world, while she struggled with
her own personal challenges. They share the story of her last years at the Karisoke Research Center and of the many other people who were advocates for gorillas in the face of demands for the park’s acreage. Many Rwandans wondered how land could be set aside for gorillas when there were people starving for lack of land to grow food. It’s a reasonable question with a complicated answer.
When you spend an hour hiking up through Irish potato and pyrethrum fields to the stone fenceline that marks the park boundary, you find it incredible that you will soon see gorillas. It is an intensely agricultural area. When you actually find them due to the trackers who continually follow their movements, you have the privilege of an hour of standing among a gorilla family who tolerates your presence and is perhaps as curious about you as you are about them. It
feels magical, even when you know they have been habituated over a long period of time to tolerate our presence.
This opportunity could never have happened without the great dedication of biologists, trackers, guides, guards, fundraisers and conservation administrators. Gorillas were being killed by poachers to sell the heads and hands as trophies while capturing youngsters for zoos and private animal collectors. Wire snares were set by local people to capture duiker and other animals they wanted as meat on their tables. Vedder and Weber knew that local people are key participants in the story of gorilla conservation. Many poachers have since become trackers and guides, finding a good living in protecting gorillas. They have incredible
knowledge of the Virunga Volcanoes and wildlife there, which has been invaluable. Also, they know the tactics and reasons behind poaching and could help biologists understand the challenges.
Some who read this book may be disappointed that it is not about gorilla behavior page after page. But as the authors make clear, the purpose of their work was not only to study gorillas, but to save them as a species. They may have done just that through their good work in establishing the Mountain Gorilla Project. The gorilla population in the Virunga Volcanoes has grown from a low of 260 to more than 770 animals through four decades of dedicated effort by a legion of people. Much of the work took place in administrative and political meetings. The
economic value to the nation and local communities was a key point in developing gorilla tourism. The
seemingly high fees paid for a day’s visit with the gorillas, now $750 a day, support the very large number of people that manage gorilla tourism and continued research, helps fund local community projects, and protects other forest reserves in Rwanda.
This book drives deep into your soul and your beliefs and makes you think. How do we protect the innocent communities of creatures like mountain gorillas in the face of progress, war, development and agricultural demands? So far the good people who have protected the gorillas have created a miracle through patience, diplomacy, research and hard work. We will hope they continue to succeed. Mountain gorillas have as much right to the planet as we do. Because the forest plays such an important role in earth’s complex ecosystem, their future and ours is intertwined. Gorilla tourism does more than just pay the
bills. It puts people from all over the world with gorillas daily to witness the amazing difference that conservation programs can make and become advocates. It makes you think about the rights of other animals to a home and space to live.
The authors give an unvarnished view of the personalities and complications of the many people involved in this protracted story of decades. If gorillas fascinate you, read the book. If you want an unparalleled wildlife experience, visit Rwanda and meet them in the rainforest. Your tourism funds will help protect the gorillas and our planet. Your memories will last a lifetime.
– Tim Merriman