Sunday, June 24, 2018

GOING FOR THE ONE Part 5 - Time to Act

From the slopes of Mount Mikeno you can see two of Africa’s most active volcanoes, Nyamuragira and Nyiragongo. Carl Akeley called it “the most beautiful place in all of Africa.” In 1921 he shot the Old Man of Mikeno here, a gorilla he mounted for the Africa Hall at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City, one of my favourite places to muse in Manhattan.

In January 1996, I found myself in Zaire, on the opposite side of the volcanoes from where I’d previously trekked in Rwanda, gazing out across the exact same panorama that Akeley’s diorama depicts. Much had changed in the intervening 75 years. A million Rwandan refugees were camped in the valley. Every day a chunk of forest the size of a football field got cut down for fuel. 

Carl Akeley's gorilla diaorama at the American Museum of Natural History, New York
I was looking for a site to build a new conservation centre on the perimeter of Virunga National Park, Africa's oldest national park. My trekking companions were Popol Veorhostraat, a Belgian businessman, and Trinto Mugangu, a Zaïrean conservationist, both in their late 40s. Trinto had flown in from Kinshasa to join our expedition, while Popol lived nearby.

By day we tracked gorillas and by night we ate roasted pork and drank bourbon by the fire at one of the half a dozen gites dotted along the edge of the park. Above us, the stars, so bright they lit up the volcanoes in the moonless night, and below, a million pinpoints of light from the refugee camps spread across the valley. 

I recalled some of my recent dealings with space and computer technology. “Gorillas gave me a backstage pass to the world,” I said, “access to people who’s time is more valuable than their money. Sure I use charm, an informed pitch, and my faith in Africa to seal the deal. But it’s gorillas, with their long arms and opposable thumbs, that open those doors for me.”

“You have spoken wisely,” said Trinto.

“Thing is, none of my conservation colleagues appreciate what I’m doing. Some even despise me.” I said, staring into the fire. “I'm not an academic. They’ve all got PhDs. They’re used to having their wings clipped.”

"You want a PhD?" asked Popol, slapping my back, "I can get you one tomorrow from a Zaïrean university." 

On day four we set out to find Oscar/Rugendo group, so named after its silverback. (As in other gorilla range states, Zaïrean gorillas were given a local name, but they were also allowed to keep their 'colonial' name, hence Oscar/Rugendo). What made tracking this group so intriguing was that the week before the gorillas had left the forest and traveled some five kilometres into adjacent farmland, which constituted the largest single exodus of megafauna from the ecosystem since the forest elephants left in the 1970s.

What prompted Oscar/Rugendo's departure from his habitat is anyone's guess. He had a penchant for banana trees, so park rangers had been trying to dissuade farmers from planting banana next to the park. No surprise then that we found him in a banana shamba. The land belonged to the local chief. Fortunately, he didn't mind having a dozen gorillas camped in his backyard. A poorer farmer might not have been so accommodating. The chief was nevertheless seeking damages from the wildlife authority of $5,000 a day.

As daylight faded, the gorillas began fashioning night nests from the leaves of the surrounding banana trees, blithely bending and weaving them into springy bedding. Banana is not endemic to gorilla habitats, so their dexterity was a wonder to behold. Curious villagers watched from a safe distance. But there was no safe distance. We needed to get the gorillas back into the park.

That evening, after a bumpy drive back into town, I called Ian Redmond in London, who had previously worked with Dian Fossey, told him about the situation with Oscar. He said that, to ward off gorillas from areas that were heavily trapped, Dian had used bells. 

"Les closhes!?" laughed Popol. "Ah, bien sur! But where the fuck are we going to find bells in Zaïre? They've all been stolen..." 

A week later Zaïrean park rangers wearing civvies gathered in a horseshoe formation around the gorilla group and used bells and ghetto blasters to drive them back into the forest. No one got hurt. Soon afterward, the silverback once again strayed from the forest. This time he was shot and killed.

The Virunga Volcanoes straddle the border between Uganda, Rwanda, and Congo

How to succour beasts in the wake of such epic human tragedies as the Rwandan Genocide and Zairian refugee crisis? My wife Jillian, who worked in public relations, joined me at the charity. Together we conceived of a way to save gorillas through community development in Africa. As a husband and wife team attempting to bring about social change in one of the world's most dangerous regions, we had grave challenges to overcome. 

We appointed Luiz Fabbri, a Brazilian economist with experience in Mozambique and Angola. to devise a long-term, war-resilient, gorilla conservation programme. First he identified what harmful activities lead to the encroachment of the park - water collection, beekeeping, medicinal plants, and bushmeat - then found local grassroots organizations that were focusing their efforts on those areas, and struck up partnerships. The aim was to take pressure off the park by providing training in alternative livelihoods. He also surveyed people living next to the gorilla habitat to find out what value they put on the park. “Zero,” he told me. “They think it belongs to European royalty.”

“Maybe that’s because Virunga used to be called Prince Albert National Park,” I said.

“No, they think all wildlife parks in Africa are owned by European aristocrats.”

“Ok, so how are we going to do this? We may soon have an opportunity to pitch our cause to some of the world’s wealthiest philanthropists. We need to show them an all-singing, all-dancing gorilla loving nation.”

Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund poster with silverback - photo Jody Boyman

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