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Gorillas in the Crossfire

As wars rage, one man's humanity is a species' salvation

by Marilyn Berlin Snell

The first time Rwandan biologist Eugène Rutagarama saw a mountain gorilla, it was heading straight at him. "It charged so quickly," Rutagarama says, his eyes widening at the memory. "I had no clue it was there, but it had heard me coming. It stopped only a meter from where I was standing." The world's most endangered primate is a vegetarian, under most circumstances. It is usually shy and kind of mellow, especially after it's been habituated to people. But this silverback--named for the streak of hair that develops on adult males--was apparently not interested in communing with humans just then.

Gorillas, the largest of the great apes, are divided into three subspecies--all of which are endangered. Fifty thousand western lowland gorillas, the ones most often seen in zoos, live in westcentral Africa. An estimated 2,500 remaining eastern lowland gorillas live in central Africa's eastern rainforests. The mountain gorilla (Gorilla gorilla beringei) is rarest of all.

Fortunately, Rutagarama remembered his training. "I turned my eyes away from his; I came down very slowly onto one knee, to acknowledge that I was weak; I stared at the ground and shielded my eyes with my hand, turning my face away." Rutagarama acts this out for me, and as he does I try to imagine how it must have felt to play meek before a chest-pounding silverback, which can grow to six feet and weigh up to 425 pounds. Rutagarama's act of humility worked: After being assured he was king, the mountain gorilla crouched down to check out the weird scientist and then left him alone.

We are on the 20th floor of the Hotel Argent in San Francisco, where Rutagarama has come to accept the Goldman Environmental Prize for his work in coordination with the Kenya-based International Gorilla Conservation Program to save mountain gorillas and their habitat. He sits in his hotel room beside a floor-to-ceiling window. Outside, mist and drizzle envelop neighboring skyscrapers, and in conversational pauses I can't help but flash on images of King Kong dragging whatshername to the top of the Empire State Building. As Rutagarama's story unfolds, though, it appears that my film-fueled fantasies could not be further from the reality of the mountain gorillas in the Virunga volcano region of central Africa, where Rutagarama is based. The region is ecologically homogeneous but separated into three national parks in three countries: Volcano National Park in Rwanda, Mgahinga Gorilla National Park in Uganda, and Virunga National Park in the former Zaire, now the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). This area covers 116 square miles and is home to half of the world's 655 remaining mountain gorillas--the other half are just to the north, in Uganda's Bwindi Impenetrable National Park. None exists in captivity.

The Virunga region is also home to warring guerrilla factions and is on the UNESCO List of World Heritage in Danger. At present, six African nations are battling over who will control the DRC and its precious natural resources, and the parks have been transformed into staging areas and transit points for rebel attacks.

Rutagarama pulls his suit coat around him like a sweater, trying to ward off San Francisco's infamous summer chill. "You can never say exactly what influenced you," he says, trying to explain why conservation became his life's passion. "But I remember studying the South African springbok, which had become extinguished, and thinking that maybe I could make a difference in my country one day and keep the gorilla from meeting the same end." Part of this dream was lofty, part strictly pragmatic. Work in wildlife conservation gave Rutagarama great pleasure, he says. "But it was also true that I didn't have to deal on a daily basis with people." The soft-spoken Rutagarama continues in heavily accented English (his third language after Kinyarwanda and French): "When you are with the gorillas, you see that they are shy and peaceful, and need your help. What also impressed me was the way they take care of their babies, and how they groom each other. Their social web seems very similar to humans'. . ." He pauses, then adds, "I mean the good humans."

Eugène Rutagarama, a Tutsi, was five years old the first time he fled ethnic hatred. "I remember my family running from our home. I remember which houses were burning as we left our village, and which way we took," he says. It was 1960, a year that marked the first recorded acts of political violence between Tutsis, who compose 15 percent of Rwanda's population, and Hutus, who make up 84 percent.

According to Philip Gourevitch, in a book chronicling the social and political dynamics that led to the 1994 Rwandan genocide--in which as many as 800,000 people, mostly Tutsi, were killed--the violence of 1960 was the result of simmering resentments: Though Tutsis were in the minority, they made up the bulk of the aristocratic class. "Hutus were the cultivators and Tutsis were the herdsmen," he reports in We Wish to Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed With Our Families. "This was the original inequality: Cattle are a more valuable asset than produce, and although some Hutus owned cows while some Tutsis tilled the soil, the word Tutsi became synonymous with a political and economic elite."

Rutagarama's family bought and sold cattle in the southwest part of Rwanda, near the DRC border. When they fled, they left their lives and livelihoods behind them. "Strange," he responds when asked about these early years, "I can't remember when we came back." He does, however, remember having to run from Rwanda again, in 1963, and again in 1973. All told, he and his family left five times. He spent most of his youth in the neighboring countries of then-Zaire and Burundi. "I was a refugee, but I always had the hope of returning to my country--and that my country would return to itself." It was while in Burundi that Rutagarama began studying biology. "Refugees love their mother country very much, but for much of my life my country existed only as a dream." The young man's dream of returning to help rebuild his ravaged homeland through wildlife conservation, rather than fantasies of revenge against those who had worked to destroy it, set Rutagarama on a path that would help protect a world treasure even as it placed him in the crossfire of warring soldiers.

In 1990, Rutagarama was back in Rwanda working as a government park biologist in coordination with the Dian Fossey Gorilla Research Center in the Virunga mountains, counting gorillas and studying their habitat. He was especially interested in why bamboo was not regenerating in the park. As part of this investigation, he mapped his study area with fluorescent sticks so that he could return to check on the progress of the bamboo shoots, a favorite food of the gorillas. He loved being in the wild, among the great apes. "When I started to work with gorillas I immediately sensed that it was a privilege," he recalls. "But I also understood that it was a duty and a challenge. If I chose this for my work, I must succeed. Gorillas have a right to survive."

Rutagarama's good work would not go unpunished. He was in Volcano National Park on the day in October 1990 when a Tutsi-led rebel army, the Rwandese Patriotic Front, invaded from Uganda. The park became a combat zone where rebels fought well-armed, mostly Hutu government soldiers. The soldiers were also apparently well informed, and used the rebel attack as a pretext to round up, imprison, and often kill noncombatant Tutsis. According to Gourevitch's book, lists had been prepared in advance: Educated Tutsis, prosperous Tutsis, and Tutsis who traveled abroad were among the first to be arrested. Rutagarama says government soldiers came to his house the first night after the invasion and arrested him. His interrogators charged that the fluorescent sticks he was using to map the bamboo were in fact being used to guide enemy troops. He spent four months in prison before the rebels invaded the area a second time and freed all prisoners. He escaped once again to Burundi, where he was reunited with his family, who had managed to get out of Rwanda several months earlier.

The bloodshed in the early 1990s was a kind of macabre dress rehearsal for the later genocide. Rutagarama and his wife and children were out of Rwanda when the killing began in 1994, but he lost both of his parents and three brothers in the unspeakable violence that ensued. When the Tutsi-led rebel force wrested power from the government later in the year, 750,000 Hutu fled Rwanda seeking safe haven in the neighboring DRC. According to the International Gorilla Conservation Program, many of these refugees traveled through the Virunga mountain region, poaching animals for food and felling trees for shelter and fuel. Among the refugees were ex-government militias called interahamwe--"those who attack together"--which were responsible for much bloodshed. In a parting act of vengeance, the killers laid thousands of landmines and booby traps in Rwanda's Volcano National Park as they fled across the border to massive refugee camps set up by the United Nations.

This was the scene that greeted Rutagarama when he returned in 1994, accepting an assignment by the new government to take over the country's decimated park service. "Most of the infrastructure of the parks had been destroyed," he remembers. "People had been killed. We only had ten percent of our staff remaining." With hungry and displaced refugees living in camps near the understaffed park, the threat to the animals continued to be a problem. Additionally, gorillas are very sensitive to human illnesses like dysentery and diarrhea, so the population pressure was doubly dangerous to the primates. And, of course, there were the landmines.

Before Rutagarama could deal with threats to the park, however, he had to build a staff--and that meant recruiting Hutu as well as Tutsi park rangers. "Don't be surprised," he states matter-of-factly, "but I am not someone who can say that because you are Hutu I hate you." This takes a moment to sink in. Forgiveness has always been alluring on a theoretical level, but when put into practice it appears almost a kind of enlightened madness. When I ask him how he can feel this way after the genocide and the loss of so many people he loves, he says he doesn't know. But he's clear about the effect of his nonviolent response: "I think my behavior is the reason people in the park service trusted me--because I never asked their ethnicity. I gained their confidence because I didn't have a hatred attitude." He adds that when he arrived, most of the remaining staff was Hutu. He hired both Hutu and Tutsi and made them work together. But he knows he was leading a special group, regardless of how they defined themselves ethnically. After the genocide and because of the proximity of the refugee camps, the park was an extremely dangerous place to patrol. Rangers were ambushed and killed. "I found myself thinking that I have to be at least as courageous as my rangers," he says. "Their courage and commitment fueled me."

Even when government coffers were empty, as director of the Rwandan national parks program Rutagarama helped revive the Office of Tourism and National Parks. "After the genocide, people were still being killed, people were still struggling for survival. Two million people needed to be repatriated," he says. "We understood that we couldn't push the government." Nonetheless there was a real desire to attract tourists back to the country. Before the genocide, tourism into the parks to see gorillas was the third-greatest source of foreign currency, after coffee and tea exports.

Rutagarama is proud that in a recent speech, President Paul Kagame (who had led the rebel Tutsi forces and had come to power after the genocide) announced that the nation's two highest priorities were conservation and HIV prevention. "Rwanda is very rich in biodiversity--seven percent of the country is protected as part of its park system--and the government understands how important this is," says Rutagarama. "Of course, there has also been pressure for conservation from outside nongovernmental organizations. Politicians have responded because it plays well with the international community. It's good diplomacy, but if this also makes for good conservation, that's fine."

In 1997, Rutagarama teamed up with the International Gorilla Conservation Program, a jointly funded effort of the African Wildlife Foundation, Fauna and Flora International, and the World Wide Fund for Nature. As IGCP's program director, Rutagarama oversees conservation activities in Rwanda, Uganda, and the DRC. In a continuing climate of low-level warfare, it is a minor miracle--as well as a tribute to Rutagarama's diplomatic skills--that the Virunga volcano region has joint patrols of rangers from the three countries. "I have worked enough for my country. Now I enjoy working on the regional level," Rutagarama says. "We need to have transboundary management of the parks. It's no good to be working in one area and not know what's happening right across the border."

He has also instituted bimonthly meetings of the head wardens from each nation, where they can strategize and share conservation data. Through such data, for example, the IGCP has been able to determine that since 1989 the number of mountain gorillas has actually increased 11 percent in the Virunga volcano region, from 320 to 355. Even though 2 gorillas were killed by landmines and 13 others as a direct consequence of war, conservation efforts have made this increase possible. (In June, however, Reuters reported that Hutu rebels had crossed over into the Rwandan park from the DRC and had killed two mountain gorillas. The rebels had eaten the carcasses as well--breaking a local taboo against eating gorillas and setting a deadly precedent. One of the soldiers is reported to have tried to stop others from killing what he called the mzee, or "old man," but failed.)

Annette Lanjouw, director of IGCP, traveled from Africa to San Francisco to help celebrate her friend's award. She nods in agreement as Rutagarama talks about how important trinational cooperation is--and not just for the gorillas. "By having a common conservation objective," says the Dutch-born Lanjouw, "we're also creating ways to allow people to work together despite their political differences." She gets a little annoyed when I ask whether conservation isn't sometimes a luxury when people are at war. "No," she says adamantly, "peace is not a prerequisite for conservation. We've been working in a war zone for ten years." What she's discovered, she says, is that conservation efforts end up contributing to regional stability. "Peace building isn't imposing an agreement signed by presidents," she says, "it's actually learning how to make it possible for people with political differences to live and work together." Rutagarama adds that though Rwanda is at war with the DRC, he and his staff still meet with the DRC government on conservation issues. "On the technical level we are working together," he says, "though on the political level it is still difficult."

Though Rutagarama did not offer the information, Lanjouw notes that he has repeatedly risked his life traveling to rebel-held territory in the DRC to deliver funds and equipment to park rangers, some of whom have not been paid in five years. "Even during this time of conflict," she says, "we've managed to show that there is something else we need to do--protect the gorillas and their habitat--and we need to do it together."

Today, the park in Rwanda has been cleared of mines (the United Nations declined to help with the effort, so a team of five soldiers from the new Rwandan army spent two years--essentially on hands and knees, passing machetes lightly over the ground-- defusing or detonating the explosives). Well-armed rangers patrol the area, and both Rutagarama and Lanjouw say that it is once again safe for tourists, scientists, and mountain gorillas.

Of the $125,000 in Goldman prize money, Rutagarama says that since the award was given to one person while the work it honors has been done by a team of courageous people, he will need to make the final decision about its use with his colleagues. But he's got some ideas. First, he'd like to put some of the money into the hands of people near the parks. With it, they can begin to develop a local economy that would both help them and take some of the resource pressure off the area. Second, he'd like to set up a three-year fund for small conservation projects that his colleagues are now working on with their own money and on their own time. Overall, the IGCP's goal is to ensure the survival of the mountain gorillas and their shrinking forest habitat. These amazing animals have no enemies among the mountain creatures that share the verdant volcano region with them. If Rutagarama has his way, humans will cease to be a threat as well.

Marilyn Berlin Snell is Sierra's writer/editor.

For more information on the Virunga volcano region and efforts to protect the mountain gorillas, contact the IGCP via the African Wildlife Foundation at african or; Fauna and Flora International at; or the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund at For information on actually seeing a gorilla in the mist, contact the Office of Tourism and National Parks, B.P. 905, Kigali, Rwanda; (+250) 76514; fax (+250) 76512; or

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