Sir David Attenborough recounts his very personal experiences with the mountain gorillas of Rwanda. Ever since they were discovered over a century ago, these remarkable creatures have been threatened by loss of habitat, poaching, disease and political instability. But despite all odds their numbers have increased. David tells the extraordinary tale of how conservationists like Dian Fossey have battled to save the mountain gorilla from the brink of extinction.
The mountain gorilla (Gorilla beringei beringei) is one of the two subspecies of the eastern gorilla. There are two populations. One is found in the Virunga volcanic mountains of Central Africa, within three National Parks: Mgahinga, in south-west Uganda; Volcanoes, in north-west Rwanda; and Virunga in the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). The other is found in Uganda's Bwindi Impenetrable National Park. Some primatologists say that the Bwindi population in Uganda may be a separate subspecies, though no description has been finished. As of Spring 2010, the estimated total number of mountain gorillas worldwide is 790.
Nearly half of the world's 700-some remaining mountain gorillas live in the Virunga Mountains of central Africa, at the intersection of Uganda, Rwanda, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. The volcanic slopes here are lush with tropical forests and diverse mammal, bird, and reptile species—but they are also at the heart of a region in crisis.
Sandwiched between the 1994 Rwandan genocide and a brutal ongoing civil war in Congo, Virunga National Park, home to nearly 200 gorillas, has become a battleground for militia groups and the Congolese army. In addition, severe poverty in the region pushes poachers into the park to hunt gorillas for either meat or sale. Locals also generate income by cutting down trees to create charcoal—a nearly $30 million trade that wreaks havoc on critical habitat.
With the help of dedicated wildlife rangers, comprehensive monitoring, and community education programs, the endangered gorilla population in the Virungas experienced a nearly 20 percent increase in the early 2000s. But in 2007, at least ten gorillas in Virunga National Park were lost to murder and chaos.
Gorillas in other Virunga parks are faring a bit better, as is the other half of the world's remaining mountain gorilla population, which lives in Uganda's Bwindi Impenetrable National Park, just 15 miles (24 kilometers) north of the Virunga mountains.
For the Virunga gorillas, however, the future—and their survival—is uncertain.