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Question of the Day
Dr. Cranfield said gorilla safety and population growth remain matters of constant vigilance.
Most of the people who live around Volcanoes National Park, the Rwandan territory where the gorillas roam, live on about $1 a day, he said. The extreme poverty induces a tendency to exploit the forest for short-term gains, such as poaching and illegal animal trafficking, which could destroy the gorilla population.
“If you look at any conservation issue,” Dr. Cranfield said, “it seems to be magnified here to an extreme.”
Rwanda’s government has several programs designed to protect the forest, Ms. Rwigamba said. Former poachers are recruited to work as conservationists, and a revenue-sharing plan guarantees that 5 percent of the money earned from gorilla tourism is sent back to the communities to build schools and fund agriculture and beautification projects.
But Dr. Cranfield said poverty remains a threat to the gorillas, regardless of the behavior of local people. A lack of available health care and limited hygiene make the people and the livestock generally sicker, he said.
Because gorillas share almost 99 percent of their genes with humans, they are highly susceptible to human diseases. Human respiratory diseases are the second-highest cause of death among the mountain gorillas, trumped only by trauma from snares.
Political instability is another constant threat to the gorillas in the tumultuous region, according to the Mountain Gorilla Veterinary Project’s regional veterinary manager, Dr. Jan Ramer. Conflict in Congo makes it difficult to provide the animals with regular care and sometimes forces local people to flee their homes for the forest.
As a result, she said, gorillas can be exposed to diseases as people defecate and cough in the woods.
Dr. Ramer said even gorillas that are accustomed to humans have to be treated with extreme care. Tourists cannot eat, smoke or spit near the animals for health reasons, and doctors retreat behind makeshift blinds after darting the animals to sedate them for medical care.
Like Sigourney Weaver, who portrayed the now-deceased Dian Fossey in “Gorillas in the Mist,” doctors approach the animals by making soft gorillalike noises to indicate they come in peace, Dr. Ramer said. Ms. Fossey is credited with spearheading conservation efforts starting in the 1960s that led to the preservation of the gorilla population.
In the movie, Miss Weaver also grunted, lumbered about and munched on leaves like a gorilla to gain the animals’ trust. But Dr. Ramer said doctors no longer pretend they are gorillas.
“They know you are not a gorilla,” she said of the great apes. “We are just trying to make them feel more comfortable.”
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