- The Washington Times - Tuesday, July 2, 2002

VIRUNGA MOUNTAINS, Rwanda The endangered mountain gorillas of Africa have suffered a lethal attack by poachers, who were believed to be acting on the orders of a wealthy Western collector.
Two adult females were killed the first deaths from poaching in 17 years and a 3-year-old animal was stolen in a night attack on the slopes of the Virunga volcanic mountain range in Rwanda.
A male gorilla was shot and wounded as it tried to defend the group, and a 1-year-old that escaped capture was found by rangers a day after the attack, trying to suckle its dead mother. Interpol is trying to trace the missing gorilla.
Two suspects were arrested last week in connection with the attack, which occurred in May. Twelve other persons have been held, including three local businessmen who are thought to have been acting as intermediaries for a rich outsider with a desire to own a gorilla.
"Some of the suspects say they had received an order for baby gorillas," said local police spokesman Tony Kuramba. "There must be a good market for baby gorillas.
"Poaching carries a double risk being killed by the mother or being arrested by the police. You don't expose yourself to such risks unless there is a great deal of money involved."
The deaths of two breeding-age females and the theft of a baby is a severe setback in the struggle to save the species, whose plight was first highlighted by American primatologist Dian Fossey a story featured in the Hollywood film "Gorillas in the Mist."
The last census, carried out 10 years ago, estimated there were 650 mountain gorillas left in the world, of which about 350 were in Rwanda.
"The population is so fragile that every individual lost is significant in terms of the viability of the mountain gorilla," said Katie Fawcett, a researcher working in the region.
The rare creatures are Rwanda's biggest tourist attraction. Only 30 tourists are allowed to visit the gorillas per day, each paying $300 to spend an hour observing the animals in their natural habitat.
"Mountain gorillas are truly precious," said Emmanuel Werabe, a director of the national parks authority. "If people are prepared to pay so much money for just one hour with the gorillas, you can only imagine how much someone will pay to own one. Perhaps they will pay many millions of dollars.
"There aren't many people in the world who have that kind of money. It is the people in the West who have the wealth and the biggest passion for the gorillas. The people who did this were most likely acting on the orders of a dealer, who himself was acting on behalf of a wealthy private client, possibly wanting a baby for a personal collection."
Mr. Werabe said it was "very unlikely" that the captured baby was still alive, because no mountain gorilla has ever survived in captivity.
The poaching deaths are the first since 1985 the year Miss Fossey was killed, probably by poachers, after a long and successful battle to protect the creatures from such hunting.


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