- The Washington Times - Wednesday, November 24, 2004

KAHUZI-BIEGA NATIONAL PARK, Congo -Beneath the peaks of two extinct volcanos in eastern Congo, at the edge of a tropical rain forest, an enormous silverback gorilla called Chimenuka lounges on his back, two feet propped against a tree.

The burly animal shows little interest in a small group of machete-wielding Pygmy trackers, park rangers and armed guards who have come to check on him — until they take one step too close.

In a second, the 400-pound gorilla springs upright, beating his chest, grunting and charging forward, making his guests cower before he slips away on all fours into a curtain of thick underbrush.

Encounters like these once lured tourists from around the world to the misty highlands of Kahuzi-Biega National Park, where gorilla tourism was born in the 1970s. But a decade of turmoil, a 1998-2002 civil war and fresh fighting this summer have decimated the region’s eastern lowland gorillas and driven tourists away.

Today, not even the experts know how many gorillas are left.

“It’s tragic. Nobody has been able to conduct a full survey in a decade,” said Innocent Liengola of the Wildlife Conservation Society. “Most areas are too insecure to visit.”

In late October, the New York-based organization resumed a head-counting operation in Kahuzi-Biega that was called off in April when Mr. Liengola and his colleagues fled volleys of automatic-weapons fire — a firefight, authorities said, between rebels from neighboring Rwanda and a local pro-government militia called the Mayi Mayi.

Eastern lowland gorillas, the tallest apes on Earth, live only in Congo and inhabit a broad band of forests stretching from Lake Albert near the Ugandan border to the northern tip of Lake Tanganyika on the frontier with Burundi.

Conservationists say a deadly combination of poachers, refugees, miners and combat have devastated the gorilla habitat and population, but by how much, they can only speculate.

The Atlanta-based Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund International believes their numbers have plummeted 70 percent in the last decade — to 5,000 lowland gorillas from around 17,000 in 1994.

Patrick Melman, a Dian Fossey researcher in Goma, eastern Congo, acknowledges the figures are only “an estimate,” but says they are based on the data available, including that from Kahuzi-Biega, where park rangers and researchers visit dozens of gorillas daily.

Founded in 1970 and declared a U.N. World Heritage Site a decade later, Kahuzi-Biega was supposed to be a protected sanctuary. In practice, the park “hasn’t had more of a chance than anywhere else” in eastern Congo, Mr. Melman said.

Speaking at the Wildlife Conservation Society’s offices in Bukavu, Mr. Liengola waved a finger across a digital map of Kahuzi-Biega on his laptop computer, indicating dangerous areas he and park rangers avoid. The screen is splattered with red blotches — no-go zones were militiamen or guerrilla fighters are active.

Bukavu, the starting point for tours of Kahuzi-Biega, was ravaged this summer by fighting between rebels and government loyalists.

Despite Kahuzi-Biega’s status as a park, Pygmies have regularly trooped in illegally to hunt bush meat to feed their families.

But things took a dramatic turn for the worse after the 1994 genocide in Rwanda, when millions of refugees, soldiers and militiamen fled across the border and cut down huge swathes of forest to survive.

The crisis deepened with Congo’s own wars — first in 1996-97 and again in 1998-2002. The fighting led to a breakdown of authority and opened the gorilla habitat to the Mayi Mayi, as well as miners in search of gold, coltan and other precious minerals.

Miners and militiamen cut down trees to put up makeshift houses for their families. They also hunted game, including great apes, for food.

The effect has been devastating.

In 1996, the Kahuzi-Biega’s highlands had 258 lowland gorillas. Today, it is believed about 130 remain, said park director Iyomi Iyatshi.

Though closed from 1998 to 2000, the park’s highlands have remained open throughout most of the region’s troubles — for whoever is willing to pay the $250 fee.

At full capacity, eight tourists a day could visit each of the three separate gorilla families habituated to human visits.

But the dusty visitor books at Tshivanga, the park’s headquarters, show an average of just five visitors a month — mostly U.N. peacekeepers, aid workers and missionaries from Bukavu.

“We can’t really talk of tourism now,” said Mr. Iyatshi. “People aren’t coming. They’re afraid of the war.”

In the short run at least, that might be better for the park’s inhabitants — particularly the 50 or so habituated gorillas.

“It has always been the habituated gorillas that were most at risk of being killed,” explained Mr. Liengola, the Wildlife Conservation Society official. He said apes cannot easily differentiate between armed park guards and armed fighters or poachers, who can sell baby gorillas for as much as $30,000 on the black market.

“The strategy now is to habituate less to tourists, so they learn to avoid contact with human beings,” Mr. Liengola said.

The Wildlife Conservation Society hopes to expand its census next year into the rest of eastern Congo, if the security situation permits.

The first stop will be Kahuzi-Biega’s forested lowlands, a vast, lawless area that makes up 90 percent of the park. For years, park rangers were afraid to enter the area because of militia activity, but last February, 30 rangers were posted at two stations on the lowlands’ outskirts for the first time.

Up in the highlands, ranger Robert Mulimbi, 40, pulls back branches to get a better look at Chimenuka’s troop, which he checks on every day.

Relaxing on a bed of leaves, a mother cradled a 4-month-old baby gorilla — a black ball of fur with large dark eyes — Chimenuka’s only son. Two other babies were born in July.

“We’re not tracking gorillas outside the park,” Mr. Mulimbi said. “We have no idea about the rest.”

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