Even if the gorilla shares more than 98% of our genetic heritage, we are its worst predator. There are only a thousand left in the mountains. Our reporter spoke with Emmanuel de Merode, director of Virunga Park, in the Democratic Republic of Congo, the oldest nature reserve in Africa
Emmanuel de Merode has just entered the thick rainforest when he hears the gunshots. This July 22, 2007 will mark him forever: between the brushwood, he discovers the still hot remains of nine mountain gorillas. Killed at close range. One injured female was even sprayed with gas and ignited. On the bodies are four babies: they are the only survivors of the massacre. « This family of gorillas approached the men because they trusted them, » explains Emmanuel de Merode. This horrible sight convinced me that something had to be done. «
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A year later, the anthropologist and primatologist was appointed by the Congolese authorities, director of the Virunga park. This nature reserve, created in 1925 by Belgian settlers, is the oldest on the African continent. Classified as World Heritage of Humanity, it shelters, on the eastern border of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, 300 mountain gorillas, i.e. almost a third of a world population estimated, in 2017, by the International Union for Conservation from nature, to 1,004 individuals. There were only 254 in 1981: the efforts of the authorities in Rwanda, the DRC and Uganda paid off!
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However, vigilance has not diminished. Even devoid of murderous intent, man remains a serious threat. Gorillas have no resistance to viral and respiratory diseases like the common cold or the flu. In normal times, visitors, never more than six, must therefore wear a mask and stand more than seven meters away. Since the start of the coronavirus crisis, the Virunga park has closed its doors to tourism, which nevertheless represents 50% of its revenues. Even the guards no longer enter this 25,000 hectare forest, or around 3% of the park’s area. The same caution during the Ebola epidemic (which ended just a few weeks ago …) helped protect the gorilla sector from infection when two-thirds of the park was contaminated. Elsewhere, in the western plains, notably in Gabon, Congo Brazzaville or Equatorial Guinea, 90% of the gorilla population has been decimated. A massacre.
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From « King Kong » to « The Planet of the Apes » to the « Tarzan » of Edgar Rice Burroughs, the gorilla has aroused many fears and fantasies. Several generations have been terrorized by these legends telling of the abduction of women, fertilized by these giant primates. The explorer Paul du Chaillu, the first Westerner to have studied gorillas in their natural environment from 1856 to 1859, wrote: « A devilish expression on the face, seeming out of a nightmare vision, such stood before us the king of the african forest […]. Emmanuel de Merode has a completely different feeling: « It is an incredibly sensitive animal, very fragile, even if the » silverbacks « (adults) have an extraordinary power. No other species in the world gives off such a mixture. «
Born in Carthage, Tunisia, this Belgian prince grew up in Kenya. Little boy, the wild world already populated his imagination. « From the age of 8, 9, I dreamed of working with gorillas. And, if possible, Virunga. He succeeded in 2001. « Being in a group of gorillas is an extremely sweet experience … Very social, they have no aggressiveness towards humans … It is one of the only species that can invite us to participate in his family life. It is intense and warm. They spend the day playing together, a moving spectacle. I have been fortunate enough to experience it a thousand times, but today as on the first day, it still touches me as much. In the documentary « Virunga » produced by Leonardo DiCaprio, one of the guards, André Bauma, spoke of « their great affection » and even their « love » for human beings.
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Gorillas are gifted with language. Whether to communicate with each other or to intimidate their rivals, they use shouts, grunts, facial expressions. A 2009 study by scientists at the University of St Andrews, Scotland, identified some 102 signs that would form their common language. But Koko, a female gorilla born in 1971 and died in 2018, educated by the ethologist Penny Patterson at the San Francisco Zoo, knew much more: she absorbed more than 1,000 words from the American sign language. It was not her only skill: she took care of pets and was particularly fond of a cat.
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These studies have shown that gorillas have a certain awareness, that they are capable of feeling complex emotions. « You look them in the eye and you see something for yourself, » said Stacy Rosenbaum, biologist and anthropology researcher at the Dian-Fossey International Foundation. After chimpanzees and bonobos, gorillas, with whom we share more than 98% of our genetic heritage, are our closest cousins.
Fifteen to twenty families live in the Virunga Park. With 44 members, one of them is probably the largest group of mountain gorillas in the world. At the age of 14 or 15, the young male becomes a silver back, that is to say that his backbone turns white. He can then take several females as well as young to form a new group. Females can only have one baby at a time, which they raise until the age of 4. Nomadic and vegetarian, even if he sometimes eats insects, the gorilla, which does not like water, finds in plants something to hydrate.
By attacking the gorillas, the militias hope to discourage the guards who protect the forest
The bushmeat trade, which supplied affluent customers in large cities and was long a scourge for the survival of primates, has stopped in Virunga for ten years. But the gorillas remain victims of the warlike madness of the men who have been fighting in this area for almost thirty years. « Each time, we were able to negotiate with the parties to the conflict, » explains Emmanuel de Merode. But even in a civil war, you never leave the place. Many fighters have taken refuge in the park. They hope to take control of its natural resources. Illegal fishing, illegal crops, but especially the cutting of trees for « malaka » (charcoal) would represent a turnover of around 170 million dollars per year!
Thanks to the vigilance of 700 guards, the park remains the only place in the region where the trees have not been cut down. By attacking the gorillas, the militias hope to discourage the guards who protect the forest. These men are paying a heavy price for their devotion: since 1996, 189 of them have been killed. On April 24, 13 died in an attack attributed to the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda, a group of Rwandan Hutu rebels, refugees in the DRC. « If it is a question of dying, I must die for the gorillas, » says André in the documentary « Virunga ». He adds: « If we lose them, we will have lost something very important to humanity. « No other park in the world has made such sacrifices, » said Emmanuel de Merode. But this fight, he too could have been the victim.
In 2010, the park’s petrol fueled the lusts of the British company Soco International, which was awarded a concession located half of its limits. Despite the prohibitions of international law and Congolese law. Condemned by the United Kingdom and the European Union, Soco – whose attempts at corruption have been revealed by numerous NGOs, including WWF and Global Witness – will have to leave the DRC in 2015. But a few months earlier, on 15 April 2014, when he had just handed over to the Congolese authorities a file against the company, Emmanuel de Merode fell into an ambush. He was hit by several bullets. And his attackers will never be found. Other scientists have sacrificed their lives on the altar of this cause: Diane Fossey, author of the bestseller « Gorillas in the mist », murdered in Rwanda in December 1985, Ymke Warren, who studied the gorillas of the Cross river at Cameroon, killed in 2010.
Emmanuel de Merode hopes to give work to 100,000 people
Emmanuel de Merode knows this: without the support of local populations, the park has no future and neither will its gorillas. This reserve deprives arable land of the 5 million people who live on its outskirts in extreme poverty. So, to fight against this « social injustice », he bet on the development of a new economy, a project called Alliance Virunga, which has already helped create new industries, such as factories for chocolate, soap and production of chia seeds. Energy from the park’s rivers is converted into electricity and the first hydroelectric plant was built in 2013. Of the 10,000 jobs already created, some are occupied by veterans. Ultimately, Emmanuel de Merode hopes to give work to 100,000 people. « This program, » he said, « could constitute a possibility of peace in the region. «
In a 2019 selfie, you can see behind one of the guards two standing gorillas, as if posing. These are the females Ndazki and Ndeze. An encouragement to keep hoping: in 2007, they were among the babies found by Emmanuel de Merode at the site of the massacre. Today, they live in Rumangabo orphanage, where the Virunga headquarters are located. « But one day, they will form a family … And their young will constitute a new population of mountain gorillas resulting from this tragedy. « In Virunga, since the beginning of the year, we have already registered six births.
WWF in Cameroon « rehabilitates » gorillas to humans
By Gaëlle Legenne
For a « silver back », Eno-Nku, 52, curator biologist and coordinator of the WWF KuduZombo program in Campo-Ma’an National Park, got up very early. With his group of trackers, he had to walk for hours before hoping to see him. This approach cannot be improvised. The process of « habituation », which allows the habituation of gorillas to men, has been validated by primatologists since the 1990s. It takes place in seven stages: the gorilla first detects human presence, then flees, load, fuss. His curiosity aroused, he feigns indifference and, finally, accepts this presence.
“Our teams sometimes take turns for years, always at the same hours. Facing the gorillas, you have to clap your hands, click your tongue, hit your chest, vocalize. They recognize us physically, but they also spot us by sounds. One evening, I understood that this male identified me thanks to the particular clapping of my hands. He was no longer fierce. He accepted me, « says Eno-Nku. Today, the latter oversees the WWF habituation program for the 2,265 great apes (including chimpanzees) of this biodiversity that stretches over 700,000 hectares, between Equatorial Guinea and the Cameroonian region of the South.
« We had to convince communities that a living gorilla is more profitable than a dead gorilla, » he said. « Getting gorillas used to humans » also means enabling ecotourism, which supports families, since around 110,000 people live around Campo-Ma’an. The habituation process also allows monitoring of great apes in the wild. They become less vulnerable to poaching and can benefit from a health monitoring program.
Because “primates are very sensitive to infectious diseases. Also, their organic waste is regularly sampled and analyzed in our laboratory, ”explains Eno-Nku. Before concluding: “Out of a group of 18 individuals, there have been three births in the past six months. Something to regain hope: the population of western lowland gorillas had decreased by 60% in twenty-five years.
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