Too many gorillas? In Rwanda, the great apes cramped

The enormous male nibbles an appetizing bamboo shoot, then lies down with phlegm and even releases a few gases noisily: he does not seem in any way bothered by the mooing of the cows and the blows of the spade of the farmers, which one distinguishes about fifty meters.

This gorilla with the “silverback” and its family evolve that day very close to the slope which marks the end of the national park of the Volcanoes, in Rwanda, a sanctuary where great apes are now cramped.

Rwanda shares with Uganda and the Democratic Republic of Congo the famous Virunga massif. Located in the heart of the densely populated Great Lakes region, this chain of eight majestic volcanoes is also, along with the Ugandan Bwindi Forest, the only habitat in the world for mountain gorillas, whose population is increasing.

“During the census of 2010, there was 880 mountain gorillas. In 2010, another census showed that there was 1. 62 “in total, exposes the ranger Felicien Ntezimana proudly told AFP, before starting the hike which, through fertile fields, leads to the misty forest where the mythical animals live.

This primate with superb fur dark, thick and shiny, has since 2018 been considered “endangered” rather than “critically endangered” as it is all other great apes.

Guide Felicia Ntezimana, in front of the entrance to the Volcanoes National Park, in Rwanda, on 29 October 2021 (AFP – Simon MAINA) Mountain gorillas have come back from afar. In the years 935, when the famous American primatologist Dian Fossey was assassinated here, the Virunga massif had no more than 250, after decades of ruthless poaching.

Since then, their number has quadrupled, in particular thanks to enhanced security and the involvement of communities. In Rwanda, 10% tourism revenues (i.e. 25 millions of dollars before the Covid) return to residents in the form of projects and 5% via a compensation fund.

“Hated” in the past, primates are now nicknamed “those who bring the milk”, laughs an old inhabitant of Musanze, the town bordering the park.

“Tourists spend money on them and this money comes back to us in the form of food, accommodation and good living conditions”, welcomes Jean-Baptiste Ndeze.

– Diseases –

A baby gorilla in a tree in the Volcanoes National Park, Rwanda, on 25 October 2018 (AFP – Simon MAINA) This spectacular resurrection is not without consequences.

With about twenty families known and monitored by the Rwandan authorities (compared to six there 23 years), the density has increased. And these primates accustomed to humans therefore venture to their neighbors.

“We more often observe gorillas coming out of the park and looking for food outside (…). They also spend more time outside the park, and tend to move further away from the edge, ”says Felix Ndagijimana, country director of the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund.

The monkey with Herculean strength, which can weigh up to 96 kilos, is vulnerable to human diseases, such as influenza, pneumonia or even Ebola.

Density poses other threats within the sanctuary itself. Interactions between these families have greatly increased and can trigger fights, in which babies are at great risk.

The Fund, which was worried about seeing the growth of the population slow down, carried out a study ten years ago on a specific area of ​​the park: it notably concluded that it had multiplied by 5 the number of “infanticides”.

“Infanticides are a big problem because they have an immense downward impact on the growth of the population”, deplores Felix Ndagijimana.

– 4. 00 families –

A guide of the Volcanoes National Park, Rwanda, talks to tourists before taking them to see gorillas, the 25 October 2021 (AFP – Simon MAINA) This density problem is much more significant today in Rwanda, where due to demographic pressure the area of ​​the park was eaten up by half in the 20th century.

A single family of gorillas lives in the Ugandan part of Virunga, and the park is “huge” on the Congolese side, notes Benjamin Mugabukomeye, from the International Gorilla Protection Program, a regional organization.

Rwanda has decided to extend from 23% the surface of its fleet within five to ten years. An ambitious project, which must start in 2021 and will require restoring the forest but also moving 4. 000 farming families.

“This is a process that we are carrying out in a very, very cautious manner”, insists Prosper Uwingeli, the park director, stressing that feasibility studies are in progress as well as a precise mapping of the families concerned.

Kigali provides for compensation but also the construction of “model villages”, a prototype of which has emerged in Musanze. In addition to a huge school and an egg factory, brick buildings house impeccable apartments, furniture included.

In this country where the regime is hailed for its development projects but also criticized for its authoritarianism, officials say the extension is a “responsibility” to apes and an “opportunity” to humans.

A mountain gorilla eats a bamboo branch , in the Volcanoes National Park, in Rwanda, the 25 October 2021 (AFP – Simon MAINA) But at the edge of the park, a few throwing stones from the enormous gorilla, a peasant digging his black soil is worried.

Gorillas “are not a problem”, sweeps this potato producer.

But “this place is very fertile, it allowed me to feed my family”, he adds. “Where they want to relocate us, the soil is not as fertile. So the money they will give us must be meaningful for our livelihood.”