Tourism is key to gorillas' fate

Lulengo, the dominant male, feigned dignified indifference, but the younger mountain gorillas in his troop stopped eating from time to time to stare at their visitors out of brown, uncannily human eyes. "They are curious, because they haven't seen a white face for months," explained our guide. "The gorillas were used to seeing white people all the time, but then the war came and tourism stopped."

We were in eastern Zaire's Virunga National Park, where Rwanda, Uganda and Zaire meet. Executive jets used to land at Goma airport with wealthy foreigners coming to see the last 320 mountain gorillas and other species, such as the strange giraffe-like okapi and the gravely endangered northern white rhino, of which only 30 are thought to remain. Now civil war has been added to all the other threats facing the animals, and Goma has become synonymous with human misery.

The Virunga park's director, Norbert Lusenge, and a conservator from the International Gorilla Conservation Project, Popol Verhoestraete, were making the first visit to the mountain gorillas since the war came to the Goma region in November last year. Escorted by three rebel soldiers, the party slogged up to the visitors' centre at the edge of the mountain rain forest to find that many of the park staff had fled, and that their vehicles, radios, tents and possessions had been looted by the retreating soldiers of President Mobutu Sese Seko's army. The tourist chalets were vandalised and stripped bare.

Outside, the ragged park staff paraded with machetes. Four months ago the rebels deprived the wardens of the rifles they formerly carried on anti-poaching patrols. They will only be re-armed after military training and political indoctrination.

Despite the collapse of normal patrolling and gorilla tracking, Lulengo's family had suffered no further casualties at human hands. They were the survivors of an attack in September 1995, when the dominant male, Rugabo, and one of his females were shot dead. A baby seized in the attack - probably for resale to a private collector or zoo - was later found hiding up a tree some 10 miles away.

According to Mr Verhoestraete, the failure of tourism could be the greatest long-term threat to the gorillas' survival. "Local people need to be persuaded that having the park and the gorillas actually benefits them," he says. "Otherwise this is rich agricultural land, and there's a lot of population pressure on it."

He estimates that gorilla tourism once brought in $500,000 (around pounds 315,000) a year to the park. Spinoffs like hotel accommodation, car hire, landing fees, food and visa fees probably exceeded this several times over.

Then in 1994 the Rwandan refugees arrived, further destabilising an already volatile region and endangering the park environment in their quest for firewood and fresh food. One family of gorillas ranged to within five miles of Kibumba refugee camp, at one time home to 200,000 refugees. In the 27 months they spent in Goma the refugees stripped bare the lush rain forest on the lower slopes of Mount Nyiragongo, cutting away an area the size of a football pitch each day.

Now most of the refugees have gone, along with the corrupt Zaire army officers who slaughtered the local wildlife for meat to sell to them. Despite continuing insecurity in the region, Mr Lusenge hopes tourism can resume in Virunga, designated a World Heritage Site by Unesco.

"What is special here is the very varied ecosystem - and the gorillas, of course," said Mr Lusenge. "This could be one of the planet's greatest tourist attractions."