The deck was stacked against them, and their numbers were dwindling. The genocide in Rwanda allowed chaos in which poaching thrived. The rebel Tutsi General Nkunda set up his fiefdom just across the border in The Democratic Republic of the Congo. He sold access to the Mountain gorillas on his side of the border, but rivals shot gorillas to deprive him of revenue. Over much of their limited and shrinking range they were killed for bush meat and body-part souvenirs. Their numbers fell to barely 700.

Fortunately, Rwanda stabilized and got serious about protecting their gorillas in the Virunga Volcanos National Park. Uganda, also, put serious muscle into protecting its Mountain gorillas in the Bwindi Impenetrable Forest Preserve, which adjoins the Virunga N. P. In January, 2009, Nkunda was captured along the Rwanda/Congo border. Real protection in The DRC is now a possibility.

AK47-armed park rangers in Rwanda and Uganda have helped stop murders of gorillas in these two countries, but ecotourism has both financed their protection and made allies of the people living around the borders of the parks. Some of these same people used to make a living killing and selling bush meat from the parks. They now have new opportunities as guides, porters, vendors of gorilla paraphernalia, and as part of a new service industry which has grown up to take care of ecotourists who pay $100+ a night for a tent and $600 to sit for one magical hour with a family of wild Mountain gorillas. The scientists and rangers alone could not have reversed the decline of this endangered species. Only by enlisting the cooperation of the local people and giving them a stake in the welfare of the gorillas did these wonderful animals become relatively safe.

Hopefully, The DRC will recover from its protracted civil war and ensure protection of its significant population of Mountain gorillas in the same way that Rwanda and Uganda have. This is especially important because a gorilla family’s foraging range may overlap the unmarked national borders.

In the last ten years, the gorilla populations in Rwanda and Uganda have remained stable or increased slightly, depending on whose census you believe. They are reproducing, but poachers and the Ebola virus have taken a toll. Now the best estimate of the total population in the three countries which share the Mountain gorilla’s range is 750. Compared to 1997, that is a conservation success story. As long as the political balance favors conservation and local people can make a living from ecotourism instead of killing the gorillas, they have a fairly secure future in their misty mountain retreat.

The Bwindi Impenetrable Forest Preserve in Southwestern Uganda is home to five habituated gorilla families who see and recognize a park ranger every day and a small group of ecotourists about every other day. There are also about twenty five non-habituated groups which would be dangerous to approach. We visited the Mubare family. We were enchanted. They were alternately mildly amused or completely oblivious to our presence, even at a distance of ten feet. The trek through steep terrain covered with thick, often thorny jungle to see them may take one to ten hours, but the one hour you get to sit with a family of wild gorillas is pure gold. When my wife, Crow, chewed a leaf to put the animals more at ease, one adult female, Kashundwe, rolled on the ground in what had to be mirth.

For now, the odds are improving for the Mountain gorillas. They are as safe as people, knowing and caring about them, want them to be. For more information and video clips of them, Google: Bwindi gorillas.