Scientists Contact Mountain Gorillas

7 Oct 1998

Scientists Contact Mountain Gorillas

Two groups of rare mountain gorillas first studied by Dian Fossey have been found in good condition in east Africa a year after animal researchers were driven out by rebel fighting.

Trackers searching the jungles along the Rwanda-Congo border last month found 63 of the animals, representing two of the three groups observed by Fossey in the mid-1960s. She was mysteriously murdered in 1985.

The gorillas appeared healthy and calm, Dieter Steklis, scientific director of the Atlanta-based Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund International, said Tuesday. One of the groups included an infant no more than 6 months old.

Primate researchers were forced to halt their observations in August 1997 because of rebel fighting. Conservationists worried that war, poachers and other hardships would push the apes to the brink of extinction. Researchers made contact with the gorillas the first day they were able to re-enter the region in late September.

“It's been agonizing because we weren't hearing anything and there's not much you can do to change the situation,” Steklis said.

The positive results of the survey gave researchers hope that the other gorillas in the war-torn area may also have fared well. Only 620 mountain gorillas are estimated to survive on the flanks of a volcanic mountain range that forms the border of Rwanda, Congo and Uganda. Despite weighing up to 500 pounds, they are shy, plant-eaters that live in small, tightly knit social groups.

Since Fossey's time, scientists have named mountain gorillas and, more recently, profiled them genetically. Gorillas also can be identified by the peculiar shapes of their wrinkled noses, which are as unique as a zebra's stripes.

Rebellions and ethnic violence have forced scientists repeatedly to retreat from the gorillas' home, known as Virungas National Park in Congo and the Bwindi Impenetrable Forest in Uganda.

Since 1994, more than 1 million refugees have established camps on the park's fringes, cutting down as many as 36 million trees for firewood and shelter. Poachers and others have killed at least 14 mountain gorillas in the past two years, and more have become tangled in snares meant to capture small game.

Joseph B. Verrengia © The Associated Press AP-NY-10-07-98 1801EDT