The Girl Who Heard Nothing
Mountain Gorillas in Virunga National Park
"The fact is that when man moves in, in numbers, the gorilla moves out, and therein lies the threat to his existence ...Thus the mountain gorilla faces grave danger of extinction, primarily because of the encroachments of native man upon its habitat—and neglect by civilized man, who does not conscientiously protect even the limited areas now allotted for the gorilla’s survival."
— Dian Fossey
My brother is adopted from the Democratic of Congo (DRC), and has had an interest in Mountain Gorillas in Virunga National Park, practically his whole life. A couple of months ago, he was doing a project on how the Virunga park rangers are his heroes and he made a board game about it. I was playing this game when I realized just how extreme the situation for these gorillas is and how endangered they are. Its not a very uplifting game. You play the board game like this: you draw either a blue or a yellow card. The blue card means you are a ranger and the yellow means you are a gorilla for that turn. The card will say something like, “A gorilla is sick, take it to Senkwekwe Gorilla Hospital,” or, “A park ranger is killed by militia, take one ranger token off the board,” or, “A ranger graduates from training camp, place one ranger back on the board.” There is no way to win the game. It ends when either all the park rangers are dead or all the gorillas are dead. At the end of the game the reality of everything the park rangers do and go through to save the gorillas hit me. There are only around 300 park rangers, for a 3,000 square mile National Park. They go out day after day just to protect the Mountain Gorillas, and more than 140 park rangers in Virunga have been killed since 1996. That is more than one every two months. They have no pension and their families receive nothing after their death. It made me realize how courageous these park rangers are, going out day after day, to protect the remaining Gorillas. There are fewer than 700 mountain gorillas left, and over half of them, around 380 live in Virunga National Park. These numbers were last checked in 2013, and haven't been verified since. Officials believe that the numbers have decreased greatly. The majority of them live in Virunga National Park, in the Democratic Republic of Congo, in Africa. Most people would have trouble locating the Democratic Republic of Congo on a map. They are unaware that they may be the last generation to see a Mountain Gorilla. I am aware of both of these things because when we adopted my brother from the Democratic Republic of Congo, we adopted his culture as well.
Humans share 99.6% of our DNA with the Mountain Gorillas, and apart from the Bonobo and the Chimpanzee, they are our closest living relative. The World Wildlife Fund (or WWF) classifies the Mountain Gorilla as Critically Endangered. This means that unless something dramatically changes within the next ten years, Mountain Gorillas will be extinct. At the rate we are going, a child born next year will only know the Mountain gorilla as a story. We are on the verge of watching one of our closest living relatives be wiped off the planet, and most people don’t even know, let alone care.
The Democratic Republic of Congo has been plagued on and off by civil war since the 1990’s. It has left the country riddled with debt, and basic infrastructure is non-existent. The war has killed at times as many as 45,000 people each month, and is the deadliest conflict since World War II. The war has had much collateral damage, including more than 5 million orphaned children, one of the highest under-five mortality rate in the world, and the destruction of vast amounts of fragile habitat and species. Beginning in 2007, intense fighting has been concentrated in the area around Virunga National Park on the border between the Democratic Republic of Congo and Rwanda, the largest national park in Congo.
There are many things that are harming the Mountain Gorilla population. Poachers trap and kill them for their body parts, meat, and their coat for the black market. They also kidnap the infants for private zoos, and snares set for other animals (also endangered) can kill or maim the Gorillas if they stumble into them. In addition, hungry soldiers will sometimes kill them for meat, and the Gorillas are sometimes caught in crossfire from the fighting between the army and rebel troops. Finally, Goma, a town which borders Virunga has rapidly expanded to more than 700,000 refugees fleeing fighting in their villages. These refugees burn the trees in Virunga to make charcoal for cooking and heat, encroaching on Gorilla habitat. Since the Mountain Gorilla’s range is limited to a small area of forests in central Africa, any loss of territory is extremely threatening. Apart from all of this, Gorillas are susceptible to human diseases such as measles, the flu, and Ebola. Because Virunga relies on tourism for its operating expenses, exposure to humans will still be a risk even if the warfare stops.
It might seem as though nothing can be done, but since the rangers are not giving up, neither should we. Probably the most important thing we can do is raise awareness, of not just the Gorillas’ plight but of the plight of everyone in the Democratic Republic of Congo. The international governments must commit to helping DRC with humanitarian aid, peace negotiations, and rebuilding. A more stable DRC will help protect the gorillas. Supporting the work of the rangers at Virunga also supports the gorillas by increasing their numbers and abilities to work effectively. The rangers are currently the front line in the battle to save the gorillas. Visit www.virunga.org/donate to donate.
Consider what you would do if Mountain Gorillas became extinct. Would you be comfortable knowing that you did not try to save one of our closest living relatives? What does it say about mankind if we let one of our closest living relatives die off while we sit and watch? As if nobody cared? It would look as if mankind slapped itself in the face. Ask yourself: What are you prepared to tell your children when they ask you what happened to the gorillas? What about when they ask you what you did to prevent it? What will it take to make people pay attention? Just think about it. Then act.