The jungle of the misty Virunga volcano mountains in central Africa is so dense that even the raindrops falling in rain season do not reach the muddy ground. At night it gets freezing cold, and snow lies on the top of the highest volcano. And as if nature wasn’t already hard enough, the border region of Rwanda, the Democratic Republic of Congo, and Uganda is shaken by crises and wars. These volcanoes are the home of mountain gorillas.
Mountain gorillas live in three National Parks in the Virunga mountains of Central Africa: Mgahinga in Uganda, Volcanoes in Rwanda, and Virunga in the Congo. In addition, there is another population in Uganda’s Bwindi Impenetrable National Park.
The discovery of the mountain gorilla species goes back to Friedrich Robert von Beringe, a German army officer of the Prussian Cavalry who volunteered for the German East Africa Protectorate Force. In 1902, when Rwanda was a German colony, von Beringe visited King Yuhi Musinga of Rwanda and climbed Mount Sabinyo, one of the extinct volcanoes of the Virunga mountains. In his diary von Beringe wrote: “On October 17, we left our basecamp on the saddle and took with us a tent, eight water canisters, five Askari, and porters as necessary.” From the camp in an altitude of 2500 meters the expedition climbed through the dense bamboo forest to a rocky ridge where Captain von Beringe set up his tent. It was freezingly cold. “From our camp we caught sight of a troop of big black apes trying to climb the summit of the volcano. We succeeded in hunting down two big animals, and with loud banging they fell into a ravine towards the northeast.” Captain von Beringe took a photo and sent the remains to the Zoological Museum in Berlin. The discovery was later described as a new subspecies, mountain gorilla, and named after von Beringe: Gorilla beringei.
The estimated number of mountain gorillas living on Earth is around 950. When Diane Fossey worked in the Volcans national park in 1967, there were fewer than three hundred mountain gorillas. The last census in 2010 estimated the number of gorillas at 480. Mountain gorillas are still an endangered species.
Whereas the Volcanoes Park in Rwanda has become a tourist magnet, Congo's Virunga Park struggles with difficulties. The North Kivu region comprising the Virunga National Park in Congo is enduring recurrent unrest. Mountain gorillas are not only threatened by poachers setting up traps and hunting for infant animals to sell them illegally. Wars and rebels terrorizing the region have led to habitat loss when refugees arriving after the 1994 genocide in Rwanda expanded settlements. The demands for charcoal as cooking fuel causes massive deforestation. Charcoal trade is lucrative source of profit among the armed groups in the region.
The Virunga National Park is Africa’s oldest national park, and a UNESCO World Heritage Site. But nevertheless, oil companies plan to explore the Virunga region for oil. Whereas Total has given up plans after protests by conservation groups, British oil company Soco insists after being given a concession by DR Congo’s government – although Congolese law forbids such activities in National Parks.
The director of the Virunga National Park in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Emmanuel de Merode, intents the Virunga Park to be the motor for the whole region, attracting tourists and boosting the economy – allowing to build schools, clinics, and roads. De Merode opposes all oil exploration in the park. In April 2014, he was shot and severely wounded in an ambush. More than 140 rangers trying to protect the mountain gorillas have been killed in the past ten years.