Vito Finocchiaro had walked for six hours off the beaten trails and into the forest, his guide hacking a way through the vegetation among mosquitoes, ants as big as toes and foot-long millipedes, until they reached a small clearing. A dozen mountain gorillas stood there, the cubs playing, the mothers looking after them and the dominant male, the silverback, lying back and leaning on his elbow. “I moved closer slowly, my head down because looking them in the eyes could be interpreted as a challenge,” says Finocchiaro, a 56-year-old Italian photographer who has won awards for his work documenting the natural world. He arrived within a few metres of the animal, then with his viewfinder as a barrier, looked into the silverback’s eyes. “It wasn’t a curious gaze, the gorillas were used to human presence. He was studying me, waiting for some strange movement,” Finocchiaro says. “I saw something human in those eyes.”
This was Finocchiaro’s first time in the Great Lakes region of Africa, the natural habitat of the endangered mountain gorilla. He had come out of curiosity to meet a species “that shares 97 percent of our DNA”, but the assignment wouldn’t just be a portrait session with one of our closest cousins: he would also find out much more – about the conservation efforts to preserve the gorilla, the history of the movement and the struggles of the communities around it. “I discovered a whole world,” he says.
Mountain gorillas live in the rainforest at elevations of between 1,000 and 2,600 metres on land straddling the borders of Rwanda, Uganda and the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). The story of their species is inextricably linked with that of the American conservationist Dian Fossey, who set up two tents in the forest in the northern Rwandan district of Musanze in 1967 to research gorilla behaviour and saw the extent to which human activity was endangering the species.
Rwanda’s Volcanoes National Park had been founded in 1925, a protected space in which the gorillas could thrive, but in practice authorities struggled to enforce the law. Illegal farms encroached into the park and poachers moved in. “Many gorillas were killed for their meat, which would be sold in East Asian markets for exorbitant prices,” Finocchiaro says. “Baby gorillas were stolen and sold to zoos… to capture a baby, poachers would often kill the whole group of gorillas because they would defend their little ones. The bodies of the oldest ones were used to produce souvenirs – hands would be turned into ashtrays.”
Mountain gorilla populations hit their lowest point in 1981 when a census estimated their number at 254 and it was thought the species might be extinct by the end of the 20th century. Fossey went after poachers hard, organising patrols to destroy their traps and sometimes going even further in attempts to scare them off – she reportedly damaged their hunting camps, capturing and torturing poachers on occasion, writing in a letter that she had used stinging nettles to repeatedly whip the genitals of a poacher the team had caught.
“She was sometimes criticised for being very possessive of mountain gorillas,” Finocchiaro says. “She opposed poachers but also the authorities because she didn’t want anyone [other than herself and her team] to get close to gorillas.” A powerful, polarising character, Fossey made enemies outside hunting communities, publicly accusing national park authorities of gorilla abductions and allegedly, as an assistant once said, “mistreating everyone.”
In December 1985, someone cut a hole in the walls of Fossey’s cabin and hacked her to death with a panga, a two-foot-long machete-like knife. The ensuing investigation left a lot to be desired: authorities did not collect fingerprints; several people gripped the panga and moved objects at the crime scene; no autopsy was performed because there were no coroners in Rwanda at the time. Fossey’s murder is usually attributed to poachers, and she believed that she was “next on their list”, but three different suspects – an American research assistant, a Rwandan tracker and, years later, a local politician – were accused of the killing. Only the tracker, Emmanuel Rwerekana, spent time in prison, and was later found hanged in his cell.
According to Finocchiaro, rather than destroying the conservation movement, Fossey’s death energised it. Those who carried on her work focused on not only protecting the gorillas’ habitat, but also on giving surrounding communities anew, legitimate source of income. Finocchiaro believes that sustainable tourism, in which guides and trackers take tourists into the forest to see the wildlife, has created a new balance in the region by giving local people a livelihood.
“[Rwanda] is now able to bring in $400 million per season through tourism,” says Finocchiaro, with trips costing more than $1,000 per person to spend an hour among the gorillas. Much of that money is used to support wildlife and the communities living or working in the national park, providing them with alternative forms of income to poaching and giving Rwandan authorities another reason to protect the wildlife. “Some of the trackers, rangers and guides are former poachers,” Finocchiaro says. “The introduction of sustainable tourism was a real turning point for some of them.”
Today, the ecosystem that grew around mountain gorillas has made their conservation a remarkable success story. Although counting methods have changed since 1981’s low point, with a separate gorilla population now also included in the total, the latest census found mountain gorillas to number 1,063, an increase of over 300 percent. Mountain gorillas are currently, along with man, the only expanding great ape population in the world. The organisation that emerged from Fossey’s two tents also grew. The Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund is a sprawling conservation body in Rwanda that employs nearly 300 people, tracks descendants of some of the gorillas the scientist used to study, and runs education and community support programmes, partnerships with local universities and guided excursions into the forest.
In June 2022, the fund also inaugurated its new home, the eco-friendly Ellen DeGeneres campus, a three-building complex built in part thanks to a donation by Portia de Rossi, DeGeneres’s wife, a gift for the US talk show host’s birthday.
The gorillas’ gains have come at a cost, however. “To safeguard gorillas, some of the populations of Batwa people, formerly known as pygmies, have been pushed out of the forest,” Finocchiaro says. He visited some of their relocated villages and their tiny homes, often huts made with mud or wood, at the edge of the forest and foot of the volcanoes. “They were blamed as the ones causing the killings of mountain gorillas because they were hunters – it was an excuse [used by the authorities] to kick them out of the forest,” he continues. Finocchiaro believes the Batwa’s displacement wasn’t inevitable: “In other countries like Tanzania, indigenous populations weren’t pushed out of the forest, they reached a compromise,” he says. “Here [in both Rwanda and Uganda], they were abandoned… Most of those who can’t make a living in the sustainable tourism economy now live in extreme poverty.”
Because of the critical role of sustainable tourism, Covid posed a substantial threat to the region’s balance. “Gorillas are very vulnerable to our diseases, especially the respiratory ones,” says Finocchiaro. “When we went and saw mountain gorillas, we couldn’t get closer than seven metres to them. If you had a cold, you couldn’t leave the camp to go and see them.” Some organisations routinely tested their guides and trackers or required visitors to wear masks to protect the animals. Others, including the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund, also adjusted their rotations, requiring staff to be based in the camp for two weeks at a time to reduce potential exposure to the virus in towns and villages and to decrease the risk of passing the disease on to the animals.
But there was another, more unsettling concern. Tourist organisations, says Finocchiaro, “were afraid that this new virus could block tourism and the whole economy,” disrupting the balance between the park and its communities. Without that income, he says, some locals feared communities might be left without any alternative but a return to making a living by poaching.
In 2019, Rwanda generated $21.9 million from gorilla trekking permits alone in the Volcanoes National Park, but made only around $6 million per year in 2020 and 2021.
The knock-on effect of the pandemic on sustainable tourism and wildlife was felt in the region’s national parks. In April 2020, weeks after the DRC closed the Virunga National Park, along the international border with Rwanda and Uganda, to prevent Covid from spreading to primates – and as a consequence cut off tourist revenues – 12 rangers and five civilians were killed in the park by armed militias thought to be profiteering from illegal charcoal in the forest. In June 2020, four poachers entered the Bwindi Impenetrable National Park in Uganda to hunt small animals when they were attacked by a silverback named Rafiki – and killed the 25-year-old gorilla. “Park closures during the pandemic saw a leap towards a dark and violent past,” says Finocchiaro.
While the industry has not fully rebounded to pre-pandemic levels, it has given the government, the tourism sector and conservationists reason to be hopeful. As of August 2022, Rwanda had made about $11 million from gorilla trekking permits in the year, nearly double the amount of 2020 and 2021.
Finocchiaro hopes that the example set by the great apes of Rwanda could lead to other endangered species being saved. “With so many species becoming extinct, what gives me hope is
the efforts of these people who were once poachers and became rangers, and who work to protect mountain gorillas at the cost of their lives,” Finocchiaro says. “While it is easy to get despondent about the falling numbers of many species, the story of mountain gorillas proves that with enough effort humans can reverse the damage they cause,” he says, “And in these efforts, I think we can still find a glimmer of hope.”
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