Caught in the Crossfire

Warfare is only one of many threats driving the world's great apes toward extinction

  • Aliette K. Frank
  • Aug 01, 2002
A GUNSHOT streaks through the green wall of woods. Eeeek, ahhhhhhh, calls a chimpanzee in alarm. Branches break. Vines snap. Animals flee, seeking shelter under thicker parts of the canopy. From where I'm sleeping, I see shadows of guns and men running, bent double, darting between tree buttresses for camouflage. Are they after me? Flushing out Congolese invaders from across the border? Or are they hunting one of the chimps or mountain gorillas I'm here to study?

Here in the "Place of Darkness," as Uganda's Bwindi-Impenetrable Forest is called, any of those scenarios is possible. A student of evolutionary biology, I've come to this 79,000-acre rain forest on the volatile border of Uganda, Rwanda and Democratic Republic of the Congo to work with researchers studying how the park's chimpanzees and gorillas share the forest's limited food resources. Yet almost as soon as I arrive, I discover that my lessons from Bwindi will be more about how apes--and people--manage to survive during times of human conflict than they'll be about such scientific questions.

Protected by park guards, tourists observe wild mountain gorillas at Virunga National Park in Democratic Republic of the Congo. In captivity, such close encounters have infected the animals with several human diseases, including scabies, mumps, measles and tuberculosis. But tourism provides funding and public support for gorilla conservation. Author Aliette Frank hopes that sharing her experiences working with mountain gorillas and chimpanzees will benefit the great apes as well.



If I were studying great apes in Indonesia rather than Uganda, I'd be working with orang-utans rather than mountain gorillas and chimps--and instead of Congolese invaders from just over the border, the mayhem would stem from warring ethnic groups such as the Dayaks and Madurese. But in many ways the experience would feel identical. That's because the world's entire population of wild great apes--gorillas, chimpanzees, bonobos and orang-utans--lives only in Africa and Southeast Asia, two of the most incendiary places on the planet.

And warfare is just one of many assaults the great apes face. Forest destruction, uncontrolled hunting and illegal wildlife trading have all skyrocketed throughout the animals' homelands. Together, these onslaughts are taking a significant toll. According to Ian Redmond, chairman of the Ape Alliance, a United Kingdom-based coalition of conservation groups dedicated to protecting the animals, "The situation has become so urgent that great apes may face extinction over most of their range during the next five to ten years."

First Contact
Just four days after arriving in Bwindi, I encounter a wild great ape for the first time--a young mountain gorilla the researchers call Curious George. He appears initially as an immense shadow hidden behind a cobweb of foliage. A leathery, muscular hand deliberately reaches up through the bush, an elbow bends, a burly shoulder appears, then the hair just above the eyebrows rising to the crown. He looks directly at me with a penetrating gaze through dark inscrutable eyes. I am drawn to his face of confident, graceful power. It is a face not so very different from my own.

That shouldn't surprise me. The great apes are, after all, humankind's closest living animal relatives. Scientists have discovered that chimpanzees and bonobos share nearly 99 percent of our DNA, and gorillas and orang-utans almost that much. For centuries, these animals' demonstrated intelligence, self-awareness and ability to communicate using signs and symbols have captivated both the intellect and emotions of our species. Creatures of fascination, they have been depicted as gods, demons, entertainers and sacred ancestors. The great apes have even changed the way scientists view language, sexual behavior, aggression and human evolution. Among the world's best-recognized and charismatic animals, they include:

Chimpanzees (Pan troglodytes) have led scientists to challenge many previous assumptions about attributes once thought to be uniquely human. Studies have shown that chimps use tools to acquire food, recognize human sounds and symbols and communicate through language. The animals also organize hunting parties, ingest plants for medicinal purposes and have passed tests showing they possess self-awareness, an ability previously ascribed only to our own species (though since demonstrated in dolphins and other great apes as well). While chimpanzees have the largest range of any great ape species--they live throughout Central and West Africa--their numbers have dropped from about 1.5 million to only 150,000 today.

In contrast to well-studied and aggressive chimpanzees, the nearly genetically identical bonobos (Pan paniscus) were described by science only in 1929--and would much rather make love than war. Bonobos, also known as pygmy chimpanzees, live in peaceful, matriarchal and relatively egalitarian societies, where differences are often resolved with sex. The animals can acrobatically swing though trees as well as walk on two feet, humanlike. They live only in fragmented forest pockets in Democratic Republic of the Congo. Because warfare has blocked scientists' efforts to study this critically endangered primate, "no one even knows how many bonobos survive," says Sally Coxe, director of the Washington, D.C.-based Bonobo Conservation Initiative.

Once ranging throughout all of Southeast Asia, orang-utans (Pongo abelii and P. pygmaeus) are today confined to the islands of Sumatra and Borneo. These chiefly arboreal redheads lead the most solitary lifestyle of all the great apes, moving slowly both through the trees and their life cycles. A typical female gives birth to just four or five offspring during her entire 40-year lifetime. Orang-utan Foundation International, a Los Angeles-based group headed by primatologist Biruté Galdikas, estimates that more than 3,000 orang-utans have died in Indonesia during the past three years. As few as 15,000 animals may remain.

Despite their size and power, the largest of the great apes, gorillas (Gorilla gorilla and G. beringei), are gentle giants. Tensions between groups rarely result in more conflict than a showdown of chest beating between dominant males. In the wild, gorillas spend most of their time peacefully munching vegetation. Mountain gorillas such as Curious George live only along the unstable border of Rwanda, Uganda and Democratic Republic of the Congo. Only about 650 of these animals--split between two isolated populations--are believed to still be alive, reports the International Gorilla Conservation Program, a coalition of conservation groups directed by Annette Lanjouw.


A mature male, or silverback, mountain gorilla in the Virunga Mountains, Democratic Republic of the Congo, practices "stem peeling," a favorite gorilla feeding technique. Almost entirely vegetarian in the wild, the animals subsist mainly on leaves, shoots and stems, consuming smaller amounts of wood, roots, flowers and fruits as well as small insects on the vegetation. They spend about 45 percent of their time feeding. The largest of the great apes, gorillas are docile animals. Conflicts rarely amount to more than noisy chest-beating displays between dominant males.

Warfare's Toll
The ants crunch between my teeth. It's a repulsive meal, but it's better than nothing. For nearly two weeks I have been trapped alone in the forest amid disease outbreak, famine and floods. The scientist I'm working with, who left the forest to reprovision our food and other supplies, should have been back more than a week ago, but she still hasn't returned. Ugandan gorilla trackers, who were supposed to remain here following the animals with me, have all left for home, sick and searching for food. The only word from the outside world I've received is of a rebel attack. I decide it's safer to remain hidden here in the forest.

In the end, I will be lucky enough to survive my ordeal, but many others are not. Here in Bwindi in 1999--a year after I'd returned to the United States--a band of Hutu rebels opened fire on the park's tourist camp with automatic rifles and grenades. They killed a game warden, three park rangers and eight tourists; set fire to the buildings in which I'd slept and the vehicles I'd driven; and took 31 foreign visitors hostage.

Horrible as it was, that massacre offered only a taste of tribal and political rivalries that go back many decades. The Hutu rebels, who call themselves the Interahamwe ("those who kill together"), are remnants of an army involved in the infamous 1994 Rwandan genocide that left up to a million people dead. Animosities between these extremist Hutus and the more moderate Hutus and Tutsis continue to trigger periodic armed conflict and instability throughout the region today. Warfare not only kills apes and the guards who protect them, it spawns refugees who poach the animals and deforest their habitat.

Clashes between the Hutus and Tutsis in Central Africa are mirrored by similar conflicts between the Dayaks and Madurese in Indonesia, home to the vast majority of the world's critically endangered orang-utans. The tensions, which have escalated since 1998, got their start decades ago when the government began moving tens of thousands of Madurese from Indonesia's overcrowded central islands to less-populated ones such as Borneo, home to both the Dayak people and orang-utans. In addition to armed conflicts, the influx of Madurese spawned illegal logging and forest-clearing for industrial agriculture.

Photo: © ART WOLFE

Safe for the moment, an orang-utan mother and offspring sit on a tree buttress in Sumatra's Gunung Leuser National Park. Slow to reproduce, one female gives birth to only four or five offspring during her lifetime. More than 3,000 orang-utans have died in Indonesia, the last refuge for these apes in the wild, during the past three years, most of them victims of fire and illegal logging.

The Bushmeat Trade 
A poacher sinks to his belly with an AK-47 rifle aimed at six gorillas resting peacefully in nests sculpted from matted leaves and twigs. Stray light filtering through the canopy illuminates an object at the man's feet--something that once was alive now lies dead in an indistinguishable heap. Perhaps it's his dinner, or it could be a gorilla hand, a chimpanzee skull or another trophy he will stretch on a plank, crucify, bake until rigid and sell. In many parts of Central and West Africa, such products routinely show up in roadside markets beside fruits, beans, sweet potatoes and other everyday staples.

It's true that people in and around forests have always hunted primates and other wildlife for food. But over the past few years, trade in wild animal meat, or bushmeat, has both intensified and become heavily commercialized. In Central Africa, more than one million metric tons of wildlife are killed for food every year--the equivalent of four million cattle. Although apes make up only about one percent of the carcasses brought to market, the animals' scarcity and low reproductive rate have made hunting a serious threat.

Until recently, great apes provided food only for local populations. But these days our close animal cousins appear on dinner plates in places such as London, Paris and Brussels--and are even available from vendors in Bronx, New York. In addition, great apes are captured live for the pet trade and roadside attractions in both Africa and Asia, and to be used for scientific studies worldwide. The animals' body parts--a hand, bone or hide--play important roles in medicine and traditional rituals in many African and Asian communities. Others become trophies and status symbols in the Western world.

In recent years, great ape hunting in both Africa and Southeast Asia has intensified, thanks to the rapid proliferation of timber concessions (which open up previously inaccessible forests) and to greater use of guns in lieu of less-lethal traditional weapons such as arrows, spears and handmade traps. While both national and international laws have declared great ape hunting illegal, accelerating poverty and lack of alternative food sources give people living in areas surrounding some great ape habitats little choice but to kill the animals. Even in protected areas, a shortage of money and park personnel make enforcing hunting regulations difficult at best. According to the Bushmeat Crisis Task Force, a Silver Spring, Maryland-based consortium of scientists and conservation groups, the bushmeat trade is the single greatest threat to all Central African great apes and the second greatest threat--after habitat loss--to orang-utans in Indonesia.

Too Close for Comfort 
With an unexpected rush, a huge gorilla barrels through the forest like a freight train, coming to a halt just a few feet away. A silverback, or mature male, the 400-pound animal screams as he beats his burly chest three times. He reeks with the skunky smell of fear. Once recovered from the charge, he regards me warily for a few moments, then sits down to dig in to a breakfast of celerylike stalks. Now a hulking giant of monkish calm, the gorilla feeds quietly in the clearing. I stand gawking like an unwelcome guest in a private residence, feeling the weight of my intrusion but powerless in my fascination to turn and leave.

The silverback was one of a handful of Bwindi mountain gorillas that park personnel were trying to habituate--accustomize to the presence of people--in an effort to turn them into lucrative tourist attractions. Gorilla tourism, which provides travelers unforgettable opportunities to see these animals in the wild, already has proved its potential to generate substantial sums that can contribute to protecting the primates' dwindling habitat. In Rwanda, for example, money spent by well-heeled gorilla gawkers from abroad helped the country recover from the violence and poverty it experienced in the early 1990s, becoming the nation's third largest source of foreign revenue. And until the 1999 rebel attacks, gorilla tourism ranked as the number one generator of foreign exchange in Uganda as well.

But even beyond its vulnerability to civil unrest, great ape tourism carries several risks. The most serious are the diseases that people, as close relatives, can transmit to the animals. Every year, a typical habituated gorilla group in Rwanda is exposed to many more individual humans than the average person sees at home in a lifetime. In captivity, exposure to humans has infected great apes with a variety of serious illnesses, including salmonella, mumps, pneumonia and chicken pox.

Tourism-related cases of illness have been confirmed in Rwanda's Volcano National Park, where five gorillas died in 1988 from respiratory illness and measles. In Uganda's Bwindi, gorillas have suffered from scabies. And over the past decade, the number of Bwindi's mountain gorillas suffering from salmonella has doubled.

Local people also can sicken their great ape neighbors. In the Virunga Mountains, where human populations average up to 120 people per square mile, infections such as streptococcus, drug-resistant tuberculosis, measles, influenza and diarrheal diseases run rampant. In both Central Africa and Southeast Asia, contaminated water and sanitation problems, combined with poor hygiene, favor the spread of hepatitis A and B, herpes simplex, scabies, intestinal worms, coxsackie viruses and salmonella--all of which have been blamed for illness among great apes.


An orphaned lowland gorilla sits chained outside a home in a logging camp in Cameroon, its mother most likely killed for meat, traditional medicine or to become a trophy shipped abroad. Trade in wild animal meat, or bushmeat, has intensified. Today it's the single greatest threat to great apes in Central Africa and the second greatest threat to Indonesian orangutans.

Slipping and sliding, I ascend a muddy ravine to get an aerial view of Bwindi. From above, the park looks just the way I've seen similar natural havens described in books and magazines--a small island of wild, dense greenery surrounded by a sea of humanity. Outside the forest, cattle pastures, banana trees and sweet potato and bean fields checkerboard the many-headed hills. People crowd between dung-walled huts topped with peaked grass roofs and disappear, ghostlike, under smoke from burning fields.

Here in Uganda, and throughout the range of the world's great apes, habitat loss leaves many animals homeless. In Virunga National Park alone, refugees and militiamen cleared 18,525 acres--and degraded an additional 9,386 acres--in just two years following the 1994 genocide in Rwanda. According to the U.S. Agency for International Development, the entire Congo Basin is likely to lose 40 percent more of its current forest area by 2050. After the bushmeat trade, habitat loss represents the most important threat to Central Africa's great apes.

In Indonesia, habitat loss is by far the number one threat to the survival of orang-utans. Over the past decade, fires and logging--much of it illegal--have decimated an expanse of Indonesian forest roughly the size of the United Kingdom. Indonesia's annual deforestation rate, which doubled during the 1990s and again since 1998 to 35 million acres, accounts for up to a quarter of all natural forests lost globally each year. As a result, many orang-utans are now attempting to subsist among the oil palm plantations scattered throughout the region, where just two percent of the animal's original habitat remains standing.

As human populations continue to grow, and problems such as civil unrest, disease, illegal hunting and habitat loss escalate, the long-term prospects for Earth's great apes look grim. Already, all species are classified by IUCN--The World Conservation Union as either endangered or critically endangered. Endangered apes include three subspecies of chimpanzee (the central, eastern and Nigerian) and the western lowland gorilla. Listed as critically endangered are the Sumatran orang-utan, bonobo, western chimpanzee, and three gorilla subspecies--the cross river gorilla, Grauer's gorilla and the mountain gorilla.

It is difficult for scientists to predict exactly how great apes will fare in the future. Guesstimates of extinction times offered by population analysts so far range from 20 years for chimpanzees to 10 years for orang-utans to just 5 years for bonobos. At the local level, the prognosis is often worse. "Local extinctions already are happening rapidly," says the Ape Alliance's Redmond. "Each one," he adds, "is a loss to humanity, a loss to a local community and a hole torn in the ecology of our planet."

Biodiversity Ambassadors
At first glance, Ephraim, a frail, five-foot-tall Pygmy I follow through the forest each day, seems to have little extra to give. Typical of other natives in the region, he supports a family of eight--which numbered ten before malaria struck--on a salary of just two dollars a day. Yet beyond merely tracking Bwindi's gorillas, the work he's paid to do, Ephraim pursues what he considers "my duty to protect" the endangered primates. Over and over, I will hear him repeat his credo: "These animals are the hope of the future. I would give my life for them."

The dedication of people such as Ephraim offer hope that great apes will, in the end, survive. So do several national and international initiatives now underway. In November 2000, the U.S. Congress passed the Great Ape Conservation Act, which seeks $5 million a year to help government wildlife agencies and nonprofit organizations protect great apes in their native habitat. Internationally, the Great Apes Survival Project, launched recently by the United Nations Environment Programme, is raising millions of dollars to fund survival plans by governments of all 23 countries that still house great ape populations. Collaborating with other private and nonprofit ventures, the project also promotes community development initiatives, ranger programs, fire management strategies, school education initiatives, ape tourism and other profitable, yet nondestructive, uses of great ape habitat.

Changes on the political front in great ape homelands also have been encouraging. In Democratic Republic of the Congo, President Joseph Kabila's rise to power provides early indications that the future there may be more peaceful. In addition, Kabila has met personally with representatives of the Bonobo Conservation Initiative, which seeks a ban on new logging concessions in bonobo habitat. Though little has changed so far in Southeast Asia, several governments and organizations that donate development funds to the region are pressuring recipient nations to establish and enforce logging bans. And recent private efforts--ranging from partnerships between primate conservationists and AIDS organizations to benefit concerts for great apes--offer additional signs of hope.

But will such changes come in time? Five years after my brief interaction with Curious George, when our eyes met, I still can't stop thinking about the encounter--and wondering if it was both my first and last chance to see great apes living in the wild.

A Washington, D.C.-based writer, Aliette K. Frank is working on a book about the animal and human inhabitants of Uganda's Bwindi-Impenetrable Forest.

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