Only about 750 mountain gorillas are left in the world: 350 in Uganda, 270 in Rwanda and a mere 150 here in Congo (formerly Zaire). They have been ravaged by poaching, habitat loss, disease and the violence of war. Many live in lawless regions, sharing territory with armed rebels from Uganda or the remnants of Hutu militias responsible for Rwanda's 1994 genocide of ethnic Tutsis. Today the biggest threat comes from the Congolese area of their range. Rebel groups opposed to Congo president Joseph Kabila control territory in the turbulent east. The most powerful group is led by an ethnic Tutsi named Laurent Nkunda, who commands thousands of well-armed rebels in the Virungas. Not far from here in January, troops from Nkunda's group killed and presumably ate two silverbacks. A female was shot in May, another male and four females were slain in July; their killers had not been identified as we went to press.
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Two hours later, we reach our destination, the Bukima patrol post, a dilapidated weatherboard hut that is home to the rangers who accompany the gorilla trackers each day. Jean Marie Serundori, the post's chief ranger, has spent 17 years with the gorillas. "So many of our rangers have been killed by rebels and poachers in the park," he tells me as Newport translates. "Two months ago, hundreds of Nkunda's troops occupied this very spot and looted it, remaining until just two weeks ago. We fled at the time, and have only just returned. [The rebels] are still just a few miles from here." I ask him why he risks his life by returning. "The gorillas are our brothers," he responds. "I know them as well as my own family. If we don't check that they're safe every day, soldiers and poachers might harm them." Rangers sometimes name newborn gorillas after community leaders who have recently died.
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As if on cue, Rugendo rolls onto his side for a mid-afternoon nap, sated by his bulky snack. He became the master of this group in 2001, when his father was killed by crossfire between the Congolese military and the Interahamwe. Rugendo's easy acceptance of our presence allows the rangers to keep watch over him and his family. But it also allows poachers and soldiers to get dangerously close.
I edge closer, impressed by his brawny arms, many times thicker than a weight lifter's, and salami-size fingers. His massive, furry-crested head holds enormous jaw muscles. While the big chief dozes, Noel and two other sons tussle in mock combat, a favorite gorilla pastime, tumbling, growling, slapping and tugging. The fur on Kongomani and Mukunda, 10- and 12-year-old males, is still black. Noel is especially aggressive, baring his teeth as he repeatedly bangs his fists on the ground and charges his brothers. He leaps on them, pulls at their fur, bites their arms and legs and whacks them on the head. They soon tire of Noel's antics. Now, each time he attacks, one of the brothers grabs him with an arm and tosses him back into the bushes. After a few such tosses, Noel turns to peer at the pale-skinned stranger. Up close his dark brown eyes shimmer.
Seriously, go read the whole thing. The article is quite long, but it is a beautifully-written and--sadly--all too timely piece of journalism.