My travel in Africa continues, and my team and I recently visited the beautiful country of Rwanda. There, we have had the opportunity to observe gorillas in their natural majesty and grandeur.
They are simply stunning. Gorillas are, after all, one of mankind’s closest relatives, behind chimpanzees and bonobos. And you can see the intelligence in their eyes. Sadly, the splendor of these creatures is dimmed by their precarious situation – they are on the verge of extinction.
There are two subsets of eastern gorillas – lowland and mountain. Eastern lowland gorillas, also known as Grauer’s gorillas, are critically endangered. Over the past two decades, the number of Grauer’s gorillas has fallen drastically, from roughly 17,000 to fewer than 3,800.
Humans threaten to wipe gorillas off the face of the earth. Since 1996, with the start of the Congolese Civil War, human conflict has nearly overwhelmed Grauer’s gorillas. The ensuing turbulence and political deterioration have left these beautiful creatures without meaningful protections.
In just one year, 3,700 acres of protected habitat in the Democratic Republic of the Congo were illegally razed by settlers. In addition to clearing new land for agriculture and livestock, humans have illegally harvested charcoal and mined valuable minerals to fund their wars. These extractions render the habitats that Grauer’s gorillas call home inhospitable. Perhaps most heartbreaking of all, as Grauer’s gorillas are the largest species of gorilla, they are hunted for their meat.
As humans wantonly kill gorillas and decimate their habitats, they also reduce the buffer zone between themselves and gorillas, increasing the likelihood that these great apes will contract human diseases such as Ebola. Due to their unique immune systems, mountain gorillas can die from the common cold or the flu.
Without persistent conservation efforts, the future is bleak. If current trends continue, the population of eastern gorillas will be cut by more than 90 percent by 2054.
For the animal defenders at American Humane, that is unacceptable. Right now, we are exploring avenues to fight for the survival of all the creatures with whom we share the world, including Grauer’s gorillas.
Encouraging eco-tourism, or travel that supports conservation efforts, can bring much-needed attention and money to the plight of these animals. Eco-tourism allows good organizations to protect Grauer’s gorillas and their habitats, and it funds research that allows scientists to better understand gorillas.
In Rwanda, I had the chance to view these magnificent creatures up close thanks to reputable organizations that do the good work of conserving these animals. And unlike some regions where conflict is threatening gorillas, Rwanda is exceedingly safe – the State Department advises travelers to exercise the same precautions they would when driving north to Canada.
If you plan on visiting Rwanda, you can also learn more about the history of the country. While here, I had the opportunity to spend an afternoon paying respects at the Kigali Genocide Memorial, which commemorates the 1994 genocide of the Tutsi. At the memorial, I was humbled and deeply moved by how united this country is around shared values despite its painful past.
I hope to return to Rwanda, and I encourage any lover of wild animals to make this trip for themselves.
Your partner in helping our animal friends,
Robin R. Ganzert, Ph.D.
President and CEO, American Humane