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TONY COX, host:

Mountain guerilla killings in Central Africa have reached an all-time high.

Current fighting among the Congolese military and rebels has caused park rangers and other locals to flee the area, ultimately leaving one of the world's most endangered animals seemingly unprotected. These killings reached deep into the economy, the local community and the environment.

For more, we are joined now by Craig Sholley. He is a senior director at the African Wildlife Foundation and former director of Rwanda's Mountain Gorilla Project. Craig, nice to have you on the show.

Mr. CRAIG SHOLLEY (Senior Director, African Wildlife Foundation): Very nice to be here, Tony. Thank you.

COX: Let's start with this. Can you describe a mountain gorilla for us? I'm sure most people have seen pictures and, or specials on television. But tell us about some of their features and traits. For example, are they killers?

Mr. SHOLLEY: No, not at all. Actually, mountain gorillas are known as gentle giants and they are the world's largest great ape. A big male silverback can weigh as much as 425 pounds. And so you're talking about an immensely powerful creature, but one that lives in a family unit. He basically directs activity in the unit and takes care of a group of females and his progeny. So it's a very, very special relationship that a silverback, a big male, has with the members of his family.

COX: As we've noted, the mountain gorilla is a highly endangered species. How did it come to this?

Mr. SHOLLEY: Well, mountain gorilla numbers were probably never ever very high. They probably ranked in the tens of thousands at one point. The numbers now are probably about 700 in the world, and they range in two populations on the border of Uganda, Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. So we're talking about probably the world's most endangered great ape.

COX: Can you tell us why these gorillas are being killed and who is killing them?

Mr. SHOLLEY: Well, it ranks as a mystery at this particular point. We have been very, very successful in conserving mountain gorilla populations over the last 15 to 20 years. Obviously, there is a tourism economy that is based on gorilla trekking. And, in particular, in Uganda and Rwanda, populations are very, very stable, and they are very, very well-protected. People come from all over the world to visit mountain gorillas, to go out and spend a wonderful hour in the company of a mountain gorilla family.

However, across the border in D.R.C., of course, for the last 15 years, there has been political instability, an awful lot of violence. Many, many people killed - estimates, at this particular point, range from 2.5 to 3 million throughout the countryside in eastern D.R.C. So it's a phenomenally a volatile situation, and trying to conserve a very, very endangered great ape in this situation is very challenging.

COX: I was struck by something that you just said, that people - tourists come there to spend time with these gorilla families. Describe more specifically what you meant in terms of what kind of contact average, you know, tourist might have. Are we talking about through - looking through binoculars from a car at some distance? How close-up do we get to them?

Mr. SHOLLEY: Well, I think it's probably one of the most special wildlife viewing experiences in the world. This is a situation wherein people have the ability to go out into the home of the mountain gorilla, trek on forested trails. And ultimately, you are going to be very, very close to a family of gorillas, probably within 15 to 20 feet…

COX: Really?

Mr. SHOLLEY: …of the entire family. And you've got the ability to sit from that distance and observe natural behavior.

COX: You know, there have been stories written about park rangers and others who have very strong personal connections to these animals. I know that some of them have named them. How does that come about?

Mr. SHOLLEY: Well, the park rangers, in my opinion, are the real heroes of mountain gorilla conservation. They are the guys who are out on a day-to-day basis, doing the work of conservation. And in the case of D.R.C., they are risking their lives. We probably have lost 120 to 150 guards over the last 15 years in the Congo. And I think it indicates the kind of courage that these guys have, putting their life on the line, protecting animals that they have worked with on a day-to-day basis or, in some cases, decades.

COX: Are there other animals that are also endangered in that area, especially as a result of the finding, in addition to the gorilla?

Mr. SHOLLEY: You've got an awful lot of wildlife in this particular area. The gorillas, of course, live in a mountain, a forested habitat. Immediately adjacent to this lovely forested park in Congo is a fantastic savannah situation, Virunga National Park. And there, you've got elephants. You've got big carnivores. You've got hippopotamus. You've got a wide variety of wildlife that lives in the lower elevations.

In the forested areas, you do have elephants. You've got a very, very unique species of monkey: the golden monkeys, a subspecies of blue monkey. And so, the mountain gorilla shares its habitat with a variety of other species. And the very cool thing about mountain gorillas is that they are the flagship species that if protected can protect the rest of the environment and the other creatures that it shares its home with.

COX: You called the park rangers heroes and you talked about their valiant efforts on behalf of trying to, at least, protect these gorillas. What's being done overall to protect them? What about those efforts?

Mr. SHOLLEY: Well, I think the African Wildlife Foundation in conjunction with its partner, the International Gorilla Conservation Program, is there as a support to ICCN and the Uganda Wildlife Authority and ORTPN, the Rwanda National Park System. And for the last 30 years, as a matter of fact, we have been there, providing infrastructure support. In some cases, we have been providing salaries. We've helped develop protocol that allows the park rangers to work in a situation that, in most cases, is safe and secure across the border in D.R.C. - it's not, at this particular point. But we are there doing the best that we can in order to support the efforts of these courageous men.

COX: Does that mean that there is international support for this effort?

Mr. SHOLLEY: Absolutely. The International Gorilla Conservation Program is actually consortium of conservation NGOs made up of the African Wildlife Foundation, World Wide Fund for Nature and Fauna & Flora International out of England. And I think this is a very, very cool relationship that has exists between conservation NGOs for the last 30 years - probably the longest of its kind. And together, the three organizations basically have supported the International Gorilla Conservation Program, which works in the countries that I have been talking about.

COX: What do you believe is going to happen to them ultimately?

Mr. SHOLLEY: Well, mountain gorillas are a very, very special creature. They're, in my opinion, one of our closest relatives. And I think it's incumbent upon the world to do as much as we can to protect them. We work directly with an awful lot of local communities whose livelihoods are improved as a result of the money brought in from gorilla trekking. I hope that the situation in D.R.C. will stabilize to the point wherein the Congolese can also benefit and that gorillas can survive well into the future.

COX: Craig, thank you very much.

Mr. SHOLLEY: You're very welcome. A pleasure to be here.

COX: Craig Sholley is a senior director at the African Wildlife Foundation and former director of Rwanda's Mountain Gorilla Project. He joined us from our headquarters in Washington D.C.

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