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The Democratic Republic of Congo is home to some of the world's last remaining mountain gorillas. But for more than a year, that nation's gorilla sector has been mostly off-limits and in the hands of a rebel army. A new agreement between Congo's leaders and the rebels calls for official government monitoring of the gorillas to resume. So in the coming weeks, the gorillas and the returning rangers will have plenty of catching up to do. NPR's Gwen Thompkins has this report.
GWEN THOMPKINS: This is how you get to the gorillas. Climb into a vehicle - preferably one with a good chassis and four-wheel drive - and head north from Goma into Virunga National Park. It's not that far. But be sure to strap in because the potholes are unforgiving. And more importantly, be sure to have the permission of the rebel army led by General Laurent Nkunda. Without their OK, you might as well stay home. It's an over the river and through the woods kind of drive, except this one is more like over the hills and through the banana trees.
You also pass bean fields and corn fields, but mind the chickens that are crossing the road and mind the goats, mind the sows, mind the cows. And whatever you do, mind the kids who stand along the shoulder and yell "jambo," which means hello in Swahili. Ten miles can take two hours, so you might as well keep your face in the window. This is Hutu country and lays out like an emerald kingdom - neatly cultivated, lush, idyllic, except for the fact that the people here are destitute. Little girls wear torn men's sports jackets as dresses and little boys beg for pencils. Everyone else asks for money. Babu Amani is a spokesman for the Tutsi-led rebels.
Mr. BABU AMANI (Spokesman, Tutsi Rebels, Democratic Republic of the Congo): For us, gorilla, it is more than diamonds. For us, gorilla is more than all the wealth we have in the soil of Congo.
THOMPKINS: The rebels set the rule of law in these parts, having beaten back the Congolese army late last year. When you reach a village called Bunagana, stop, because the rebels want to make sure you are who you say you are. And if you're a journalist, they want you to know how much they treasure Congo's mountain gorillas. There are only 700 or so mountain gorillas left in the entire world, spread among neighboring Congo, Rwanda, and Uganda. And Congo is believed to have about 200 of them. Amani says this area of the park was of strategic value to rebel forces, a high perch from which to see the army below. And the gorillas were unexpected bounty.
Mr. AMANI: Wonderful. Gorilla is my cousin. You have to protect these, for they are the future generation.
THOMPKINS: When the rebels took over this area back in September 2007, most of the government-employed rangers left. The rebels are a Tutsi-led force, and many of the Hutu rangers feared ethnic violence. But other rangers, like Pierre Kanamahalagi, came here specifically to take care of the gorillas. Sitting in a local bar in Bunagana, he says he made the right choice. Under a new government deal with the rebels, he will retain his job as a government ranger, even though he's been working with the rebels these past 14 months.
Mr. PIERRE KANAMAHALAGI (Ranger, Virunga National Park, Democratic Republic of the Congo): (Through Translator) Well, at the beginning, I was criticized. My name was spoiled and I was - because I was said to have gone to have joined the rebels. But today I'm being congratulated for what I have been doing.
THOMPKINS: Kanamahalagi says that gorillas are apolitical. But Virunga National Park is a highly charged political landscape. And the gorillas have sometimes been caught between the rebels, the army, and militias in league with the army. When army soldiers lived in the park, many reportedly engaged in the area's habitat-killing charcoal trade, estimated to be worth more than $20 million a year.
Even the former head of the government service that employs the rangers has been implicated in the charcoal trade, as well as in the related murders of several gorillas last year. Photographs of the dead gorillas shocked the world. Now that the fighting has died down between the army and the rebels, the gorillas appear to be at the center of a propaganda war. Each side claims to care more than the other for the animals' well-being.
(Soundbite of car engine)
THOMPKINS: When you're done with the rebels, a couple of rangers climb into the car and you drive to a place called Bikenge. And after walking uphill across a grass field, over a cow patch, into the bush, and through the wet forest, turn a corner where the tree trunks look like butterscotch, and this is what you hear.
(Soundbite of cicadas)
THOMPKINS: By now, you're in the jungle. There are so many tangles of branches underfoot, you can't see the ground. The canopy of trees overhead is so thick, you can't see the sky. Pretty soon, the rangers have their machetes in hand and are hacking a path through thickets of trees and sticky, clingy, itchy vines. Keep going, and the jungle begins to shout. A soaring bamboo forest lies out like a scene from the movie "Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon." The air smells different. The insects look more beautiful and at the same time more angry.
A cloud of hysterical black flies hums close. And before you know it, you stumble upon the most magnificent black gorilla sitting in the tall grass like a big baby doll. She calmly picks a few nits off her smooth, shiny chest, looks at you, and nibbles the grass. It's rare to see any creature as relaxed as she is. She doesn't say anything exactly, but the rangers do.
(Soundbite of ranger making a throat-clearing noise)
THOMPKINS: That's the sound the rangers make when they happen upon a habituated gorilla. Fewer than half of Congo's gorilla population is accustomed to human contact. But even the most accommodating of them stands or at least sits on ceremony. You've got to say hello, which sounds a little like clearing your throat.
Unidentified Woman: You want to hear it again?
(Soundbite of ranger making a throat-clearing noise)
THOMPKINS: Just a few yards away, meet Lulengo. He's the silverback gorilla and the head of household for this family. He's an enormous, King Kong-like presence - black like licorice, but with a large, silvery patch behind. His head is the size of those giant pumpkins you see ordinary people standing next to in newspaper photographs. And if Lulengo ever had to wear a suit and tie, the haberdasher would surely despair. This gorilla's neck size is somewhere between 28 and 30 inches. There's nothing doll-like about him. He's the boss.
Lulengo snaps bamboo shoots in his fists and chews them like crudites. Meanwhile, his lady friend walks by on all fours, tears through more handfuls of grass, and then stretches out on the floor of the jungle like she's luxuriating in a bubble bath.
Unidentified Ranger: (Through Translator) She's very old. She might be like 50.
THOMPKINS: The rangers also say she's pregnant. But chances are she's just fat. At least, that's what the returning rangers say. They know Lulengo and all his lady friends. And even though the old rangers haven't seen the family in 14 months, they say this female gorilla is nowhere near 50 years old. And if her chest is flat and smooth, she's nowhere near pregnant either.
Emmanuel de Merode is the new Belgian head of the park service, which, like the gorillas, is now headquartered in rebel territory on another side of the park. He says that no matter how well-meaning the rangers who stayed in the park are, they don't have the training to monitor the gorillas properly.
Prince EMMANUEL DE MERODE (Director, Virunga National Park, Democratic Republic of the Congo): Everything works on rumor here. And unless it's properly verified, it can only be considered rumor. And that's the problem.
THOMPKINS: When the old rangers come back, de Merode says, they will train those who've been watching the gorillas these past months. They'll also make a survey of all the gorillas in the sector — who's alive, who's dead, who moved away.
Miraculously, the population is believed to have grown during the war years in eastern Congo. And sure enough, before we leave Lulengo, we see another of his lady friends with a baby on her back. These gorillas may be the only creatures who have more or less thrived here in recent years. As a conservationist, de Merode says he's ever worried about the survival of the species. But right now, he concedes, Congo has a bigger fight on its hands as the rebels, militias, and army continue hostilities.
Prince DE MERODE: The terrible tragedy that's affected the people of eastern Congo and of North Kivu in particular is the greatest tragedy that exists at the moment. And I think it should be at the top of everybody's agenda, whoever they are, to do whatever they can to resolve that issue above everything else, including the protection of the mountain gorillas.
THOMPKINS: On the ride back to Goma, the people along the side of the road look as if they could use some monitoring too, and more protection. In this natural paradise, they wear plastic flip-flops and rags. They are neither fat, nor relaxed. It cost $300 to see the gorillas. That's 30 months' salary for the rangers and more money than many here will see in a lifetime. The majority will never own a car or leave this place. And most Congolese across this vast nation will never see their own mountain gorillas. They will never know how truly rich they are. Gwen Thompkins, NPR News, Virunga National Park, Congo.