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A Conservation Triumph:
The Mountain Gorillas of Rwanda

by Eugene Rutagarama

Eugene Rutagarama was the 2001 winner of the prestigious Goldman Prize for Conservation for his conservation work with the mountain gorillas.

Kuryama, a mountain gorilla. Picture courtesy of the Dian Fossey gorilla foundation.The mountain gorilla (Gorilla beringei beringei) is one of the two most endangered apes in the world (with the Cross River Gorilla, Gorilla gorilla diehli). There are only approximately 655 mountain gorillas alive today, and all of them are found in the wild. They only exist in two small, protected afromontane forest patches in northwest Rwanda, southwest Uganda and eastern Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC).

The two forest patches in which mountain gorillas are found effectively divide the 655 into two distinct populations. One population, in Uganda, is found in the Bwindi Impenetrable National Park (BINP), covering about 330 km2. The other population inhabits the Virunga Volcano Region, which sits across the international borders of Rwanda, Uganda and DRC. The Virunga Volcano Region (VVR) is ecologically homogenous, but separated into three national parks, in three countries: Mgahinga Gorilla National Park in Uganda, Volcano National Park in Rwanda and Virunga National Park in the Democratic Republic of Congo, covering an approximate total area of 300 km2 .

The mountain gorillas live in stable family groups with a dominant silverback male, his harem of females, and their offspring. The silverback male is usually the father of the offspring, although the younger males will take an opportunity to mate with a female if the silverback is not looking. They are not ferocious creatures but are, on the contrary, very peaceful. They only become aggressive if one of their group is perceived to be threatened. 

The threats to the mountain gorillas and their habitat are many. Poaching, pressure on the land for agriculture, unsustainable harvesting of wood for fuel, construction and other human activities all threaten the habitat of the gorillas. Furthermore, humans are potentially a source of disease that, once transmitted to gorillas, could devastate the population. 

During the last 10 years, the gorilla habitat has been endangered from a different quarter, it has been the fighting ground for official and non-official armed groups: government security forces, rebels and militia.

The Rwandese Patriotic Army (RPA) and the former Rwandan government forces were fighting in the Virunga Volcano Region(VVR) during the years 1990-1993. One gorilla was killed during those years in the Volcano National Park. After the war and genocide, the many landmines in the park posed a serious threat to the gorillas. The International Gorilla Conservation Programme (IGCP) required the technical support of RPA to demine the park.

The refugees fleeing Rwanda were settled near the Virunga national Park in DRC where about 10,500 hectares of park were destroyed and four gorillas killed in August 1995. From 1997 to 1999, the ex-Rwandan army and the extremist militia regrouped, intent on recapturing control of Northwest of Rwanda. The insurgency which followed in the region forced more than 50 % of the population of the Ruhengeri district to spend several months in the VVR, a move which brought waste to the VVR, the human faeces being a source of contamination and disease to the gorillas. In1999, in BINP (Uganda), the same Rwandan militia killed 8 tourists. Fifteen gorillas were killed in the Great Lakes Conflict.

Eugene Rutagarama became involved in the conservation of gorillas in 1990 as the counterpart of the Director of Karisoke Research Centre in Volcano National Park. The Karisoke Research Centre (KRC) was founded by the late American athropologist Dian Fossey in 1968 who was killed in 1985. The centre is now run by the Dian Fossey Gorilla Funds, a United States NGO. While Eugene was making an ecological study of the regeneration of bambous and Hagenia, two very common trees in the Volcano National Park, the Rwandese Patriotic Front, a rebel political movement of Rwandese diaspora attacked Rwanda in October 1990 forcing him to abandon his research, the park and his country for an exile of 3 years. 

Eugene Rutagarama returned to Rwanda after the genocide, with a mission to protect and conserve the mountain gorilla. In an unstable country and in the face of many dangers, this is his story of conservation. Next Page.

Please enter here for his full story.

More information: 

African Wildlife Foundation:

Fauna and Flora International:

World Wide Funds for Nature:

Photo of Kuryama the Mountain gorilla courtesy of the Dian Fossey Gorilla Foundation International. Visit their web-site at

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