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Poachers kill rare mountain gorillas in raid for rich collector

By Jane Flanagan in the Virunga Mountains, Rwanda
(Filed: 30/06/2002)

The endangered mountain gorillas of Africa have suffered a devastating lethal attack by poachers, believed to be acting on the orders of a wealthy Western collector.

Two adult females were killed - the first deaths from poaching in 17 years - and a three-year-old animal stolen in a night attack on the slopes of the Virunga volcanic mountain range in Rwanda.

A male gorilla was shot and wounded as it tried to defend the group, and a year-old infant which escaped capture was found by rangers a day after the attack, trying to suckle its dead mother. Interpol is trying to trace the missing gorilla.

Two suspected poachers were arrested last week in connection with the attack which occurred last month.

Twelve other people have also been held, including three local businessmen who are thought to have been acting as intermediaries for a rich outsider with a desire to own a gorilla.

"Some of the suspects say they had received an order for baby gorillas," said a local police official, Supt Tony Kuramba. "There must be a good market for baby gorillas.

"Poaching carries a double risk - being killed by the mother or being arrested by the police. You don't expose yourself to such risks unless there is a great deal of money involved."

The deaths of two breeding-age females and the theft of a baby is a severe setback in the struggle to save the species, whose plight was first highlighted by the American primatologist Dian Fossey - a story featured in the Hollywood film Gorillas in the Mist.

The last census, carried out 10 years ago, estimated that there were only 650 left in the world, of which about 350 were in Rwanda.

"The population is so fragile that every individual lost is significant in terms of the viability of the mountain gorilla," said Katie Fawcett, a researcher working in the region.

The rare creatures are Rwanda's biggest tourist attraction. Only 30 tourists are allowed to visit the gorillas per day, each paying £200 to spend an hour observing the animals in their natural habitat.

"Mountain gorillas are truly precious," said Emmanuel Werabe, a director of the national parks authority.

"If people are prepared to pay so much money for just one hour with the gorillas you can only imagine how much someone will pay to own one. Perhaps they will pay many millions of dollars.

"There aren't many people in the world who have that kind of money. It is the people in the West who have the wealth and the biggest passion for the gorillas.

"The people who did this were most likely acting on the orders of a dealer, who himself was acting on behalf of a wealthy private client, possibly wanting a baby for a personal collection."

Mr Werabe said it was "very unlikely" that the captured baby was still alive, since no mountain gorilla has ever survived in captivity.

The poaching deaths are the first since 1985 - the year Dr Fossey was murdered, probably by poachers, after a long and successful battle to protect the creatures from such hunting - and the parks authorities have now stepped up security. Of the 14 people arrested, however, five are national parks employees.

Dr Fossey's campaign and the formation of national parks stifled local demand for gorilla meat and trophies by promoting the animals' standing as a source of national pride with the ability to create far more employment and income than poaching had ever done.

The attack, however, highlights a dilemma for conservationists by exposing the vulnerability of those gorillas that have become accustomed to human contact. Tourists visit only a handful of the family groups in Rwanda, and the animals targeted by poachers were in one of these groups.

Mr Werabe said: "Rwanda needs tourists and the gorillas bring in the tourists. The parks stay open because of income from tourism and so the gorillas can stay in their natural habitat. Without the tourists, we would not be able to prevent the extinction of the mountain gorillas."

24 January 2002: Gorillas that the Congo volcano missed
27 September 2000: Great apes extinct in 20 years, say experts

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External links 
Mountain gorilla - African Wildlife Foundation
Creature features - National Geographic