We actually made radio contact with Richard this time and asked him to
bring a few researcher tools: the identification notebook, a scope or binoculars and a
Busch Gardens shirt if possible. You have to think visual for the camera. We will meet in
Lijombo at 1:00. Rather than take the road going to the Bai, we figured the road between
towns would be smoother. We soon discovered that the truck threw us around in the back as
much as ever. It also acted as a weed-whacker as the lush green of Africa grew close on
both sides of us with no room to spare. Natives would jump into the bushes to avoid being
Tina and Richard had arrived moments before and were waiting to be processed through "customs." (Picture an old plywood multi-room shack with a dirt floor, a bench and a couple of chairs.) Unfortunately, they had to endure the government extortion process again as they attempted to enter C.A.R. for the day. It took almost an hour at the first location, then off to the local police office to make the obligatory payment. Luckily Richard was an old hand at all this and completed the process in record time. It was wonderful finally seeing Tina; she was definitely thinner but otherwise great. And, Richard was not the scary looking guy I first saw on the video Tina sent back.
We had a lot of filming we wanted to accomplish before dark. On the way back the ride went quickly as we listened to Tina and Richard talk about their home base and research. We could tell Tina was so happy - she loved this life with the gorillas and was so passionate about the work they were accomplishing. She told us about Vince, a gorilla she met by herself on the path one day. She immediately crouched and pretended to feed on nearby plants. Calmed by this behavior, Vince sat down about 20 yards away and also began to feed. As Tina attempted to leave, Vince became agitated, so she resumed the calm picking of leaves and pretend chewing. Vince stayed beside Tina for over an hour before he moved off. Tina said it's one of the greatest experiences of her life.
After arriving back at Doli, checking Tina and Richard in, changing into clean clothes for filming and heading out, we had only about 1 ½ hours before dark. We taped interviews with both of them and then a conservation video for Myombe Reserve, an attraction at Busch Gardens Tampa Bay. One more series of questions for a Zoo News Network piece and we were done.
Talking with both of them before, during and after dinner, we discussed many topics from funding research to the bushmeat crisis. Richard has been studying gorillas for eight years, experiencing the culture and attitude of Africa through the unbiased mind of a person who does not come from a prior science background. His opinion of the future of the gorilla is not good. He sees human encroachment continuing to get worse. The mountain gorillas in the Virunga Mountains, Rwanda, now live within a relatively small area surrounded by people and farming. The mountain gorilla population is estimated at a sparse 600 individuals.
I have always found primates, especially the great apes, very appealing. It has something to do with the intelligence factor: they use tools, strategize for social benefit, play with their young, and have even been taught sign language to communicate with researchers. And they are like us in so many ways. Gorillas form stable family groups with a large male "silverback" (so called because of the mature silver colored hair) leading and protecting the group. Bonobos, a type of chimpanzee, may be our closest relative and have a unique social structure which we are just beginning to study. Yet now, many species are endangered. Even gorillas and chimpanzees are hunted for food and souvenirs. The mothers are killed, butchered and eaten, the babies sold if a buyer can be found. Their rainforest home is being overrun by an ever growing human population, even in these remote areas. There are only about 600 mountain gorillas left in the world, and we continue to encroach upon their remnant habitat. There are more lowland gorillas, the ones we had come to observe, maybe 50,000 in all of Central Africa, but with logging, farming, hunting and poaching, they could all be gone within the next 50 years. Here in Africa, I had found a world in which large land animals still have a place to live like they have for thousands of years. But that is rapidly changing. We used to have a similar world in North America with millions of bison roaming vast plains, being preyed upon by wolves and other predators. Bears and cougars kept deer and other species numbers in check. We decimated these populations because of fear and competition for resources. But now, we are trying to restore many of these species to some of their original habitats. Nature has an incredible, miraculous, long term system to make it all work. We are merely tinkering with something we know little about. And now Africa is fighting the same battles. The complexity of the issues are overwhelming, but the results of in-action are unthinkable. Thats why the work of these dedicated field researchers is so important - informed decisions will need to be made by local governments if these animals are going to survive.
What conservation plans are the best? Will
it matter? Ultimately, we have to think we will be able to strike a balance between the
needs of wildlife and healthy habitat and the human race. There are no easy answers and
it's often discouraging. But so far, there are two things which I can think of that
absolutely will help and need to be more directly addressed: limiting human population
growth and expanding education. These two things are especially important in third world
countries. Each research project, environmental and animal group, zoo, aquarium and TV
documentary is important for gathering and disseminating information. But in order to
prevent the eventual total destruction of our earth's rain forests and other ecosystems,
we need to face the key issue-population growth in areas with an already overtaxed
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