The bright red and yellow flower displayed on the outer fence of a house-hold compound or rugo. Signaled that fresh sorghum beer had been brewed inside. Big Nemeye, coming off an involuntary stint of sobriety for the census, homed in on the signal like a bee foraging for nectar. Soon he had negotiated several large bowls of umusururu for himself and each of the porters. The light brown liquid flowed down their throats as easily as the beer’s Kinyarwanda name flowed from their lips. Bill declined a proffered bowl because of his distaste for the sorghum chaff that came with the beer. With team spirits higher we continued Karisoke.
Near the base of Sabyinyo, the typically rich soils of the Virunga pied-mont gave way to a hard lava pan. Hollow thumping sounds revealed the presence of extensive natural tunnels below our boots. Nemeye commented without elaboration that many local people hid, and sometimes died in these caves during past times of troubles. Above ground, the shallow soils supported patches of grass between rocky outcroppings, providing a rare opportunity for herd boys in this region to grave their cattle. Bill assumed the same cattle would move illegally into the park once we had passed.
Beyond Sabyinyo the soils deepened and the land returned to its natural richness. Lush rows of potatoes and beans extended to the horizon, juxtaposed with large square patches of white pyrethrum flowers. It was an attractive landscape, set against the backdrop of towering volcanoes. Only the occasional Markhamia or Hagenia tree stood in mute testimony to the fact that all of this land had been torn and cleared from the park just ten years earlier.
WHEN RACHEAL CARSON published silent spring in 1962, the Western wildlife and human health.DDT emerged as a potent insecticide during the post-world war 11 chemical revolutions. It allowed American and European farmers to greatly expand their control over damaging insects and increase their yields of fruits and vegetables. But it also killed pollinators and other beneficial insects. It moved insidiously up the food chain to poison frogs, fish, birds and people. When politicians finally listened to the scientific evidence, DDT was banned and the race was on to find less toxic alternatives. Kenya was already growing pyrethrum, a daisy like flower that produced a natural insecticide called pyrethrum. With a new world market to satisfy, exports of pyrethrum skyrocketed. Kenya’s efforts to expand production, however, an up against its limited amount of high elevation land required to grow pyrethrum. Rwanda already grew some pyrethrum in the Ruhengeri region for gorilla tracking and there was more high land habitat in the park.
With money from the European development fund and no environmental impact assessment the Rwandan government rushed forward with a program to spur pyrethrum production. Twenty five thousand acres of lower elevation forest habitat were cleared from the Parc des Volcans in 1968 and 1969.Five thousand families were awarded five acre plots called paysannats, on which they were supposed to maintain 40 percent of their land in pyrethrum. In a country beset by chronic land shortages, it was a popular program among Northern Rwandans even if large blocks of the cleared land were illegally claimed by senior political figures from the region.
By the late 1970s worldwide demand for pyrethrum was already in decline. Western laboratories had succeeded in synthesizing several less toxic alternatives to DDT, with shorter and less problematic supply lines than those stretching all the way to land locked Rwanda. Local farmers adapted by ignoring pyrethrum production quotas and growing more marketable and edible white potatoes. Gorillas, too adapted to the loss of habitat by moving higher on the mountain. But with the lower park limit now at almost nine thousand feet, the gorillas were exposed to near freezing temperatures every night. Pneumonia already their number one cause of mortality would kill even more of the very young, old and sick. Though no one ever recorded how the gorillas had formerly used the area cleared for paysannats, it was certain that they had lost a part of the forest rich in many of their preferred foods including large areas bamboo.
It was impossible to stand at the end of that day and feel optimistic despite the positive census findings. The surrounding landscape looked as if people had been living there for centuries. Yet 40 percent of the Parc des Volcans 22 percent of the entire Virunga forest had been cleared in the past ten years. Habitat that had supported mountain gorillas for millennia had disappeared in a relative instant. Whatever the census numbers said, it seemed unlikely that there was enough habitat left for them to survive within the retreating park boundaries.
LIFE IN A SALAD BOWL
PUCK AND TUCK sat shoulder to shoulder, looking out over the field and thatched rugos that stretched to the south as far as the eye could see.
When Amy found a better vantage point, she could see that they were also eating thistle. But why had they walked out of the park and ventured almost thirty yards across open farmland to clamber up on that rocky knoll? Did they know that gorilla food was hidden in the midst of the unappealing potatoes and pyrethrum? Puck was barely nine, four years older than his brother tuck. Both were too young to remember the area before it was cleared from the park, but both were still young enough to let curiosity lead them on a reconnaissance run into new territory.
Amy had never seen any gorillas beyond the park boundary before. Now all she could do was imagine their motives perhaps the view on a rare clear day? And wait with some concern for them to rejoin the group. Within ten minutes, Puck and Tuck had finished their snack, ambled up the gully between two rows of potatoes, and slipped back into the forest. They would not visit the fields again while we were there.
APPLIED CONSERVATION RESEARCH was extremely rare in the 1970s.The few people committed to long term field work in African rain forest environments were almost all behavioral scientists. Jane Goodall and Dian Fossey were leaders in the field and their work fed an insatiable global appetite for information about the lives of chimpanzees and gorillas. As the plight of these species became increasingly clear, however so did the need for sounds information about how to save them. Amy’s study of mountain gorilla feeding ecology was designed to inform those responsible for gorilla conservation about these endangered creatures most essential requirements for survival.