This past weekend, my wife and I were fortunate to travel to Rwanda and Uganda to spend some time with one of the world’s most endangered animals, the eastern mountain gorilla, Gorilla beringei beringei, in Uganda’s tiny Mgahinga Gorilla National Park.
It was awesome.
Mountain gorillas are are a subspecies of the Eastern Gorilla and are listed as critically endangered according to the IUCN Red List. Our guides told us there are only 680 individuals left in the wild. They’re found only in Uganda, Rwanda, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), where they live in dense primary, i.e. uncut, rainforest and bamboo forests between 600 and 2,900 meters above sea level. The IUCN claims that the major threats to mountain gorillas’ survival are poaching, habitat loss and fragmentation, climate change, civil unrest (especially in the DRC), and climate change.
Unfortunately for the gorillas, growing human populations in the surrounding areas have pushed farms farther and farther up into the mountains, dividing the forest habitat the gorillas depend on into two separate ‘islands’ of montane forest. This human encroachment prevents the remaining gorilla populations from interacting with one another, minimizing gene flow and increasing inbreeding.
Such genetic isolation can contribute to the process of speciation if both populations are large enough and have enough resources to thrive for many generations. However, large mammals with relatively long gestational periods need fairly large populations to ensure sufficient genetic diversity. Mountain gorilla pregnancies last about 8.5 months, and they only have babies about once every 4 years, which is a big part of the reason why the tiny populations found in Rwanda, DRC, and Uganda are critically endangered.
And now for a few words on Rwanda.
During our brief time in Rwanda, we visited the Kigali Genocide Memorial, where about 259,000 people are buried in the middle of town. I was working on my undergraduate degree when the Rwandan genocide happened in 1994, and I have clear memories of watching events unfold on television. But that doesn’t begin to do justice to the horrors of a million people losing their lives in the span of 100 days. During the genocide, roughly 10,000 acts of murder were committed Every. Single. Day. Most of those acts were by hand, with machetes, hammers, clubs, and axes, directed against neighbors, coworkers, teammates, classmates, and family members. It’s astounding. Twenty three years later, Rwanda is basically an entire country suffering from PTSD.
The Kigali Genocide Memorial doesn’t only focus on the events that shaped this small East African country – it also explores the Armenian genocide at the hands of the Ottoman Empire, German atrocities committed in Namibia at the start of the 20th century, the Khmer Rouge regime in Cambodia, ethnic cleansing during the 1992-1995 Bosnian War, and of course the Jewish Holocaust of World War 2. Overall the museum and the memorial are really well done, discussing the attitudes and actions that lead to genocide, as well as detailing the way Rwanda has seemingly successfully recovered from it. If you have the chance, I highly recommend a visit.