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May 2004
Gorillas vs. Guerillas
By Beth Gould


July 1994
July 1994

I haven’t been to Rwanda in over two years, since before the revolution, the slaughters, and the terror. Not to say that there was not a significant amount of suffering happening during my visit. AIDS is rampant. There is, or was, a population explosion in Rwanda, which is a predominantly Catholic society, and birth control is not used in any widespread capacity. It is difficult to place the blame for the lack of birth control upon the Catholic Church because the logistics of education and distribution renders the situation close to impossible. Besides the huge number of people competing for a limited food supply, there was also the added tension of an extremely pervasive military presence. It was not unusual to see teenage boys with automatic machine guns guarding government offices. There was almost no visible commerce; in fact, there were so few shops or markets of any kind that it leads a visitor to wonder where, in the capital city of Kigali, people get their food or earn their living. It is the answer to this question which introduces the Mountain Gorillas of Rwanda.

Much of Rwanda is situated on rainforest land, very dense and mountainous up to about 10,000 feet. Rainforest land, while it is fertile, is not ideal for farming, especially in high altitudes. But because of the large population, people are forced to cut down the rainforest to increase their gardens in order to feed themselves and their families. This rainforest, which provides a meager living to humans, is also the home of the remaining five families of gorillas living in their natural environment. Because of human encroachment on this habitat, the government was forced to make much of the rainforest into park land, in an effort to protect the decreasing population of gorillas. This also fostered tourism, helping a stagnant economy.

It is easy to be sympathetic to the people who did not obey the restrictions imposed by the government upon rainforest usage. They were starving, their children were starving, and how could farming one more foot of rainforest land adjoining their crops hurt the gorillas? After all, it might provide enough food for one more mouth. So they farmed, and the rainforest was decreased, offering less space for the approximately 200 gorillas remaining. This was the situation when I went to Rwanda to see them.

The protocol for a tourist to view the gorillas was to register with the park commission, who would assign a guide to lead the group to where one of the families was last seen. I had the opportunity to see the largest family, which happens to be the one studied by Dian Fossey. The guide is trained in tracking the gorillas as well as indicating to the male, or silverback, that the human group is no threat to the females or the young. At first we thought that the guide carried a gun in case the tourists were attacked by a gorilla. But the reason for the weapon was if the tourists were ambushed by a water buffalo, who tend to hide in bushes, and are aggressive towards humans. If a gorilla were to attack a human, even fatally, no shots would be fired. Because they are an endangered species, it is better to lose a human life than an animal life.

The most shocking realization, after ascending an 8,000 foot mountain, through dense rainforest, having seen plants and insects more breathtakingly beautiful than any I could have imagined, was how similar humans are to gorillas. Everyone has heard stories of gorillas displaying behavior that we equate to human traits, but to stand in the center of a wilderness and see these enormous, upright primates, with the same expressions on their faces as me, to see them holding hands, scratching their heads, getting angry and playing, was a vivid reminder of where humanity came from.

Rwanda had an eerie feel about it. Perhaps it was the mist that clung to the mountaintops, the abject suffering of the human population, the pervasiveness of the military, or the precarious position of the gorillas. In light of the massacre and slaughter that was soon to take place it is no wonder. It is a frightening specter for animal advocates that the largest remaining families of gorillas reside today in the same mountains as rebels and guerillas. All of the anthropologists who were studying the gorillas and running the conservation center have been sent out of the country for their own safety, and no one knows how many gorillas have been killed, or if any remain. The conservation center is now reduced to rubble. Enormous numbers of Rwandan refugees are now traveling over these very mountains to safety in Tanzania. These people are starving and frightened. The suggestion that animal conservation should be important to them is farcical.

It seems that the fighting is not going to end soon in Rwanda. We must hope that the fear and desperation of the Rwandans will end, and when it does, that some of the gorilla population remains intact. But I believe the most important lesson of Rwanda is that those who care for animals must care most for peace. Right now the cause of protecting endangered species is primarily the interest of those in the luxurious position of being well fed, and not in fear for our lives.

I believe that the real struggle in this movement is to make the preservation of endangered species a real political necessity. I have no answers for how to convince a guerrilla who is carrying a machine gun not to shoot anything that moves in the brush and I can’t, when trying to put myself in that position, even begin to believe or fathom how to convince someone not to kill an animal to feed themselves or their families, or to answer why they should have to make that choice. The real lesson of the revolution in Rwanda is that it is nearly impossible to make people value an endangered species when they believe that they themselves should be on that unenviable list.

Editor’s Note: Despite the human blood shed, the mountain gorillas of Rwanda have survived and their population actually increased because both sides of the conflict agreed that the gorillas were a crucial asset.

Beth Gould is the Publisher of Satya.



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