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How to aid rare gorillas -- and Rwanda economy, too

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Accompanied by two guides and a rifle-toting guard, we hike across miles of rich farmland below the rugged slopes of the Virunga Volcanoes, then hack our way with machetes through a tangle of bamboo, choking vines, and giant stinging nettles.

After an hour's ascent, one of our guides motions a halt. He crouches and emits a deep sound from his throat as he edges forward.

Out of dense undergrowth comes a similar response. It's a greeting from one of Rwanda's mountain gorillas -- a species that faces extinction unless today's efforts to preserve it succeed.

Rwanda, like many developing countries, faces the dilemma of feeding its own rapidly growing human population from a limited amount of productive land. In addition, this country's progress depends heavily on foreign exchange earned from the export of coffee, tea, cotton, and other cash crops.

But for the mountain gorilla, each acre placed under cultivation reduces the size of his habitat and increases the possibility of irreversible extinction.

In 1960, approximately 450 mountain gorillas, the rarest of the three species of gorillas, lived in the Virunga Volcanoes of Rwanda, Uganda, and Zaire. By 1978 the number of these peaceful, introverted vegetarians had dwindled to 270. For some 245 remaining creatures, survival seems more a question of economics than compassion.

In 1960, the Volcanoes National Park was created in Rwanda to conserve the unique flora and fauna of the region. In 1963, mounting economic pressure caused the Rwandan government to turn over more than one-third of the park to agriculture. The gorillas' world became suddenly much smaller. Even there, he is not safe.

Rwanda's native tribesmen, in their efforts to make a living from the land, further limit the gorillas' chance of survival. The pygmoid Batwa tribe hunts within the park for duiker, a small red, forest antelope, incidentally forcing gorillas to move higher up the slopes. In addition, snares set to trap small game often injure or kill a gorilla. Another threat is the Western demand for souvenir gorilla heads, skulls, and hands -- as well as for baby gorillas to stock zoos.

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