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Mrithi - 1968-1992

The death of a famed mountain gorilla raises crucial questions

THERE is a profound silence in Africa just before the dawn, when the creatures of the night have finished their shift and the creatures of the day have not yet begun. The noise of 15 or 20 men marching through the forest must have made a terrifying contrast to that silence. Mrithi would have sounded a warning shout to them that they were in his territory.

The patrol that found his body estimated that the attack must have come at about 4 a.m. Local farmers on the very edge of Rwanda's Parc des Volcans said they heard many gunshots at about that time.

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But sounds of gunfire are not uncommon in that tiny toupee of a forest on the top of the extinct volcanoes that mark the border between Rwanda and Zaire. Since August of 1990, the army of Rwanda has been trying to repel an invasion of ethnic Rwandans of the Watutsi tribe who have been in unwilling exile in Uganda for more than a generation.

Mrithi was shot while sleeping, surrounded by his family of 11, but managed to drag himself, mortally wounded, two meters toward the unseen enemy before he collapsed and died. Protecting his family, including three newborns, would have driven him to ignore his pain. He was the patriarch, the silverback, of Group 13. He was a mountain gorilla.

Let me tell you about Mrithi as I knew him. Fewer than 600 mountain gorillas (gorilla gorilla berengei) remain on Earth - some say as few as 31. They inhabit forests in the high regions of Zaire, Uganda, and Rwanda. Dian Fossey, and George Shaller before her, made the Rwandan gorillas famous through their writings.

Gorillas die of many causes and the loss of one would seem to be the same as another. But Mrithi was special, and the needless snuffing of his short, noble life leaves a void we will not soon see filled.

I remember Mrithi when he was called to leadership but did not want it. Group 13 was one of the first to be habituated to tourism at the end of the 1970s. I met them first in about '79 or '80, shortly after Mrithi's father, the former silverback, had been killed by poachers while the group was on the Zaire side of the border. The Parc des Volcans is quite small and very narrow in places, so the gorillas often cross from one country to the other as they forage.

It was obvious from his reluctant behavior that Mrithi had seen his father's death and wanted no part of a job with such hazards. Although he was a strapping young adult, already beginning to show the silver coloring along his back that marks a leader, he tried to hide behind every leaf of bamboo and blend into the background. If nominated, he would not run, if elected, he would not serve was clearly his view. Meanwhile, the old female, Zahabir, mother of the irrepressible 3-year-old Mtoto, did her best to lead the family.

Mrithi was only 11 at the time. In the normal course of events several years would have passed before he would press for a leadership role. But poachers set the rules in his world, and Mrithi found himself slowly accepting the role that was thrust on him. He was still very tentative the second time I visited his group. He constantly moved the family to avoid remembered danger.

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Yet as the years went by, Mrithi gained extraordinary courage and composure. He magnificently fulfilled the task he inherited. Group 13 came to be known as the best group to visit because they were so calm and stable, and there were almost always new babies to see.

Craig Sholley, African Wildlife Foundation's last resident director of the Mountain Gorillas Project, estimates that Mrithi's family alone brought more than $500,000 in tourist revenue to Rwanda each year.

Because of Mrithi's remarkable mellowness, he was featured in many films about the mountain gorillas. On television or in films such as "Gorillas in the Mist," the silverback we see is Mrithi.

And now he is gone. At this early date, just a few weeks since his death, it appears that a younger male, Ukwacumi, has taken over leadership of the group. It is fortunate this young male took the baton. Otherwise Group 13 would have been fair game for the nearby Sabinyo silverback who only has two females in his group. He would surely have killed the infants in Group 13 so that the females would breed with him.

What happens next? Will the political disputes of men, however valid in their own right, continue to pillory the earth? Will voice after voice like Mrithi's be stilled in useless slaughter. Must the precious and dwindling resources of this tiny Earth of ours be given in hostage to the short-term conceits of disputing nations?

Or can we rally at the death of Mrithi? Will we say among ourselves that our time of ignorance has passed? That we will no longer pretend the resources of the earth are limitless and that we have no responsibility for the future? Shall we now assume, as Mrithi did with reluctance but noblesse oblige, the role that has been assigned to us? Shall we now say that the concerns of men must be the concerns of the Earth?

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