BUKIMA, DR Congo (AFP) — High above the war-battered plain, a giant silverback gorilla ruminatively strips a plant of its leaves with green tombstone teeth. Five females nearby suckle their babies. The world can celebrate a small miracle in eastern Congo.
Park rangers greeted the primordial scene with hushed astonishment after hacking for two hours though the verdant gloom of the jungle Friday, the only sound the metallic ring of a machete on stringy vines and the din of insects.
In a clearing on the slopes of Mount Mikeno, a 4,500 metre (14,000 feet) -high volcano, a young blackback carefully picked insects and seeds from his brother's shaggy black fur. An impish new-born clung to her mother's back, fixing the interlopers with shimmering dark brown eyes.
Park director Emmanuel de Merode later described the discovery of five new-borns at the outset of a month-long census as "quite phenomenal", given that the endangered gorillas' habitat has long been a war zone.
"They've had a growth of about 11 percent in 10 years, less than two percent a year. To get five births in a group of 30 is about 15 percent growth. It's quite tremendous and very unusual," he said.
The infants are all war-babies, born in the 15-month period since CNDP rebels wrested control of the eastern gorilla-sector of Virunga national park from government forces in September 2007. The rangers they chased away lost all contact with park, home to 200 of the world's last 700 mountain gorillas.
De Merode, a government employee, pulled off a diplomatic coup this month when he negotiated directly with rebel leader Laurent Nkunda to allow his rangers to return to the park, and conservationists their first glimpse of the state of the endangered gorilla population here.
Friday's discovery "doesn't confirm anything about the population as a whole. That's what we're worried about and we'll only know that when the survey is completed in about three weeks' time," cautioned De Merode, adding that only two of the seven family groups in the park had been located to date.
Each group takes its name from the dominant male, or silverback. In this case the 200 kilogramme Kabirisi provided the assembled humans with a jolt of adrenaline as he crashed through the thick undergrowth, screaming and agitated, perhaps jealous of the attention being doted on his females.
The brief demonstration of dominance over, serenity returned. The giant pot bellied ape resumed his Buddha-like position, brushing salami-like fingers over a face fixed in an imperious frown.
"Kabirisi tends to be stand-offish a little bit, and lets you know when he's not happy," whispered park employee Pierre Peron.
While the adults were detached and contemplative, the young were curious to reach out to their human visitors. One juvenile twice rapped a journalist playfully on the leg before disappearing into a thicket.
Many of the rangers remained with the CNDP in the forest and maintained the gorilla watch, but De Merode pointed out that only the returning Innocent Mburanumwe, whose father was also a ranger, could identify all the gorillas.
He and his green-uniformed comrades made respectful low grunting sounds as they moved through the group, identifying each individual by their noseprints -- the wrinkles and marks on a gorilla's nose unique to each individual.
De Merode said that despite appearances, the imperilled gorillas could not have been indifferent to the battles that have raged around them.
"They were right in the middle of the war. Bukima (the closest ranger post) was on the front line and the fighting moved back and forth in that area," he said.
Eight gorillas were shot dead in the park last year. Kabirisi took over the group 10 years ago when the dominant male was killed by crossfire during fighting in 1998. Now it numbers around 30, but rangers will have to make repeated visits to each group to be sure.
Despite a ceasefire in the months-long fighting, tracer from a heavy machine gun streaked across the sky close to the rangers headquarters late Thursday. Answering gunfire rattled up from the valley, in what a ranger said was a clash between the CNDP and the Rwandan Hutu rebels based in the park.
Innocent and his comrades are happy to be back to offer their gorillas what protection they can.
"It's been a long time since I've seen my gorillas. I've missed them," he said, checking his notes and video before leading the group out of the forest and leaving the gorillas to their fragile peace.
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