Gorillas: Kings Of Congo

CNN's Anderson Cooper Visits Endangered Mountain Gorillas

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This segment was originally broadcast on Dec. 9, 2007. It was updated on July 3, 2008.

The mountain gorilla may just be the world's most magnificent animal. But there are only about 700 of them left, and conservationists genuinely fear the entire species might become extinct.

Last year, when 60 Minutes first broadcast this report, at least ten mountain gorillas had been shot to death. This year there's no telling how many have been killed, because a civil war in Congo has kept park rangers from getting to most of Congo's gorillas.

Mountain gorillas live in central Africa in a forest that straddles Rwanda, Uganda, and the Democratic Republic of Congo, where a family of gorillas was massacred last summer. CNN's Anderson Cooper and 60 Minutes went to Congo, a desperately poor country, to see why those gorillas were slaughtered, why the surviving gorillas are in jeopardy, and what can be done to save them.

They act tough, but mountain gorillas are really gentle giants. They are playful, peaceful, highly intelligent, and one of our closest animal relatives. The gorillas live in families, each headed by an adult male called a "silverback" because of its distinctive coloring. Over the years, they've been gradually introduced to people, so scientists can study them, and taught that people won't hurt them. But this year, in Congo, humans have betrayed them. Mountain gorillas are under attack.

"They're extremely threatened in Congo. Threatened to the extent that we're worried about the survival of the whole population," Dr. Emmanuel de Merode, head of the non-profit group WildlifeDirect, explains. "The whole population could be destroyed. Could be wiped out."

WildlifeDirect helps pay the salaries of Congo's park rangers, who protect the gorillas. Dr. de Merode was with the rangers in July when they made their most gruesome discovery, finding the bodies of four gorillas who had been slaughtered in the dead of night.

"It was a terrible, terrible scene to witness," de Merode recalls. "It was our whole lives. Everything we were working for-that was shattered in front of us."

The dead gorillas were part of the Rugendo family. They were the first gorilla group introduced to humans. "We had spent time with that group. And it was, in many ways, a strong sense of trust," de Merode tells Cooper.

The first victim de Merode found was a female named "Safari."

"She was quite famous in many ways because she had just had a baby," he says. "And we had taken a photo in the days after she was born and that photo had been you know a real symbol of hope for us. And then to find her dead. And her baby nowhere to be seen, was gutting and for all of us."

Safari, de Merode says, had been shot twice through the chest. Her killers then poured fuel on her and set her on fire.

What was the scene like?

"There was a very, very strong smell," de Merode remembers. "Which for all of us will always remain. It went right through your clothes. Went to the back of your throat. It was everywhere. And it stayed with us physically for days afterwards."

The next day they found the body of the family's leader, a giant silverback named "Senkwekwe."

"We think he may have been shot and then chased into the forest. He had several bullet wounds through his chest," de Merode explains.

Asked if he'd ever seen anything like this, de Merode tells Cooper, "No, I hadn't thankfully. Nothing prepares you for the horror of a whole group that's been that's been massacred."

He calls it the worst day of his life, and so do park rangers.

Augustin Kambale couldn't believe his eyes. "I was thinking that I'm in dream," Kambale tells Cooper. "And still now, it continue to move in my head."

Kambale says he still thinks about the killing. "Still now I don't understand why people can kill gorillas," he tells Cooper.

In silence, rangers and villagers made stretchers and hoisted the gorillas up on their shoulders. They wanted, they say, to carry them out like kings. "It's to show people that you see how this animal is very, very important," Kambale explains.

So why were these kings assassinated? Simply, it seems, for charcoal. More than a million people in this area, practically everyone, use charcoal to cook their food. It's made by burning the trees in the gorillas' forest. They cover mounds of wood with mud and set it on fire, turning the ancient trees into brittle bricks of charcoal.