PHOTOS: Saving endangered mountain gorillas in Rwanda

A silverback mountain gorilla named Segasira looks up as he lies under a tree in Volcanoes National Park, Rwanda. (Photo: Felipe Dana/AP)

KINIGI, Rwanda — Deep in the rainforest of Volcanoes National Park, a 23-year-old female gorilla named Kurudi feeds on a stand of wild celery. She bends the green stalks and, with long, careful fingers, peels off the exterior skin to expose the succulent inside.

Biologist Jean Paul Hirwa notes her meal on his tablet computer as he peers out from behind a nearby stand of stinging nettles.

The large adult male sitting next to her, known as a silverback, looks at him quizzically. Hirwa makes a low hum — "ahh-mmm" — imitating the gorillas' usual sound of reassurance.

"I'm here," Hirwa is trying to say. "It's OK. No reason to worry."

Hirwa and the two great apes are all part of the world's longest-running gorilla study — a project begun in 1967 by famed American primatologist Dian Fossey.

Yet Fossey herself, who died in 1985, would likely be surprised any mountain gorillas are still left to study. Alarmed by rising rates of poaching and deforestation in central Africa, she predicted the species could go extinct by 2000.

Gorilla trackers search for members of the Agasha group in Volcanoes National Park, Rwanda. (Photo: Felipe Dana/AP)

Instead, a concerted and sustained conservation campaign has averted the worst and given a second chance to these great apes, which share about 98 percent of human DNA. Last fall, the Switzerland-based International Union for Conservation of Nature changed the status of mountain gorillas from "critically endangered" to "endangered," an improved if still-fragile designation.

It wouldn't have happened without an intervention some biologists call "extreme conservation," which has entailed monitoring every single gorilla in the rainforest, periodically giving them veterinary care and funding forest protection by sending money into communities that might otherwise resent not being able to convert the woods into cropland.

Instead of decreasing, the number of mountain gorillas — a subspecies of eastern gorillas — has risen from 680 a decade ago to just over 1,000 today. The population is split between two regions, including mist-covered defunct volcanoes within Congo, Uganda and Rwanda — one of Africa's smallest and most densely populated countries.

"The population of mountain gorillas is still vulnerable," says George Schaller, a renowned biologist and gorilla expert. "But their numbers are now growing, and that's remarkable."

Children watch a drone flying near Volcanoes National Park in Kinigi, Rwanda. In 2005, the government adopted a model to steer 5 percent of tourism revenue from Volcanoes National Park to build infrastructure in surrounding villages, including schools and health clinics. Two years ago, the share was raised to 10 percent. (Photo: Felipe Dana/AP)

Once depicted in legends and films like "King Kong" as fearsome beasts, gorillas are actually languid primates that eat only plants and insects and live in fairly stable, extended family groups. Their strength and chest-thumping displays are generally reserved for contests between male rivals.

Every week, scientists like Hirwa, who works for the nonprofit conservation group the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund, gather data as part of long-term behavioral research.

If they see any health problems in the gorillas, they inform the staff at Gorilla Doctors, a nongovernmental group whose veterinarians work in the forest. The vets monitor wounds and signs of respiratory infections, but intervene only sparingly.

When they do, they almost never remove the animals from the mountain.

A silverback mountain gorilla named Segasira lies under a tree in Volcanoes National Park, Rwanda. (Photo: Felipe Dana/AP)

"Our hospital is the forest," says Jean Bosco Noheli, a veterinarian at Gorilla Doctors. When his team goes into the field to address a gorilla emergency, they must carry everything they might need in equipment bags weighing up to 100 pounds — including portable X-ray machines.

Schaller conducted the first detailed studies of mountain gorillas in the 1950s and early '60s. He also was the first to discover that wild gorillas could, over time, become comfortable with periodic human presence, a boon to researchers and, later, tourists.

Today, highly regulated tour groups hike in the Rwandan rainforest to watch gorillas.

Residents stand outside buildings as the sun rises in Kinigi, Rwanda. (Photo: Felipe Dana/AP)

Ticket revenue pays for operating costs and outstrips what might have been made from converting the rainforest to potato farms and cattle pastures. About 40 percent of the forest already was cleared for agriculture in the early 1970s.

"With tourism, the tension is always not to overexploit," says Dirck Byler, great ape conservation director at the nonprofit Global Wildlife Conservation, which is not involved in the Rwanda gorilla project. "But in Rwanda, so far they're careful, and it's working."

The idea of using tourism to help fund conservation was contentious when conservationists Bill Weber and Amy Vedder first proposed it while living in Rwanda during the 1970s and '80s. Fossey herself was skeptical, but the pair persisted.

"The wonder of the gorillas' lives, their curiosity, their social interactions — we felt that's something that could be accessible to others, through careful tourism," Vedder says.

A silverback mountain gorilla named Pato sits in Volcanoes National Park, Rwanda. (Photo: Felipe Dana/AP)

Figuring out the balance of how many people could visit the forest, and for how long, was a delicate process of trial and error, Weber says.

In 2005, the Rwandan government adopted a model to steer 5 percent of tourism revenue from Volcanoes National Park to build infrastructure in surrounding villages, including schools and health clinics. Two years ago, the share was raised to 10 percent.

To date, about $2 million has gone into funding village projects, chief park warden Prosper Uwingeli says.

"We don't want to protect the park with guns. We want to protect and conserve this park with people who understand why, and who take responsibility," he says.

The money from tourism helps, but the region is still poor.

Biologist Jean Paul Hirwa walks down a trail to observe mountain gorillas in Volcanoes National Park, Rwanda. Hirwa is part of the world’s longest-running gorilla study — a project begun in 1967 by famed American primatologist Dian Fossey. (Photo: Felipe Dana/AP)

Jean Claude Masengesho lives with his parents and helps them farm potatoes. About once a week, the 21-year-old earns a little extra money by helping tourists carry their bags up the mountain, totaling about $45 a month. He would someday like to become a tour guide, which could earn him about $320 monthly.

The obstacle is that most tour guides have attended college, and Masengesho isn't sure how his family can afford tuition.

"It's my dream, but it's very hard," he says. "In this village, every young person's dream is to work in the park." (AP)

Photography by Felipe Dana/AP

____________

This Associated Press series was produced in partnership with the Howard Hughes Medical Institute's Department of Science Education. The AP is solely responsible for all content.

See more news-related photo galleries and follow us on Yahoo News Photo Twitter and Tumblr.

Fabien Uwimana teaches French and English teacher at the Nyabitsinde Primary School in Kinigi, Rwanda. “The money that built this school comes from tourism,” he says. “More children today can go to school.” (Photo: Felipe Dana/AP)
A gorilla tracker talks on the radio as he monitors gorillas from the Agasha group in Volcanoes National Park, Rwanda. Each morning, his job is to locate the whereabouts of the 24-member gorilla family, then alert the park warden. (Photo: Felipe Dana/AP)
Julienne, 13, is a farmer in Kinigi, Rwanda. In 2005, the government adopted a model to steer 5 percent of tourism revenue from Volcanoes National Park to build infrastructure in surrounding villages, including schools and health clinics. Two years ago, the share was raised to 10 percent. (Photo: Felipe Dana/AP)
A silverback mountain gorilla named Segasira walks in Volcanoes National Park, Rwanda. (Photo: Felipe Dana/AP)
Children attend class at the Nyabitsinde Primary School, near Volcanoes National Park in Kinigi, Rwanda.(Photo: Felipe Dana/AP)
Urwibutso, Segasira and Pato, three silverback mountain gorillas, eat plants in Volcanoes National Park, Rwanda. (Photo: Felipe Dana/AP)
A silverback mountain gorilla named Pato sits in Volcanoes National Park, Rwanda. “The population of mountain gorillas is still vulnerable,” says George Schaller, a renowned biologist and gorilla expert. (Photo: Felipe Dana/AP)
Jean Claude Masengesho draws a silverback gorilla in Kinigi, Rwanda. He would like to someday become a tour guide, which would earn him about $320 monthly. (Photo: Felipe Dana/AP)
A gorilla tracker searches for gorillas from the Titus group in Volcanoes National Park, Rwanda. The trackers are the backbone of the entire conservation project. Their work enables the scientists, tour guides and veterinarians to find gorillas quickly. (Photo: Felipe Dana/AP)
Jean Claude Masengesho sits in his house during an interview in Kinigi, Rwanda. (Photo: Felipe Dana/AP)
Farmers work on their land near Volcanoes National Park in Kinigi, Rwanda. (Photo: Felipe Dana/AP)
A closeup of the chest of a silverback mountain gorilla named Segasira. (Photo: Felipe Dana/AP)
A silverback mountain gorilla named Segasira sits among plants in Volcanoes National Park, Rwanda. (Photo: Felipe Dana/AP)
Jean Claude Masengesho holds one of his many drawings of silverback gorillas in Kinigi, Rwanda. (Photo: Felipe Dana/AP)
A silverback mountain gorilla called Pato sits in Volcanoes National Park, Rwanda. (Photo: Felipe Dana/AP)
Children gather at a gorilla naming ceremony in Kinigi, Rwanda. (Photo: Felipe Dana/AP)
An infant female gorilla called Macibiri grabs plants from the top of a tree in Volcanoes National Park, Rwanda. (Photo: Felipe Dana/AP)
Gorilla trackers observe gorillas of the Agasha group as they play in Volcanoes National Park, Rwanda. (Photo: Felipe Dana/AP)
Jean Claude Masengesho, who earns extra money by helping tourists carry their bags up the mountain to see gorillas, sits with his mother in their home in Kinigi, Rwanda. (Photo: Felipe Dana/AP)
Jean Paul Hirwa walks down a trail to observe mountain gorillas in Volcanoes National Park, Rwanda. (Photo: Felipe Dana/AP)

_____

Download the Yahoo News app to customize your experience.

See more galleries from Yahoo News Photo: