We first arrived at Karisoke in early 1978. Digit, a young silverback made famous in films, had been killed a few weeks earlier and his death hung over the research station like a shroud. More deaths would follow in the months to come. Mweza, Quince, Uncle Bert, Macho, Kweli, Frito, Lee. Some were shot and gruesomely beheaded. Some suffered slow, painful deaths from trap wounds. Frito and Mwelu died of infanticide, but only after poachers killed Digit and Uncle Bert and destabilized the family structure. Quince died naturally, but just as the beautiful 8-year-old was entering her prime. We had come to help save mountain gorillas, but we buried far too many.
A dispassionate analysis might note that gorilla deaths around Karisoke in the late 1970s were just catching up with the rest of the Virunga range. Our census of 1978–79 confirmed earlier declines in the total gorilla population and highlighted the elimination of subpopulations on the forest's eastern and western extremes. The most dramatic losses between 1973 and 1978 were on Mount Mikeno, across the Congolese border within sight of Karisoke. These deaths could not be attributed to habitat loss, since they were in areas where none had occurred. Given no evidence of widespread disease, poaching must have claimed a high percentage of the 200 gorillas missing since George Schaller's pre-Independence survey in 1960. Yet serious habitat losses had occurred, too, especially in Rwanda. More than 50% of the Parc National des Volcans had been cleared for human settlement and agriculture, driving the gorillas higher into the mountains where they were exposed to greater cold and the effects of disease, with less food and shelter to sustain them.