VIRUNGA NATIONAL PARK, dRC // High above the war-battered plain, a giant silverback gorilla strips a plant of its leaves with green tombstone teeth. Five females nearby suckle their babies. The world can celebrate a small miracle in the eastern Congo. Park rangers greeted the primordial scene with hushed astonishment after hacking for two hours though the verdant gloom of the jungle last 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-high volcano, a young gorilla - known as a blackback - carefully picked insects and seeds from his brother's shaggy black fur. An impish newborn clung to her mother's back, fixing the interlopers with shimmering dark brown eyes. The park director, Emmanuel de Merode, later described the discovery of five newborns at the outset of a month-long census as "quite phenomenal", given that the endangered gorillas' habitat has long been a war zone in the conflict-ridden Democratic Republic of the Congo.
"They've had a growth of about 11 per cent in 10 years, less than two per cent a year. To get five births in a group of 30 is about 15 per cent 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 the rebels drove away lost all contact with the park, home to 200 of the world's last 700 mountain gorillas.
Mr de Merode, a government employee, pulled off a diplomatic coup when he negotiated directly with the rebel leader Laurent Nkunda to allow rangers to return to the park, and to allow conservationists their first glimpse of the state of the endangered gorilla population. The 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 Mr 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, in this case a 200kg silverback called Kabirisi, who provided the assembled humans with a jolt of adrenalin 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 gorilla resumed his Buddha-like position, brushing salami-like fingers over a face fixed in an imperious frown.
"Kabirisi tends to be standoffish a little bit, and lets you know when he's not happy," whispered a 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 rebels in the forest and maintained the gorilla watch, but Mr de Merode pointed out that only the returning ranger Innocent Mburanumwe, whose father was also a ranger, could identify all the gorillas. Mr Mburanumwe 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.
Mr de Merode said that despite their calm 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 his group 10 years ago when the dominant male was killed by crossfire during fighting. Now the group numbers around 30, but rangers will have to make repeated visits to each group to be sure of how they are faring.
Despite a ceasefire in the months-long fighting, tracer from a heavy machine gun streaked across the sky close to the rangers' headquarters late last Thursday. Answering gunfire rattled up from the valley, in what a ranger said was a clash between the CNDP and Rwandan Hutu rebels based in the park. Innocent Mburanumwe 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. * Agence France-Presse