Face to face with the Mountain Gorilla
It was an idea that almost seemed too far-fetched to be possible when we first thought of it back home. But as we found ourselves on a plane from Nairobi to Kigali, with all the necessary arrangements in place, the reality of it began to dawn on us: We were finally on our way to the misty jungles of Rwanda to see our close evolutionary cousin and one of the most elusive and magnificent creatures on earth – soon we would be face to face with the mighty Mountain Gorilla.
“Mzungo” means “White man” in Swahili
Primate Safari – Day 1-2
It took nearly three weeks to arrange it, and when we settled in our nice bungalow in Arusha at the end of our safari around Northern Tanzania, we had very little idea of how to proceed. We had begun some research, but it was a bit difficult to figure out exactly who to contact and how to arrange all the necessary transport and permits needed for a safari into Volcanoes National Park, where the gorillas live. We soon decided we would be better off finding some help, albeit more expensive. Luckily, the manager at Pamoja Lodge where we stayed in Arusha, Mr Boniface, was very nice and helpful, and as soon as we told him of our plans he offered his help.
One quick phone call, and a couple of days later we met with Raymond from a small company called Kilele Afrika, and the process had begun. After almost three weeks, spent in Arusha and Nairobi, the plan was set. Visas had been obtained, an itinerary agreed upon and payments made. It may seem like a long time, but as they say: TIA – This Is Africa. Things take time here, and usually people plan safaris like these months in advance from home, as permits to enter Volcanoes National Park where the gorillas live are very limited – only ten groups of maximum eight people are let into the park each day.
Arriving in Rwanda
We had no idea of what to expect of Rwanda. Our knowledge of the country mostly came from the genocide and the pictures of horror that spread across the world and made this small country famous in the nineties. We had read that a massive effort of recovery had been undertaken, and that Rwanda is now regarded as an example of development and political stability in the region, but still our expectations were not high. But as soon as we entered the airport in Kigali, we immediately saw that this was something different from what we’d become accustomed to in Africa so far. Not only was the airport newly renovated, clean and well organised, but an air of calm and order surrounded the place.
This was quite unlike the mayhem we witnessed in Nairobi International Airport that same morning. There, things were completely out of control as people scrambled like mad to get through the “security check”, which basically meant everyone throwing their luggage into the X-ray machine at the same time and rushing through metal detectors that were constantly beeping, without triggering so much as a shrug from the “security” guards. (This, however, is completely in keeping with the general situation in the Kenyan capital as we saw it – a place where traffic lights are considered decorations, roadsigns mere ornaments, and rules only vague guides to be followed or not as one sees fit.)
Outside of the airport we were greeted by a very friendly man who introduced himself as Tarzan. His real name was later revealed to be Tharzisse, but he preferred Tarzan (probably because of the obvious effect it provides as a nice ice breaker when meeting new clients). The impression we got at the airport continued as we drove through the city centre, along pristine roads, beautiful parks and clean and litter free sidewalks. All around there was construction going on and new buildings popping up. Tarzan explained that more or less every building we could see were built in the last twenty years, after the civil war, and that the renewal was still going on all over the city.
The next day we set out on the drive towards Ruhengeri, at the foothills of the Virungas, close to Volcanoes National Park. The contrast between the predominantly dry and dusty landscapes of dry-season Eastern Africa, and the green and rich hills we now saw as we drove through the lush Rwandan countryside, was striking. The roads were nicely paved and well constructed most of the way, and already at two-thirty in the afternoon we reached Kinigi Guest House, a short walk from the park headquarters, and our home for the next two nights.
Surrounded by a nice garden, and with a view towards mist covered green hills and mountains, Kinigi was the perfect place to relax and prepare for our safari into the jungle the next day. We took a short walk in the area, and after dinner retired early to our room – we had to report at the park headquarters no later than 07:00 the next morning to receive a briefing from the gorilla trackers. To put ourselves in the right mood, we watched Gorillas In The mist right before going to sleep, the famous movie about Diane Fossey and her unique study of the mountain gorillas that took place right here in these mountains.
The following morning we got up early, prepared our backpack, and went to the cafeteria, where a very nice breakfast was waiting for us. We sat down among a few other guests and enjoyed our tea and toast in relative quiet – it was very early not only for us. As it came closer to 07:00 we watched as the other guests left and got into their cars, heading for the park. We hadn’t seen Tharzan, and walked out to the parking lot to look for him there. No sign of the man. A french couple asked if we wanted to drive with them, but we were sure Tharzan was coming shortly so we declined.
We waited for a while, and as the clock showed 06:57 we began to feel anxious and asked a member of the staff if they had seen him. They hadn’t, but had noticed his car had been gone all night. They went to his room and knocked on the door. A couple of very long moments later, a very tired man finally got out of his room. He’d met up with some friends in the village the night before, and apparently it had been a late night. We were not impressed, but at least now we were on our way. We decided we’d walk over to the park headquarters, while Tharzan drove ahead to pay the park fees and fill in the register.
The Gorilla Briefing
As we walked along the road towards the headquarters, surrounded by green forests, corn fields and exotic morning birds, we could hear the sound of tribal beats coming from behind the trees ahead of us, getting louder as we came closer. Turning a corner we could see a large round wooden pavilion filled with people watching a show of traditional Rwandan dance. We were offered tea and found a spot to enjoy the show. There was an atmosphere of excitement and expectation in the air – everyone here had come a long way, and payed a large sum to get a glimpse of the Gorillas. After the dance the crowd started slowly to dissipate and form smaller groups. Again, we were unable to locate Tharzan, and felt a bit lost for a moment when we seemed to be the only ones not assigned a group. Suddenly he appeared, and guided us towards a small group of only three people standing out in the grassy field. This should be good, we thought.
We introduced ourselves to the other people in the group; a couple from England and another british woman travelling alone. After a couple of minutes, our young guide Alfred and his apprentice came over and began the briefing. Alfred was a perfectly sweet and funny guy, with an obvious love for the animals he was about to guide us to. He explained a bit about how the park and the treks are arranged, and then told us a little bit about the specific group of Gorillas we were about to visit. There are about nineteen Gorilla groups in the park, of which only nine have been habituated to humans to allow for visits of up to maximum one hour. The rest of them are only accessible to researchers and scientist. Armed rangers spend almost all their time in the jungle, following the gorillas from a distance as they move around going about their lives. This protects the animals from poachers, as well as makes it possible for guides to locate them.
After the briefing we took a short drive to a meeting point closer to where we’d begin our trek. There, locals gathered to offer us their services as porters, and hand out walking sticks for loan. We had been told it was considered good practice to hire a porter, if only to support the local community, and so we did, and our trek could begin. In the beginning it was fairly easy, as we walked up gentle slopes along cultivated land at the bottom of the mountain foothills. Farmers lifted their heads in the fields as we passed, and every few minutes we would hear children call at us from doorways in small houses; “hellooo!”. We’d greet them back with the same, they’d answer back again, and so it would continue until we no longer could see or hear each other. Slowly the hills got steeper, and after a while we had reached the end of the farmland.
Into The Jungle
A thick and overgrown stone wall marked the border to the park, and behind the wall was another wall – a wall of wild rainforest vegetation that seemed impenetrable. Somewhere in that jungle we would, hopefully, find the gorillas.
Alfred communicated with someone on a walkie talkie, and soon, out of a narrow opening in the wall appeared two park rangers. Now, we prepared to enter the forest, and Alfred gave us a quick course in Gorilla speak by imitating a sound they make that calms them – a bit like a low clearing of the throat – and told us how we should behave in their presence. Then we walked over to the opening in the wall and made our way in. With the rangers in front, cutting trough the thick vegetation with machetes, we slowly moved deeper into the tropical forest, between huge African Redwood trees up to twenty meters high, giant Lobelias and thick overhanging vines. Sometimes the thicket was so dense we had to crawl straight through it in a tunnel cut by our machete-wielding frontman.
As we got deeper into the jungle, the hills became steeper and the humidity higher. The morning sun lit up the mist hanging between the trees, creating a mysterious and dreamlike atmosphere – this was a real jungle and it was incredibly beautiful. Detracting somewhat from the pleasure of the experience, however, was the stinging nettles that grow between the wet bushes and grass we were walking in. Although we had prepared for it by stuffing our pants into our socks, they somehow managed to sting us through our clothing, and it was quite painful. We had no idea of how long the trek would be, that would depend on where the gorillas were, and now we were starting to feel the effect of the exercise on our bodies. But soon, our discomfort and exhaustion would be completely forgotten.
Suddenly Alfred signalled to us to stop and gather closer in a clearing. The trackers had located the Gorillas not far from where we were. The excitement moved like a quiet wave through the group. Leaving everything behind except our cameras, we slowly and in complete silence made our way towards the trackers. We could hear them, making Gorilla sounds somewhere in front of us. Someone pointed a finger, and then we saw him. Sitting peacefully between the bushes, quietly eating leaves, was the unmistakable black and silvery back of a silverback Gorilla.
Magical Gorilla Hour
Soon we located two more gorillas nearby. We watched them for a little while until they started to move and the guides signalled us to come to the other side of a large tree to see the family better. Scattered in the bushes were two silverbacks, two adult females and three young. They seemed completely at ease in our presence, and continued to eat, only once in a while looking up to check on us. “OK, so we’ll start the clock now. One hour”, Alfred said. We moved closer to one of the silverbacks, very close, and now we sat only a couple of meters from him as he slowly picked leaves from the bush, ripped the stems off and carefully folded them into a nice veggie sandwich. We watched in amazement at the peacefulness of this amazing beast, his large and wrinkly hands moving with such gentle precision, and his kind and deep dark eyes looking at us with a curious, almost inviting gaze.
The fog was hanging thick in the jungle this day, and after a while it started to rain. This triggered a sudden spur of activity among the gorillas, and they started to walk towards the big tree nearby for shelter. The silverback in front of us suddenly raised and moved to follow the rest, revealing his full size. Our hearts raced. “Step aside, please”, Arthur commanded in a low but firm voice, but we were already instinctively stepping backwards to give way to the large creature passing right in front of us. Just as the group reached the tree, a conflict broke out between the youngsters, they screamed and jumped around. Apparently a fight broke out, one bit the other, and the silverback stepped in to brake it up. With everyone else going over to the tree to watch the squabbling gorillas, Beate was still out in the clearing. Suddenly, one of the small gorilla youngsters appeared from the bushes and passed right next to her, walking only inches from her leg on his way to the group.
Big, Friendly Giant
We sat down around the tree where the gorillas were now huddled together, sheltered from the drizzling rain. Two of the youngsters were curled up against the silverback who was holding his big arms around one of them, to provide some comfort. In Gorilla families, caring for and nurturing the young is a task that often falls upon the adult males, and it was incredible to witness the gentle attention given to the small youngsters by this huge silverback. On a large root on the far side of the tree, however, the other kid who was in the fight sat alone, pouting and looking very sad.
We walked back to the clearing to find one of the females sitting alone in the tall grass, arms wrapped around her legs and her head bent slightly forward, obviously not enjoying the dismal weather conditions. We wondered why she didn’t join the others under the tree, and Arthur said it was probably because the others wouldn’t let her for some reason. Gorilla life is obviously filled with all kinds of social challenges, much like our own. A little further away we found another member of the group sitting on a fallen dead tree, bending down to eat the fungi growing on the rotting log. He seemed to enjoy it very much.
Peace and tranquility once again prevailed in the jungle, and in our group of gorillas, as the rain reduced to a light drizzle. Now we only had fifteen minutes left, so we went back to the tree. We sat there for the final minutes, quietly observing, marvelling at the magnificence of this creature.
The similarities between the gorillas and ourselves, in their looks, their body language, their behaviour and their thoughtful gaze, is uncanny. You cannot help but feel an instant bond to them and an intense sense of awe and wonder as you watch them while pondering their close kinship with us humans, and the sadness of their situation in Central Africa.
The Mountain Gorilla
The mountain gorilla is one of the two subspecies of the eastern gorilla. There are two populations. One is found in the Virunga volcanic mountains of Central Africa, the other is found in Uganda’s Bwindi Impenetrable National Park. As of November 2012, the estimated total number of mountain gorillas is around 880. Since the discovery of the mountain gorilla subspecies in 1902, its population has endured years of war, hunting, habitat destruction and disease—threats so severe that it was once thought the species might be extinct by the end of the twentieth century.
(Wikipedia and worldwildlife.org)
Gorillas in peril
Mountain gorillas are considered critically endangered by IUCN’s Red List. Not only are mountain gorillas threatened by loss of habitat due to human encroachment, they have also become victims of human violence. As civil war rages in Africa, efforts to conserve mountain gorilla populations have been curtailed.
The war in Rwanda in the early 1990s and years of civil unrest in the Democratic Republic of Congo have sent waves of refugees into the region around the Virunga Mountains parks, leading to poaching and destruction of gorilla habitat. Parts of the park have been taken over by rebels, making survey and conservation work difficult and dangerous. Since 1996, 140 Virunga rangers have been killed in the line of duty.
As humans have moved into areas near mountain gorillas, many as refugees from civil wars, they have cleared land for agriculture and livestock. Even land within protected areas is not safe from clearing—in 2004, for example, illegal settlers cleared 3,700 acres of gorilla forest in Virunga National Park.
Gorillas that come into contact with humans can be vulnerable to human diseases, which gorillas experience in more severe forms. They can even die from the common cold. However, studies have found that mountain gorillas that are regularly habituated with researchers and tourists have survived better than unvisited gorillas; they benefit from the greater protection available in those areas and from regular monitoring.
Inside gorilla habitat in Virunga National Park, people harvest charcoal for use as a fuel source in cooking and heating. This charcoal production—an illegal, multi-million dollar industry—has destroyed gorilla habitat. There is little to no direct targeting of mountain gorillas for bushmeat or pet trade, but they can be caught and harmed by snares set for other animals.
(www.worldwildlife.org and animalfactguide.com)
Learn more and help save the mountain gorilla!
Visit WWF and learn more about this amazing creature, and how you can help their effort to save them from extinction by symbolically adopting a mountain gorilla for yourself!