Who would have thought that a country, once the seat of a horrific wave of genocide, where 800 000 people were brutally massacred in the space of only 100 days, is home to one of the most gentle and rare of animal species, the Mountain Gorilla – 95% genetically human, and struggling to fight back from the brink of extinction.
Stretching some 80 km across the densely populated borders of the Congo, Uganda and Rwanda, lies the Virunga Mountain Range, meaning Volcanoes in Swahili, not surprising as the range is home to a chain of 8 volcanoes, 6 extinct and 2 dormant. The Virungas have always been cloaked in mystery. Lying in the heartland of the legendary King Solomon’s mines and shrouded by endless blankets of mist, they were said to be the home of plant eating men, rampaging beasts and cousins of “King Kong”. As a result, European visitors did not dare venture in the Virunga’s until the 1890’s. In truth, the range is quite spectacular and today, a sought after tourist destination. Early in the morning the range sighs beneath its cloak of mist and in the late afternoon, disappears under a thick haze. And it is here, on the slopes of these high volcanic formations that both man and gorilla cohabit.
However, this sense of co-habitation has not always been the case. Before the 1994 genocide, gorilla tourism (made famous by such researchers as Dian Fossey,) was Rwanda’s third-largest source of foreign revenue, after coffee and tea exports. Foreign influence had convinced local governments that gorilla eco-tourism would be a valuable resource and so in 1979, the Mountain Gorilla Project was established to habituate gorilla groups exclusively for the purpose of tourism. As a result, tourism visits escalated to 7,000 per year with each tourist paying $100 to spend an hour with the mountain gorilla in their own habitat.
All that came to a grinding halt during the period 1994 to 1999 when ongoing fighting between the Hutu-led government and Tutsi rebels threatened the gorilla population. At least 18 of approximately 324 gorillas being killed. The national parks were closed to tourists; park officials fled and the rare mountain gorilla were left to fend for themselves from poachers seeking them out for bush meat and medicinal purposes, protected only by the odd park ranger determined to remain and try to make a difference.
Tragically, a second serious threat in addition to poaching existed, namely,habitat loss. The rich volcanic soil of the Virunga mountain range is a highly sought after commodity in terms of farm land, and so over the years, the locals gradually pushed their farming endeavours further and further up the mountain. As pointed out by Dian Fossey, the Gorilla is being forced to survive in a high altitude habitat, at much colder temperatures where they are more prone to illness. Fortunately with the rise in Gorilla tourism, regional conservation efforts have managed to halt the situation, and ensure that the farm lands do not encroach any further, on the Gorilla habitat.
And so it is at altitudes above 2300m, in the areas of Bwindi, Mahinga and Volcanoes National Parks, that the now 700 odd rare mountain gorilla live in several families, under the ever watchful eye of 80 dedicated rangers.
Gathering at park headquarters each day, beneath the early morning mists, are about 70 excited tourists, armed with camera’s and video equipment, each having paid the increased fee of $500 for the chance to spend just one hour with the Gorilla.
At Volcanoes National park in Rwanda, a total of 56 permits are issued each day. Visitors are divided into groups according the gorilla family they have been allocated to and after a short briefing by the head guide, take off by vehicle to various starting points at the base of the mountain.
Here, amidst the potato plants and cultivated lands, one heads up towards the fringes of the forest. On our first day of trekking we went to visit the Sabinyo group, a group of 11 mountain gorilla headed up by one of the largest Silverbacks of all of the families, Kahunga, weighing in at an astounding 220kg’s. We were fortunate to be tracking the group with a guide called Digirinana Francois, who habituated Kahunga and has been working with the Gorilla long before the Genocide. During the period of fighting, he was one of the many dedicated rangers that remained behind to protect these magnificent creatures, despite ongoing threats by the rebels.
Standing at the edge of the forest, Francois educated and entertained us with stories of how the gorillas survive, the plants they eat and even demonstrated how they manage to strip a prickly thistle of its thorns before consuming it. Here is a man so passionate about ‘his Gorilla’s’ that the hour long wait at the base of the forest from the park rangers whisked by in an instant. And then we heard it, the radio call Francois had been waiting for to say that the rangers had located the group, and into the forest thicket we headed.
The time it takes to reach the gorilla is variable, and can be anything from 10 minutes to 5 hours. In places, the vegetation was so thick that Francois had to hack his way through with a panga. Stinging nettles line the paths and the smell off rotting vegetation hangs in the forest air. The crisp silence was stifling, broken only by the sound of feet crunching through the undergrowth and in place, thick mud. Minutes tick by drowned by the sounds of the constant radio calls, as Francois headed straight up to the park ranges in the middle of the dense forest. Anticipation mounted as he instructed us to have our last drink of water, last snack and toilet stop, and to leave all bags and cases with the rangers. And in the blink of an eye, we found ourselves heading deeper into the lush forest.
Nothing can prepare you for this most miraculous experience. Crackling branches, soft calls and sounds and suddenly, the thick bamboo thickets separate to reveal the most gentle of all creatures. Our first sighting was of Kahunga himself, sitting high up in the bamboo almost 2 metres above us, stripping the leaves off the branches. Knowingly, he gently turned his head towards Francois, while the two of them engaged in a conversation of guttural sounds. Then, Kahunga slowly turned back to his meal, unthreatened, calm. Within minutes, the rest of his family came into view, amongst them a number of small juveniles engaged in adolescent play. Bounding through the bamboo, they pulled on each others hair, climbed on top of each others backs and swung from the branches, merrily beating their chests before they came crashing down.
Park regulations stipulate that tourists should maintain a 7m distance between them and the Gorilla, but so curious are the youngsters that it is not uncommon to find one swinging past in an attempt to touch your hair. And for that matter, even the adults will venture towards you. Hearing endless instructions from Francois, “stand up,” “move back, “sit down”, at one point our group sat in a semi crouch, watching Kahunga as he kept a careful watchful eye on one of his females breastfeeding his baby. Then he turned, slowly walked towards the group and headed directly toward me. Amidst Franois’ reassurance “it is all right, don’t worry”, Kahunga gently moved the man beside me away, brushed passed me and stood gazing back at the group from only a metre away, proof that although the mountain gorilla are strong and exceptionally powerful, they are essentially gentle creatures.
Gorilla families, live in groups of between 2 and 40 individuals, each led by a dominant male known as the silverback, named for the silvery grey hairs that grow when the male matures, in addition to the tall mop of hair that develops almost like his ruling crown. No different to a King, he decides when and where to forage, rest and sleep, arbitrates disputes among his family members and protects them from danger. With an ever watchful eye, Kahunga kept close tabs on every member of his family from wives to siblings to offspring. Most females, give birth to their first young around the age of 10, and in their life time, will produce between 2 and 6 babies of which only half will survive into adult hood.
360 seconds, 60 minutes, 1 hour. Strange how a life time of memories can be captured in such a short space of time. Time seems to stand still with the Gorilla. Perhaps it is because we are in their territory, uncluttered by the speed with which Western Civilisation races through its day, unconscious of the things that matter most. Here, each second is about foraging, family and fun, protection and most of all, survival. Modern day clocks have no place in the forests of Rwanda, in the habitat of the Mountain Gorilla. And yet, so quickly it is over and the call to leave is heard above the calm of the forest. Soon we found ourselves back at forest headquarters, being issued with our Gorilla Tracking certificates and saying our fond farewells to Franois.
Back home, I cannot feel anything but envy of the role that park rangers like Francois have to play. A once war torn ravaged country, considered by many be to a third world uneducated population, they are now doing more to protect their most precious creatures, than many of us racing about in our pollutant vehicles, with all the resources at our finger tips to actually make a difference. As I sit here reflecting on my journey I realise, that in all the hours I work to gather so called precious commodities to make my life more meaningful, nothing will ever come as close, as the one hour I spent in the company of the Magnificent Mountain Gorilla.