Get face to face with human being’s close relative and help safeguard its future in the process.
The 1988 film “Gorilla in the Mist” not only has created a great deal of awareness about the dire conservation status of mountain gorillas, it has also inspired a vast cross-section of ordinary travellers to get close and personal with the largest primate on earth that shares 98% of our DNA.
The film was based on the book of the same title written in 1983 by Dian Fossey (1932-1985), a great American primatologist who spent 18 years studying mountain gorillas extensively in the high mountain forests of Rwanda. She was unfortunately murdered in 1985 but her good works have inspired the authorities of the three countries in which mountain gorillas are found to step up their conservation efforts to ensure the survival of this close relative of ours.
There are two species of gorilla: western gorilla (Gorilla gorilla) and eastern gorilla (Gorilla beringei), each with two subspecies. Mountain gorillas (Gorilla beringei beringei) are one of the subspecies of eastern gorilla. All gorillas are critically endangered.
Mountain gorillas are found at altitudes ranging from 2,300 to 4,500m above sea level in the southern area of Virunga National Park in the Democratic Republic of Congo, in the Volcanoes National Park in Rwanda, and in Uganda’s Mgahinga National Park.
There are now 20 habituated family groups of gorillas in Rwanda’s Volcanoes National Park, and these family groups are divided into 2 categories. Habituated gorillas are used to the presence of human beings and do not feel threatened when being observed. The first category of habituated gorillas consists of ten family groups which are strictly accessible to scientists and researchers only. The second category also consists of ten gorilla families but they are accessible to tourists who have to trek one to three hours on mountain slopes of varying degrees of difficulty to reach one of the family groups. Only a maximum of 8 people may visit each gorilla group each day and spend not more than one hour with the group.
A LONG OVERLAND JOURNEY
I was part of a 14-member Malaysian team that came to Ruhengeri in mid-December 2017 to say hello to a Mr. Silverback and his family. Ruhengeri is the principal city of Musanze District in Northern Province of Rwanda. It is very close to the Volcanoes National Park. Some people now prefer to call the city Musanze after the name of the district. This is in line with the policy of renaming Rwandan cities in an attempt to minimise the impact of the terrible memories of the 1994 genocide that traumatized the whole nation.
Our team consisted of mainly my siblings and their family members. My wife and our younger son were also part of the team. We had spent 8 days travelling in a special safari truck from Nairobi, the capital of Kenya, to Ruhengeri, visiting national parks and other places of interest in Kenya, Uganda and Rwanda on the way.
In Kenya, we spent 1½ days making 3 excursions into the world-famous Masai Mara National Reserve to view the millions of wildebeest, zebra, gazelle, buffalo, giraffe, elephant, hippopotamus, rhinoceros and other herbivores as well as carnivores such as lion, leopard, cheetah, hyena and jackal, not forgetting the few hundred species of avifauna that also share that unique ecosystem.
AN EXTRAORDINARY NATIONAL PARK
In Uganda, we visited Queen Elizabeth National Park within the Great Rift Valley. In addition to seeing more wildlife, we also came across a large herd of Ankole long-horned cattle just outside the park. With horns several times larger than those of other breeds of cattle, a long queue of Ankole on the march is definitely a most impressive sight indeed. We also visited the most interesting Kazinga Channel that links Lake Edward and Lake George. The channel is a dominant feature of Queen Elizabeth National Park. It has one of the largest concentrations of hippos in the world. During our channel cruise that lasted about 2 hours, we observed a large number of buffaloes sharing the shallow water with the hippos. There were also thousands of birds of different species on the adjacent beach.
We put up a night at the beautiful Lake Bunyonyi before crossing the border into Rwanda. On our way to Ruhengeri, we visited the Genocide Memorial in Kigali, the capital of Rwanda. It is the largest among half a dozen memorials constructed throughout the country to remind the Rwandan people of the horrible genocide that started on 07 April 1994 and lasted for 100 days, resulting in about one million deaths and about two million refugees in neighbouring Democratic Republic of Congo.
Early in the morning on our second day in Ruhengeri, two 4WD vehicles took us from our hostel to the Volcanoes National Park Headquarters in Kinigi Village 9km away. We met many other tourists in a pavilion. There was a 30-minute cultural performance on the garden lawn. And then there was a heavy but brief downpour.
Our team was split into two groups. I was part of the first group of 8 persons going for a trek of medium difficulty. The other group, made up of 6 of our ladies plus an elderly couple from England, was going for an easy trek. After rain, my group, together with our guide Francis and the driver, squeezed into a 4WD vehicle meant for 7 persons and we left for the trail head a short drive away. The altitude there was about 2,300m above sea level. We started to trek up Mt. Sabyinyo —- the toothed mountain distinctively visible from the road, at 9 in the morning.
IN SEARCH OF GORILLAS
It was a gradual rise between fields of “pyrethrum”, a herbaceous plant bearing prominent white flowers which the villagers dry and use as mosquito repellent. The plant’s stem is used to treat stomach upset. Village children greeted us. After about one hour of pleasant walk, we came to a stone wall at the top edge of the village. Two gorilla trackers and a rifle-carrying scout were waiting for us there. Francis reminded us of all the dos and don’ts vis-a-vis the gorillas. The rules have been introduced mainly to minimise stress and transmission of human diseases to the gorillas.
Beyond the stone wall was a dense montane forest with thick undergrowth. The trail was narrow and very muddy at places because of the daily rain. I kept brushing against stinging nettles and got stung despite wearing long-sleeved shirt and long pants.
About 40 minutes later, we caught sight of our first gorillas. It was a mother on a huge tree branch covered with epiphytes, carrying her 4-month-old baby on her back. Nearby on the forest floor was a black-backed male busy eating the roots and stem of some plant. He was the number 2 male in the 9-member family group known as Titus Group. And Titus was one of the Silverbacks studied by Dian Fossey.
We spent quite a while observing that black-back from barely 3m away. The terrain and thick vegetation did not allow us to strictly observe the minimum distance of 7m stipulated in the code of conduct. A juvenile was actually with the black-back all the while, but I failed to notice it until it stood up and walked past us to look for its mother.
Finally we saw the silverback by the name of Pato. He was the son of Titus and elder brother of the black-back, and was the alpha male of this family group. Like his brother, Pato was feeding on the forest floor. Then he probably became a bit irritated by being watched so closely by a group of human beings and decided to climb up a large tree.
Although we only saw 7 members of this family of gorillas within the one hour we were allowed to spend with them, I personally believe the experience was worth the US$750 each of us had paid for a permit to get close and personal with a gorilla family.
GORILLAS NEED HELP
The International Union for Conservation of Nature has listed all 4 subspecies of gorilla as critically endangered. Mountain gorilla as a subspecies has received the widest international attention mainly because of Dian Fossey’s works and the movie “Gorilla in the Mist”. Major threats to the gorilla’s survival include poaching, civil wars, illegal animal trade, human infectious diseases, and habitat loss and fragmentation.
Since the three countries in which mountain gorillas live put aside their differences and cooperated to draw up an effective programme for the conservation of the primate, their success stories have received positive international response and gorilla tracking has become a much coveted ecotourism item in the bucket list of every traveller worth his salt. More and more people are willing to dig into their pockets to pay the hefty price for a permit just to be in close proximity of a gorilla family in the wild.
Part of the collection from the sale of permits is used for the conservation of the gorillas, and a significant part of it goes to the communities living on the fringes of the national park, including development projects such as sustainable agriculture and water supply, and the payment of compensation to farmers whose crops have been damaged by buffaloes or elephants. With tourist dollars trickling down to the very people who live in such close proximity to the gorillas, poaching is greatly reduced.
Other conservation efforts in place include an educational outreach programme to enhance awareness of the importance and benefits of peaceful co-existence with the gorillas and other wildlife, and a mountain gorilla veterinary project to vaccinate dogs, cats, cattle and goats to reduce infectious diseases that may spread to the gorillas. The veterinarians also monitor the health of gorillas, treat sick ones and carry out post-mortem on dead gorillas to establish the cause of death.
The conservation efforts have been so successful that the population of mountain gorillas in Volcanoes National Park has increased from 450 in the last count to about 1,000 at present.
My travel story “Gorilla in the Mist” has been published in the April 2019 issue of Calibre.