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Sunday, January 15th, 2017 at
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I recently had the opportunity to travel to Virunga National Park in the Democratic Republic of Congo.
Virunga starts just 20 kms north of the city of Goma, and is one of the most spectacular national parks in Africa. It’s the oldest national park (1925), the continent’s first World Heritage Site and is probably the most biodiverse terrestrial protected area in Africa. And of course, there are mountain gorillas.
An encounter with mountain gorillas is profound and deservedly celebrated. When a silverback catches your gaze, the illusional barriers between us and the natural world that we have constructed in our minds come tumbling down. Sitting among a family of 12 gorillas in Virunga, I was powerfully reminded that I am also an animal, that I come from nature, that I am a tiny part of nature.
To me, gorillas are the chosen messengers, sent by the rest of the Earth’s wild animals to guide us back into their world, the world we have left and have done so much to destroy. If this is the case, then I can’t think of a more appropriate messenger. Gorillas are astounding creatures, more closely related to humans than any other creature besides chimpanzees and bonobos. They are, in many ways, a more admirable species than our own: mostly gentle (unless threatened), emotionally and mentally intelligent, protective of their family, and living in harmony with nature.
And yet there are no more than about 900 left in the wild. Why? One word: us. Gorillas epitomise the woes of the planet’s wilderness and wild animals. Massive increases in human populations, concurrent and unsustainable demand for natural resources, and political instability, wars and exploitation by corrupt governments (both local and Western)…these have all combined to create an extinction vortex for wild animals. And gorillas in central Africa are being sucked down along with so many other species. Or are they?
Mountain gorillas are, in fact, one of the great conservation success stories – for now.
I quote Jonathan Kingdon in his excellent Guide to African Mammals:
“In central Africa more than 90% of Eastern Gorilla’s recent habitat is now fields and surviving populations live in lands that were, until recently, marginal for agriculture. The takeover of what remains has been delayed because of a dawning realisation that walking amongs wild gorillas is one of life’s greatest privileges and an experience for which people from all over the world will pay handsomely. Gorillas have morphed from terrible cartoons of sub-humanity into a living and noble expression of humanity’s roots in nature.
Peasants from one of the most brutal killing fields in history now enjoy a level of well-being and contact with the outside world that was almost unimaginable. They owe their new-found prosperity and access to education to dedicated naturalists and scientists who persevered, and sometimes died, to convince global audiences that allowing gorillas to go extinct would dishonour humanity.”
Thanks to dedicated conservationists and researchers, their demise is no longer assured. I am in awe of the rangers in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Rwanda and Uganda who have given their lives to the protection of not only the mountain gorillas, but also the rest of the park’s natural wonders, as well as the local people, who have come to rely on the park for a sense of peace and stability.
People like Rodrigue Katembo and Andre Bauma are true heroes. Katembo was once a child soldier, who escaped a life of murder, put himself through university and is now warden in charge of protecting the volatile central section of Virunga National Park, where rebels are attacking rangers and locals. Bauma is the inspirational caretaker who looks after four gorilla orphans rescued from poachers. When the park was under attack from rebels, Bauma stayed to defend his gorilla family.
Katembo and Bauma are just two good people, along with the 600 odd other rangers of Virunga National Park, including the inspirational Emmanuel de Merode. (If you haven’t watched the move Virunga, then you should…its the best piece of impactful film making I have seen).
You can pay anywhere from US$200 (in DRC) to US$750 (in Rwanda) for a permit to spend just one hour with mountain gorillas in the wild. It’s probably the best contribution you can make to their survival, as all the money goes back into their conservation. The money generated from tourism has been the biggest single reason that we still can enjoy the privilege of sharing the planet with these remarkable creatures.
There are two species of gorillas: Western and Eastern gorillas, separated by the immense Congo River and the tropical rainforests.
The Western gorilla (Gorilla gorilla) lives west of the Congo and Ubangi Rivers, in Republic 0f Congo (not the same as DRC!), Gabon, Central African Republic and Cameroon. There are two subspecies of Western gorilla (diehli and gorilla), and their range is mostly lowland tropical forest.
The Eastern gorilla (Gorilla beringei) lives in a far smaller range, in DRC, Rwanda and Uganda, in the mountains of Virunga and Bwindi Forest. There are two subspecies: mountain gorilla (beringei) and Grauer’s gorilla (graueri). Some biologists theorise that the Bwindi population could be a third subspecies.
Enjoy the photos and the captions.
Where most trips to Virunga National Park begin. This is Goma, a city on the edge of Lake Kivu, on the border between Democratic Republic of Congo and Rwanda.
In the past, Goma’s lake waterfront and gentle climate made it one of the most popular holiday towns for Belgian colonial locals and visitors. From the air, the city seems serene, but the reality on the ground is very different, as Goma has sporadically fallen in the firing line of armies and rebel groups for the last 20 years.
Lac Kivu Lodge in Goma is a good place to begin and end your journey to Virunga. We travelled via taxi from Kigali in Rwanda to the DRC/Rwanda border (about four hours), then spent the night at Lac Kivu Lodge, before beginning our gorilla trek in Virunga itself the next morning.
Lac Kivu Lodge dining area
The view from Lac Kivu Lodge, looking out onto Lake Kivu. Despite its beauty and placid appearance, Lake Kivu is a deceptive body of water. Because of its location in the Albertine Rift (the western part of the East African rift), there are immense amounts of methane and carbon dioxide within the body of water. It is literally an “exploding lake”, and geologists have discovered evidence of biological extinctions around the lake, occuring about every thousand years or so, as large amounts of destructive gases are released. Today, if that happened, it would be catastrophic for the two million or so people living on its shores.
Early morning view from Lac Kivu Lodge. of a fishing boat coming back into Goma. Because of Lac Kivu’s proximity to volcanic geology, the water of the lake has a PH of 8,6 and so is home to comparatively fewer species of fish (just 28) than one would guess for a body of water this size (about 89km at its longest and 48 kms at its widest). There are several thousand fishermen who rely on the lake’s Tanganyika sardine, an introduced species of fish.
Lac Kivu is beautiful, and is located in a remarkably photogenic part of Africa, in the Albertine Rift. The lake lies at an elevation of 1 460 metres, at the base of a valley that is slowly being pulled apart by volcanic activity. Because of the elevation at relatively high altitude, the area’s climate is cooler than one would expect for a tropical region.
Goma is one of the Democratic Republic of Congo’s larger cities, with 1 million people living between the potentially toxic gases of Lake Kivu and the volcanic lava of Mount Nyiragongo, an active volcano about 18kms north of the city (seen here in this photo). Since 1883, the volcano has erupted at least 34 times, the most recent being in 2002, when lava erupted through a fissure on the southern flank of the volcano, flowing up to 1km wide through the city itself, reaching Lake Kivu. About 400 000 people had to be evacuated from Goma to Rwanda, and about 150 people died from carbon dioxide asphyxiation. The people of this gritty city have learned to live with both natural and political catastrophes. In 1994, millions of Rwandese people fled their country, coming to Goma to escape the genocide, which also sparked the first and second Congolese Wars in the late 1990s and early 2000s, the cause of 5 million people’s deaths, mostly from disease and malnutrition.
Mirroring the volatility of its volcanoes and potentially toxic lake, Goma’s political and conflict history has given it a lot of negative press. It’s easy to believe it’s a dangerous place. But it’s not – for now. Even though there are a few army vehicles on the roads, the city seems to hum to a peaceful tune. I found the people remarkably friendly, dignified and welcoming. Their spirit was a highlight of the trip, for me.
Mount Nyiragongo dominates the skyline of Goma. Lying just 20 kms north of the city, it’s a constant reminder of the volatility of the geology – and the politics of the area.
This cannon is on the road from Goma to Rumangabo.
The road north from Goma to Rumangabo, Virunga National Park’s headquarters. Although it’s only about 40kms long, it takes about two hours to drive. And within a few minutes, you soon get a sense of the challenges faced by conservationists. The road is terrible, with huge potholes. Trucks full of charcoal are regularly encountered, as are Congolese army and UN troop carriers. This is a place of immensely fascinating – and unsettling – contrasts. At first sight, it’s hard to believe that it is one of the world’s astonishgly diverse biological areas, with mountain gorillas living on the slopes of the dormant and active volcanos nearby.
Virunga is an apt name for the mountains and the park. The name comes from “ibirunga”, which means “volcanoes” in the Kinyarwanda language. This is Mount Nyiragongo (3 470 metres), seen from the road between Goma and Rumangabo, the park headquarters. It’s one of two active volcanos in the Virunga Mountains, which lie on the Uganda, Rwanda and DRC borders, between Lake Edward and Lake Kivu. There are a total of eight volcanoes, and for the record they are: Karisimbi (4 507), Mikeno (4 437), Muhabura (4 127), Bisoke (3 711), Sabyinyo (3 674), Gahinga (3 474), Nyiragongo, and Nyamuragira (3 058). Note that the two lowest are the only ones that are active.
The region’s wars and political instability has give the UN much oppportunity to parade their light blue uniforms. But depending on who you talk to, it seems that their presence has not always been that effective.
After about a two hour drive from Goma, we came to the Bukima ranger post within Virunga National Park, where we were briefed on the gorilla trek, and what we could expect. Most people speak French, as the DRC is a former Belgian colony. The briefing was in French, and my friend Gael translated for the group into English.
The map on the wall of the ranger post, showing the region, its volcanoes, and where the gorilla families are located. We walked from the Bukima ranger station (circled on the map).
The park boundary. There is no buffer zone here…there is farming and cultivation right up to Virunga National Park’s border.
As we set off on the gorilla trek, we walked along the park boundary, through farming fields, where local people are growing their crops. It’s clear to see how the mountain rainforest has been cleared for agriculture. The boundary of the park is obvious, and clearly there was once far more forest in the area. Charcoal production is a huge industry, and has caused a lot of ecological destruction.
Things are very, very green in Virunga’s southern sector, where most of the mountain gorillas live. Up to 2 500mm of rain can fall in the Virunga mountains ever year.
After about two hours of trekking on the slopes of Mount Mikeno, guided by two armed rangers, we met up with the trackers who had earlier gone out to locate the gorilla family.
The first solid evidence of gorillas. A very fresh dung ball!
And then we found them. The first gorilla I ever laid eyes on. He was a silverback, the leader of the family. He was about ten metres from us, feeding on some bark.
All the cliches and superlatives of gorilla trekking are deserved. When I saw this youngster hanging from the forest vines, my mind switched off, and my soul took over. No matter what you may have been thinking about previously that day, the presence of the gorillas dominate every cell of your being.
Trekkers are meant to stay at least 8 metres away from the gorillas, but because they are habituated to humans, they are very relaxed, and came within three or four metres of us. They are strictly vegetarian, eating mostly vines, wild celery and three or four other plant species. Perhaps due to their mountainous, cooler habitat, their diet includes less fruit than the Western Gorilla species.
Eye-to-eye with the silverback. Male mountain gorillas can reach 200kg in weight, and up to 1,9 metres in height. They are as intimidating in real life as these statistics suggest. They will defend their family to the death, and yet they choose to tolerate and even accept human presence (once habituated through regular visits by humans).
When I looked at this silverback, and he looked back at me, I saw a soul, and I forgot momentarily that we belonged to separate species.
Photographing gorillas can be tricky. There is a lot of contrast, between bright skies and dark forest, and the black fur of the gorillas just sucks up the little light that there is. The best conditions for photographing them are overcast skies, when there is even light filtering through the forest canopy. Mountain gorillas feed in the morning, and then have a midday snooze (very civilised, in my opinion). The gorilla treks tend to arrive just before midday, as the gorillas are settling down for a nap, so the sunlight can be harsh.
The silverback got up suddently and walked past us, where my friends Gael and Carishma were sitting. This photo – taken with a 16-35mm wide-angle lens – doesn’t do justice to the size of the silverback…my heart was pounding!
A baby rides the back of his mother, as the gorillas moved past us to a clearing nearby.
The eyes of the gorillas are just one anatomical feature that reminds us of ourselves…the feet and hands are equally powerful symbols of our relatedness. If you read Jonathan Kingdon’s Guide to African Mammals, you’ll learn that it is feet and hands that have defined the primate species’ evolution. We are who we are, and gorillas too, largely because of the role that our hands and feet have played in our evolution.
I see you. It’s hard to stay on our human pedestal when a gorilla catches your gaze.
Those hands…made me want to reach out and put my hand in hers.
Hanging on for survival. A baby gorilla rides underneath her mom as they walk past us.
Mom and baby. They are inseparable…and the love is clear to see.
Just like human babies, the youngsters are up for plenty of fun and games!
A young gorilla. As they get older, their eyes tend to darken.
Deep in thought. An adult female – the mother of the baby – staring back at me.
The feet and hands kept capturing my attention…
Maybe if more politicians and army generals went on a gorilla trek, there’d be fewer wars and conflicts…how does one stay angry when a baby gorilla looks at you like this?!
Family gathering. Mom, baby and teenagers in foreground, with Dad snoozing in the background.
No words needed. Those eyes say so much.
Post trek group photo. Thank you to Jean de Dieu-Bitamizac, Emanuel Bazimenyera, Theo Habimana, Dezire Kajambere and Richard Paluku for the memorable moments with the gorillas. The gorilla trekking industry is a big contributor of funds to the conservation of Virunga. Rwanda and Uganda’s permits are upwards of $600 per person, but in the DRC, you can pay as low as $200 depending on time of year and nationality of passport. This for an hour of gorilla viewing…but it’s so worth it.
Because Gael is friends with park pilot Anthony Caere, we were kindly hosted by Anthony in his home at Rumangabo, but we ate our meals and drank our beers at Mikeno Lodge, also at Rumangabo. Although not cheap (about $400 per room, for two people), it operates within a remote area, in a region where military conflict is not uncommon, and where supplies are difficult to source.
Scott Ramsay of Love Wild Africa is a photographer and writer in protected areas, national parks and nature reserves in Africa.
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