You can hear them, smell them and feel them, before you even visually encounter these majestic creatures. Our guides make continuous guttural noises to inform and reassure our hosts that we are approaching and that we mean no harm.
I am an animal enthusiast and base most of my travels around what wildlife I may see. I was well read on what to expect on this adventure, but nothing could have prepared me for the wildlife encounter that was about to come. Wildlife viewing, especially photography, is so unpredictable. You hope and pray that you will get that “once in a lifetime “ experience and so often it is not what was expected.
It’s been almost 6 years since I went to Rwanda to see the mountain gorillas. The experience was truly life changing. It’s difficult to put into words the overwhelming joy of seeing these creatures face to face. But when you look into those big brown powerful eyes I was completely moved.
Rwanda along with Uganda and the Democratic Republic of Congo are the only places on earth where mountain gorillas live. Nestled high in the mountains bordering these countries this area has been fraught with wars and turmoil for decades, creating an ever challenging environment for the last remaining mountain gorillas in their fight for survival.
My alarm when off far to early, having slept so little due to my anticipation I dragged myself out of bed. I could not help but marvel at the early morning mist that this area is so famous for. As our group clamored into the jeep that was to take us to the park entrance you could feel the excitement in the air. The trek took us through dense jungles that clung to the steep mountainside. As the guides hacked our way through the jungle thickets we knew this was not going to be an easy hike. Our guide had been informed that the trackers had spotted the gorillas and they were only a few hours hike away. We were very lucky to be assigned to the Susa group the largest but most remote of the gorilla families (some 30 gorillas at the time). Panting and having a hard time catching my breath I desperately peered through the jungle and there in the clearing I caught my first glimpse of the gorillas. The morning light peered through the mist just perfectly and lit up the gorillas. They had just emerged from the jungle into a clearing; it was one of those days where everything seemed to be on our side.
As we sat silently hunched down in the formidable jungle it seemed like there where gorillas everywhere you looked. Juveniles wrestled around beating their chests to show how tough they were, which soon led to them summersaulting down the mountain in a tangle of hands and feet. Moms with newborn babies eating right next to us as the magnificent silverbacks continuously surveyed their surroundings. These creatures were so incredibly gentle and were clearly completely comfortable with having visitors. It was incredibly overwhelming to see so many human similarities in the gorillas and it’s hard to imagine that we are so closely related to these gentle giants. It felt like minutes and the 1-hour we had (the maximum allowed time to visit the gorillas) was over.
After the atrocious genocide in Rwanda- still so fresh in many people memories it’s difficult to know what to expect when traveling in this area. The people were some of the most welcoming people I have ever encountered, and I felt completely safe at all times. At the base of the mountains where we stayed was a charming guesthouse on the edge of “Parc National des Volcans” where we would have easy access for our upcoming safari. Exploring the near by villages and meeting the inquisitive children it was easy to fell completely in love with Rwanda.
Gorillas are classified as critically endangered with only 880 left in the world. Since their discovery in 1902 the population has encountered years of war, poaching, habitat destruction and deceases contracted from humans. Rwanda being one of the most populated countries in the world is constantly battling competition for land. Continuous pressure for increasing farmland and deforestation from charcoal mining has taken its toll on “Parc National des Volcans”. You could see how apparent this was standing at the base of the mountains. The ever-encroaching farms and villages seemed to be creeping up the side of the slopes, leaving only the tops of the mountain for the wildlife.
Eco-tourism has recently played a huge role in the survival of the gorillas. Gorillas bring big business ($500 per person in 2009). With the constant efforts of the government and the parks they are trying to involve the local people and change the attitudes towards saving the gorillas. With the dedication of park rangers and community educational programs the gorilla population has increased 20% since the early 2000s.
I recently watched the Netflix’s documentary “Virunga” which inspired me to write this blog. Heroic individuals trying to save the gorillas and there environment fight huge barriers such as war, corruption and large European oil companies trying to exploit and destroy one of the last remaining habitats of the gorillas. Too often the media and day-to-day life focus on the negative stories, but for every horrific event there are thousands of people trying and succeeding to make a difference. These are the stories that inspire me.