When you think of Rwanda, what is the first thing that comes to mind? I bet it’s gorillas, and hardly surprising as these are very special creatures that have become synonymous with the fight to protect endangered wildlife. I have just returned from a trip to experience meeting the gorillas for myself and I was completely blown away.
Rwanda’s mountain gorillas inhabit the spectacular Virunga Mountains within The Parc National des Volcanoes (PNV), an area covering more than 125 sq km. The PNV is home to five volcanoes, all extinct and covered with dense vegetation that includes significant amounts of bamboo forest. Bamboo is hard to trek through but it’s the Mountain gorillas favourite food so it has to be done in order to reach the goal of a sighting.
On the morning of my gorilla track, everybody congregated in the park headquarters at 7am. Here we were warmed up by a ‘blow-your-socks-off’ cup of Rwandan coffee, as a traditional Rwandan dance group entertained us. Once everybody had assembled, we were allocated into one of eight groups, introduced to our guide and given a briefing on how to behave when close to the gorillas – a sort of ‘gorilla etiquette’! We then set off on our hike up the mountain. One of the most enjoyable things about all of this preparation is that you don’t know quite where the gorillas are going to be. The tracking might involve clambering for two hours up 45 degree slopes, avoiding biting ants and low hanging branches, or you may take a gentle stroll for a mere seven minutes across open farmland before suddenly stumbling upon them, as one of the groups in our party did!
On finding the group your trekking struggles are instantly forgotten and nothing quite prepares you for the humbling feeling that washes over you. In our group, the Hirwa, meaning ‘lucky’, there were 17 members, including a silverback and twin babies. Looking into their eyes, you feel you are actually being understood – in fact this is evidenced through the guide/gorilla vocal communication that is essentially a series of grunts, but they did seem to be understanding each other! The gorillas’ playful nature and the twins’ keenness to be the centre of attention for the entire hour (bouncing on trees as if they were trampolines and playing roly-poly down the hill) was an absolute delight to see and made the gap between primates and humans seem very narrow.
The way each gorilla has its own personal name is also very significant. A naming ceremony is held in the village each year where all members of the community can put forward name suggestions which helps to reinforce the relationship between the local community and the gorillas, helping to enshrine community ownership and the protection that results. In fact, the conservation of the Mountain gorilla in Rwanda has been a huge success in recent years, as the local community have become local ambassadors for their protection.
Jobs created from gorilla tourism have been a pivotal step in conserving these animals – many of the trackers and guides are ex-poachers who through education and opportunity have been steered away from their past lives. It’s clear when you speak to them that they now have such a warm genuine desire to protect the Mountain gorilla and more specifically the individual families with whom they spend so much time.
However, the conservation of the gorillas still has many hurdles to overcome and the groups require constant monitoring, in particular their health. Any gorilla with a health problem (including respiratory infections transmitted from humans) must be treated in situ and not removed from the group as individuals will be rejected on their return. Similarly, any rescued orphans cannot be introduced into a new family and are destined to live under the care of humans for the rest of their life. One opportunity the guides discussed was the option of introducing several orphans so that they could form their own group, but there would be many obstacles along the way if this is tried. An exciting idea none the less.
For now, you can personally help by going on a Rwanda holiday and tracking these fantastic creatures. In doing so you are directly contributing to gorilla based tourism and giving local communities a reason to protect and conserve them. After my wonderful experiences I am hopeful that this will continue for many years to come.