Congo II. Mountain Gorillas of Congo
Kabirizi, a magnificent silverback. Phot by Gian Schachenmann
In a country devastated by genocidal colonial rule, torn by kleptocracy, warring militia groups, and swamped with refugees, it is a wonder that Africa’s oldest national park, Virunga National Park, has managed to survive. The more time we spent walking around the headquarters, the more I was impressed by the Congolese Nature Conservation Institute (ICCN), headed in Virunga by Emmanuel de Merode. The heavily armed rangers who looked more like soldiers were evidence that not everything is peaceful, yet there was an optimistic air that begged us to bring tourism.
The MAN made for a bumpy but fun ride!
We climbed into the back of the 4wd MAN lorry that the ICCN had converted to transport guests on the horrific roads and slowly crawled up toward Bukima ranger post to begin our gorilla trek. The steep, rocky and sometimes slippery 12km road took us nearly an hour and a half to climb, through fields of bananas, cassava, pole-beans, and arrow-root and again, hundreds of children running out to wave. Whereas in most places in East Africa the adventurous route is a chosen option, the route we were on was the only way up the mountain. Wheels spinning and the massive engine straining, we made the last meters to the edge of the forest.
Without the ceremonial briefings of Rwandan gorilla trekking, after registering our names on a random piece of paper, we set off through the fields of potatoes and tobacco that crept right up to the edge of the forest. Startling us, a child ran whooping towards a patch of potatoes, giving us a glimpse of a couple beautiful l’Hoests monkeys as they scampered for safety in the forest. It was fairly easy walking and within an hour we’d reached the spot that would give us the easiest trek through the rainforest to the Kabirizi group that the trackers were monitoring. Compared to Rwanda, the forest trekking was easier. I don’t know how our ranger found the trackers because his radio battery died, but after only an hour we found ourselves with a very large group of gorillas.
Photo by Gian Schachenmann
Mountain Gorillas live in family groups led by a dominant male- an impressive massive animal weighing upward of 500lbs distinguished by the white-haired saddle on his back that earns him the title of Silverback. The pioneer research on Mountain gorillas was conducted by George Schaller, also a pioneer lion researcher in the Serengeti, but their plight was made famous by Diane Fossey and her book, “Gorillas in the Mist”.
Donning our surgical masks, a precaution to protect gorillas from the various diseases we potentially carry to which they have no natural immunity, we began the precious hour. Kabirizi, a large and intelligent Silverback, took control of the group in 1998 his predecessor was caught in crossfire between the army and rebels. He acquired more females fighting other silverbacks, and now holds one of the largest groups, nearly 5% of the world’s Mountain Gorillas. We followed the family as they moved through the bamboo forest feeding on shoots and young stems, and we were rewarded with some commanding viewing.
With only 820 Mountain Gorillas left, a human disease would be a disaster.
The next morning we found the Humba group (14 individuals) and again enjoyed their calm company for the hour we were allowed. Although there is a minimum distance from which to observe the gorillas, it is sometimes impossible to get out of the way quickly enough should they walk toward you. At one point, when we were backed up against a bamboo clump, I was thrilled at the trust a female showed. Casually walking past us, her tiny baby clinging to her side, she stopped only a few meters away to pull a piece of Sticky-willy that had stuck to the baby’s hair.