Focus on Gorillas
The beta silverback of the Nyakamwe group ponders our presence.
I give the head ranger the thick envelope of gorilla permits that I have. We speak in Swahili because his English isn’t great, and my French is poorer than his English.
“You want to do two gorilla treks tomorrow?” he asks.
“Yes, not just tomorrow, but everyday for 5 days.”
He looks at me, smiling. I can read in his face that he thinks this is crazy. Our conversation continues. There’s a phone call to his superiors. He calls another ranger and they speak too quickly for me to understand what is going on, but then he turns to me and says,“Ok. Don’t worry. Tomorrow I will come to the camp at 7:30. Be ready to walk far. This is the first time we have ever done this. I don’t even know if it is possible, but I will know how we will do this tomorrow.”
The next morning, we set off. One guest who has had knee surgery can’t walk the distance, so 12 porters are there, ready to carry her in a “kipoi”: a local basket stretcher. We trudge a long through the potato fields for the first two hours to the path into the forest with the most direct access to the gorilla group. The first group we visit is Bageni. This is the biggest group of habituated gorillas in Virunga at the moment with 22 individuals. Most gorilla families are named after their alpha silverback. After a successful visit, we head to Nyakamwe, a smaller family of 11.
Nyakamwe, the leader of a gorilla family.
Virunga National Park has eight families of habituated mountain gorillas, six of whom are within easy reach of Bukima Ranger post. Trackers and rangers go out daily to locate each group and check on all the individuals. Like humans, every gorilla has unique facial features as well as behaviour. The most obvious and easy to identify is the nose print. In our 5 days with the gorillas, there is no way to learn each individual, but as the week progresses, the names become less foreign, and I gain some insight into the dynamics of gorilla society. Their stories are saddened by tragedies involving assassinations and murder by rebels.
Jacques and Pierre, two dedicated rangers protecting gorillas in Virunga National Park.
One of the challenges of photographing gorillas is that you are only allowed one hour with a group per day. To get around this, we bought out all the permits for two groups, and negotiated permission to trek to two group per day. This would not expose the gorillas to more contact time than allowed but would allow us to double our photographic opportunities.