“Exactly how big are they?” I ask excitedly. “Gorilla size, of course,” says Diane, my travelling companion, flashing me a grin. Diane Walkington is WWF’s head of species, so I know that’s not her scientific answer. She laughs and tells me to be patient.
To be fair I’ve asked her that question about 10 times already – and we’ve only been at Heathrow airport for half an hour. It’s 5am, so I’m secretly impressed that Diane’s humour is in full flow as we gulp down our coffees.
We’re about to meet and greet a VIP before boarding our plane – Dougie Poynter from pop band McFly! We’re taking Dougie to Africa to see mountain gorillas to help raise awareness about the plight of these critically endangered apes. A meeting of one jungle VIP with some jungle VIG’s (very important gorillas) you might say!
No stranger to tropical forests himself, Dougie was dubbed ‘king of the jungle’ after winning ITV’s ‘I’m a Celebrity Get Me Out of Here’ in 2011. This time, though, instead of joining Ant & Dec in Australia, Dougie’s coming with me and Diane to the jungles of central Africa to see these magnificent great apes in their natural habitat.
We meet Dougie at the departure gate. He’s in good spirits, despite the early start. He says he’s really looking forward to getting out there, learning all about the conservation work we’re doing and, of course, seeing the gorillas. The first question he asks Diane is: “Exactly how big are they?”
On the plane I think to myself about how I’ve been working in the press office at WWF for nearly 13 years and they’ve never really let me out much before – let alone all the way to Africa while looking after a celebrity. I’m excited, nervous and a little bit scared of this responsibility. I double check with Diane that gorillas are not known for getting starstruck and trying to mob pop stars.
We arrive in Kigali, capital of Rwanda, and meet up with our hosts Augustin and Anna from the International Gorilla Conservation Programme (IGCP). IGCP is a joint initiative of the African Wildlife Foundation (AWF), Fauna and Flora International (FFI), and WWF – and together the coalition works to conserve the critically endangered mountain gorillas and their habitat.
Diane, Anna, and Augustin have such a wealth of amazing knowledge between them – so there’s not much we haven’t covered in terms of gorilla conservation by the time we’ve finished dinner that evening.
Next day we visit a local cultural centre and an art co-operative, where beautiful vibrantly coloured baskets are being hand-made by some of the women weavers, while local men are making wood carvings to sell in the shop. There’s a real community feel here, as people work together sat under shady trees, while their children play in the midday sun.
Anna explains to us the important role the gorillas play in these people’s lives – the locals can generate a good income from selling products to tourists who’ve come to see the animals.
After a bumpy drive through a spectacular volcano-dominated landscape we visit a school in Kabara, and meet some children who belong to an environment club – a bit like scouts but with a twist! They’ll get to see gorillas when they’re old enough to go trekking.
I’m really excited about meeting the schoolchildren, but it’s hard not to feel moved about the sheer scale of poverty these kids face every day.
Because mountain gorillas live right in the middle of densely populated areas that suffer from serious poverty and conflict, educational projects like this one are vital. It’s an inspirational way to teach the younger generations the importance of their heritage: the national park, the gorillas and how conservation efforts can help them and their families to have a better life.
The children love the colouring pencils and WWF football we leave with them. It makes me smile to see that school is definitely out as we drive away – as the entire school rushes out to the playing field for a game of football!
New hope for the future – and my own gorilla thriller
After a chilly night in Rwanda, I awake to the most beautiful sunrise I’ve ever seen. Today I’m meeting some ex-poachers who are now part of a co-operative called Ameziro, which means ‘hope’ in the local language.
I listen to the stories of these men and women who tell me that in order to survive they hunted buffalo and antelope in the forest but sometimes gorillas got caught in the snares. I hear how poaching is something that’s passed down from one generation to the next – so children often learn from their fathers.
One of the ex-poachers, François Ndungutse, tells me that although there are still challenges today, things are very different now and children are taught how important it is to protect the gorillas.
Thanks to support from groups like IGCP and WWF, he tells me, everyone is working together now. Money coming into the park is now going back to the local communities to help them find more sustainable ways of making a living, such as ecotourism, that rely less heavily on using up forest resources. This generates income for the national parks and creates much needed local employment.
That afternoon we cross the border into Uganda. On the way there I’m told that almost 20,000 tourists visited habituated Virunga mountain gorilla groups in 2008, generating around £5 million in revenue for the park service and providing local employment.
The following morning (after an ice-cold outdoor shower that makes me shriek like some kind of jungle animal) we head off to Bwindi Impenetrable National Park. Today we’re gorilla trekking!
While Dougie is doing a few pieces to camera, capturing his daily video diary of the trip, I ask our guides and trackers how they tell the gorillas apart. They tell me that gorillas’ noses are equivalent to our fingerprint, so they look at their nose markings to tell them apart – amazing!
I can tell from the way these men talk that they have so much passion and respect for the work they do. I ask if they ever tire of seeing the gorillas. They all say no!
We set off into the park… Four hours trekking later, and with sweat pouring from my face, I get my first glimpse of a gorilla – a boisterous black-back (not yet quite a silver-back) lunges out at us from nowhere. And yes, they’re big – this one’s probably 160kg. Our group quickly steps back and the guides tell us to stand still. Dougie is at the front, so I’m worried!
After a few tense moments our guides tell us our path is clear and we can move. My heart is still pounding but Dougie and the rest of my group all look as cool as cucumbers! I realise that my legs are shaking so much I can barely get my footing on the steep slope. I want to look out for the gorillas but I can’t take my eyes off my feet for fear of falling.
As we reach even ground I feel Anna tapping on my shoulder: “Kellie, Kellie… look up.” Everyone’s transfixed by a group of about five gorillas (one a silver-back) with three babies.
I’m speechless. We’re all really quiet and most of us now have tears in our eyes – including me.
Suddenly, one of the gorillas rises and beats its chest. We know from our guides that this gesture is often misinterpreted as a sign of anger, but it simply means they are protective of their group.
They definitely know we are watching them, and I know we all feel privileged to be allowed into their world.
We watch the gorillas for about 20 magical minutes, and are treated to an amazing acrobatics display by the three babies as they swing and play in the trees. The adults rest in the sun, but occasionally shuffle behind the bushes as if they’re trying to take 40 winks in private.
It all feels a bit surreal watching these incredible creatures, right there, in their natural habitat.
On the journey back through the jungle I ask Dougie how he felt seeing the gorillas. He tells me the whole trip has been “life changing” – and I couldn’t agree with him more.
We both know that these rare, critically endangered great apes are changing lives for so many people around them – not just pop stars and press officers.
See some exclusive footage of the gorillas and Dougie – and find out how you can help by adopting a baby mountain gorilla.