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Virunga National Park: my mountain gorilla hat-trick

 

When I’m not wearing my glasses, my eyesight is truly shocking. First thing in the morning this is copeable with (some might argue favourable…), but when I need to see things that matter I unquestionably need my glasses. On the list of ‘things that matter’, seeing mountain gorillas in the wild is right up there, but needing glasses to do this presented an unexpected, albeit not insurmountable, challenge.

Part of the Humba gorilla group

In Virunga National Park in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), people visiting habituated mountain gorilla groups are required to wear face masks. And there are incredibly good reasons for this: mountain gorillas share about 98% of their DNA with humans so the risk of disease transmission is high. Wearing a face mask is one way in which the risk of transmission can potentially be reduced. It was an absolute must but, as anyone who has tried to wear a face mask with a pair of glasses will tell you, keeping your glasses from fogging up is a talent – one I’m pleased to say I mastered whilst sat in the middle of the rainforest.

Having nailed the glasses-face mask technique (see the photographic evidence below – absolutely no sign of glasses fog) I was bursting with excitement at the prospect of trekking to see mountain gorillas in Virunga National Park. I’ve been incredibly lucky to see mountain gorillas in Uganda and Rwanda previously so visiting a gorilla group in the DRC represented the mountain gorilla ‘hat-trick’ for me; I would be able to say that I’d seen mountain gorillas in all of their range countries. Having started my conservation career working on projects in the DRC, this final piece of the puzzle was a special one.

Regional Manager Cath Lawson with mountain gorillas in Virunga National Park, Democratic Republic of CongoMe with mountain gorillas in Virunga National Park, Democratic Republic of Congo

Our visit began with a briefing from our guides who were rangers from the Institut Congolais pour la Conservation de la Nature (ICCN) – the authority in charge of the management of the protected areas in the DRC. They told us a little about the group that we would be visiting and outlined the rules that we must follow when in the forest and when with the gorilla group. As is true for all mountain gorilla tourism, our time with the gorilla group would be strictly limited to one hour and we had to maintain a distance of at least 7 metres. Just like the wearing of face masks, these rules aim to safeguard gorillas by minimising the risk of disease transmission and behavioural change as a result of exposure to people; I was only too happy to comply. You can learn more about gorilla tourism best practice through our work with Wildlife Friendly Enterprise Network.

We were to visit the Humba group, led by Humba the silverback, which comprised of two silverbacks, three adult females, two juveniles and three infants – all of which we managed to see during the incredible hour that we spent with the group. The adults of the group spent most of the time that we were with them either eating or resting, which is what gorillas do for an awful lot of the time! Soon after we joined them they found a stash of mushrooms and they gorged themselves on those for a good while. As to be expected, the infants were especially playful and I managed to get a great film of some of their hijinks – I hope it makes you laugh as much as it did me. The hour flew by and, knowing that we had to respect the rules, all too soon we were on our way back out of the forests leaving the gorillas to carry on with their daily lives.

I’m always nervous about writing or speaking about seeing mountain gorillas in the wild because I know I simply don’t have the words to do it justice. Photos and film definitely help to convey the experience, but they still fall short. Being in the presence of mountain gorillas is, without a doubt, the most awe-inspiring experience of my life. I am totally humbled by the willingness with which these animals peacefully share a precious insight into their existence with us. It breaks my heart and fills me with joy all at the same time.

A few days after I returned from seeing the gorillas in the DRC, over the border in Rwanda a decision was made to increase the price of gorilla tourism permits. Whilst this has no direct impact on the gorillas I saw in the DRC, it serves to highlight just how important gorilla tourism is to the local and national economies of habitat countries – and how that needs to be balanced with the impact it has on the gorillas. Rwanda’s decision has received some mixed reactions amongst the private sector and within the region, but we believe it shows a commitment to manage a growing tourism sector within ecological limits, and that should be celebrated. The permit price change has been coupled with a decision to increase the percentage of total park revenue earmarked and used for conservation and development projects in neighbouring communities from 5% to 10%. As such, the move should deliver greater benefits to gorillas and to people which is key to securing a future in which these species can live together in harmony.

We work on mountain gorilla conservation as part of the International Gorilla Conservation Programme (IGCP). IGCP was formed in 1991 as a coalition programme which currently consists of us and Fauna and Flora International. It works in close partnership with the respective protected areas authorities of the three countries which are home to mountain gorillas: the Rwanda Development Board, the Uganda Wildlife Authority and the Institut Congolais pour la Conservation de la Nature in DRC.

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