Follow me as I trek through Volcanoes National Park in Rwanda to meet the endangered mountain gorillas and investigate what tourism means for the famous primates.
“They are here,” announces our guide, Patrick. He speaks with a whisper so as not to draw attention to us. His words are pronounced, clear – he knows this is what we are all waiting for.
There are eight of us in the group. We’re wearing long trousers and weather-proof jackets – not to protect us from the rain, but to protect us from the two-metre tall nettles that grow wild here. We are sweating from the humidity. We’ve been hiking for three and a half hours through Rwanda’s Volcanoes National Park. I take in the moss-covered tree trunks that date back centuries – it’s a scene out of a fairy tale. I half expect Tinkerbell to fly out and flitter around my head.
As we round the tall bushes, we see him. Mafunzo. A young silverback mountain gorilla. He sits facing us among the vegetation, his family of 14 resting in the grass behind him. We have already been warned he can be cheeky. We have already been warned that he may charge. And right on cue, as we lift up our cameras to take that first snap, Mafunzo rises on all fours and bounds towards us.
He moves slowly at first, then faster and faster. The rule is, if the silverback charges, you submit. You lower yourself to the ground so you are beneath him. We are taught this before we enter the forest. This tells him you are no threat. We do as we are told. Mafunzo watches us. He looks me straight in the eye and I look to the ground – our guide says holding his gaze can be seen as a challenge. Then he turns around and returns to the grass with his family. He lifts one four-month old baby off the ground and into his arms. She fits perfectly into the length between his wrist and elbow. I realise I have been holding my breath and finally exhale. What a place to be!
In that moment, I realise just how lucky I am to be here, sitting in front of a family of mountain gorillas. They are critically endangered. Just an estimated 880 remain in Rwanda, Uganda and the Democratic Republic of Congo. There are just 80 permits issued daily in Rwanda for tracking, and the experience is not cheap. It costs $750 for a one-day permit. But, it is worth it. This is once-in-a-lifetime, bucket-list stuff. My pre-tracking research tells me the annual revenue from gorilla tourism greatly funds the conservation and management of the park and helps local communities – all of which is essential for keeping the gorillas safe.
Each participant in Rwanda can only track with a Rwandan Development Board guide. The guide works with professional and local trackers to find each habituated family of gorillas. The needs of the gorillas are always put first – rules are imposed to minimise the risk of disease (you have one hour with the gorillas – often less; anyone who has a cold or flu can not take the trek; you must remain at least seven metres from the family at any time. Best of all, once you have experienced being so close to these wonderful creatures – you become an ambassador. Doing your bit to protect them becomes a reality. This is the reason why I’m writing this blog.
Poaching is a threat to mountain gorillas. In the first 20 years after their discovery, scientists and trophy hunters killed over 50 gorillas. There are some shocking images of gorilla heads that have been chopped off and hands that have been used as ashtrays. All of which make me feel nauseous. Now the poaching threat to mountain gorillas is mostly the use of unselective hunting with snares rather than them being direct targets – but it’s still a worry. The primary threat today however comes from habitat loss and degradation. The conversion of land for agriculture by the growing local population and competition for natural resources means that the gorilla’s homeland is coming under increasing pressure. A sad but real problem that WWF and Flora and Fauna International (FFI) are working hard to combat.
They work through the International Gorilla Conservation Programme (IGCP) alongside the respective protected area authorities of the three countries where mountain gorillas are found. Part of this work aims to help locals find alternative means to meet their daily needs. Education and choice are the key – for example teaching the people who call Volcanoes National Park their home why these creatures are so precious. The programme has also helped to ensure that the benefits of gorilla tourism are shared with the local community. Some locals have even become trackers by learning about gorilla behaviour and others have become guides within the park, sharing their knowledge of the gorillas with tourists like me. Jobs have been created and economies built without having to reduce the rainforest further. It’s a good grounding for the slow growth in gorilla population.
We watch as Mafunzo lies down. His fatherly duties have worn him out and its time for snooze. Patrick tells us this is a sign he is comfortable with us too, he trusts us not to hurt his family. Behind me there is a rustling noise and two playful siblings come rolling out of the bushes. They roll and scuffle, gently biting their teeth into each other. Then one of the older females walks across our path, her tiny baby – just two weeks old – cradled in her arms. The group watches in silence. I watch in awe.
As we walk back through the forest gate, down the rocky path by the local farmland, one of our group pipes up. She has taken this trek four times over the last two decades. “Today was the best experience I’ve had,” she tells us with the biggest, happiest smile. I nod ferociously, still lost for words, and pinch myself silently to make sure it wasn’t a dream.
Find out more about Karen and travel-friendly conservation on her Twitter and Instagram @KarenNEdwards