We knew little about Africa before setting out on this journey. We knew that we wanted to drive some part of the continent and we knew that we wanted to take a year doing it. The rest was to unfold as we went along. However, we did know upon setting off for Africa that we wanted to see the last few remaining mountain gorillas frolic in their native environment.
Yesterday the morning skies were blue, the air crisp and the day ripe for a gorilla expedition. We arrived early at the park headquarters to secure the family group of our choice. We wanted to see the Sousa group: the largest in the park with 29 members. It is also the hardest group to get to. The road to the trailhead is long and bumpy and the hike a 3 to 3.5 hour climb. Our wish was granted; we were off to find the Sousas.
We parked our cars and set off on a 20 minute walk through the terraced gardens that led to the forest. The lower elevations of the Varungas National Park are encircled in a dense bamboo thicket. In a few months time (during the rainy season) the gorillas descend from their higher elevations to eat the bamboo, but for the time being they are still high in the mountains. Well, they weren't too high. Our 3- 3.5 hour climb turned out to be about 30 minutes tops. Just as we broke through the bamboo into the rain forest, the spotters radioed our guide saying they were heading our way. Nearly two minutes into the forest we saw them. I had no idea they would be so BIG!
How can we destroy the last remaining safe havens for such majestic creatures?
Two days before we entered the park I found a copy of Dian Fossee’s Gorillas in the Mist; her account living amongst the Mountain Gorillas for 13 years. When Dian lived in these mountains there were only about 240 gorillas left. Today the latest census is yet to be announced, but our guide recalled the count from 2008 somewhere around 700-800. Mountain gorillas are one of three gorilla subspecies in the world; and the only subspecies of gorilla with a stable population. The lowland gorillas of the Congo are still under threat of extinction and decreasing in numbers each year.
Today the threat posed on the mountain gorillas from poachers has declined*, their numbers are up, but their future remains precarious due to habitat loss. The park boundaries are not fixed, as you would imagine. Thousands of hectares have already been reallocated to farm/grazing land. The park has no buffer zones. Farms lead right up to the 79 kilometer stone wall that hems in the forest. Today the gorillas are confined to the highest peaks in the Virunga range as the lower more fertile ground is being partitioned off and cultivated.
Gorillas in the Mist highlights the conservation issues facing the mountain gorillas in the 70's and 80's. Dian Fossey devoted her life to protecting these beautiful creatures, but they are not out-of-the-woods yet. Every day the gorillas bring in $24,000 to the government of Rwanda in permit sales alone (not to mention the additional tourist revenu generated). Yet the gorillas survival seems more of a financial concern than an environmental one. If you’re interested in learning more about the mountain gorillas and conservation efforts you can visit: www.gorillafund.org.
*Although poaching activity is on the decline it hasn't ceased. Babies are still occasionally taken. Unfortunately to get a baby away from its family group, the entire family has to be slain.
Sending you big gorilla kisses,
Corrin + Glenn