Mountain Gorillas at the Volcano National Park in Rwanda are an absolute delight and I was amazingly lucky to have visited them recently. I got to spend time with the Amaharo family at the park which is a collection of mostly dormant volcanoes in Rwanda. Since I was traveling solo and did't connect with a travel agency there, my experience to see them a little different from others. I tried to do the trek with minimum cost (which was still quite high) and did all the coordination by myself. The fact that most people speak good English there certainly helped me :)
Mountain Gorillas are found only in the continent of Africa and belong to the category of highly threatened and extremely rare species. Rampant poaching and a threatened habitat has reduced their numbers from several thousands in the last century to only about 880 now. There are currently only two places in the world where you can see them - Virunga Mountain range (Rwanda and Democratic Republic of Congo) and Uganda's Bwindi Impenetrable National Park. Mountain Gorillas are not in zoos anywhere in the world, and the only way to see them would require a visit to either Rwanda, DRC or Uganda. Due to the turmoil in DRC, I visited Rwanda to see these majestic animals in the wild.
I have been against the idea of a zoo for a long time, I can't imagine looking at these majestic animals from across the world stashed up in small spaces so that us humans can look at them on a free Sunday. Frankly speaking the thought is revolting to me.
So when I visited Rwanda going for a Gorilla trek was the last thing in my mind as I was convinced it would be a slightly bigger version of a zoo and I didn't want to be a part of it. I must also admit that I was embarrassingly unaware of Gorillas in general, and somehow didn't even think there was anything worth knowing. I consider myself a people's man and animals to me come much later as subjects for travel or photography. All this changed when I reached Volcanoes National Park in Rwanda.
Located in the most beautiful location of the country and surrounded by five extinct volcanoes, the Park was originally established in the year 1925; it was also the first ever national Park to be established in Africa. However, Gorillas continued to be hunted, often in connivance of park authorities. Much of this changed only when Dian Fossey arrived on the scene in 1967. She spent most of her time after that within the park, till her unsolved murder in 1984. She not only studied Gorillas in detail and became close friends with numerous families, she can also be credited with their conservation. She fought with poachers, often physically herself. Not as popular with her staff, she managed to get close to the gorillas and bought them back from the brink of extinction (the y are still considered highly endangered).
Closely linked by DNA, gorillas (family Hominidae) are one of the four species of great apes that are the closest living relatives of humans – the other three are chimpanzees, bonobos and orangutans. Great apes are different from monkeys for a variety of reasons: they are larger, walk upright for a longer period of time, don’t have tails and have much larger, more developed brains.
Gorillas are ground-dwelling and live in groups of 6-12 with the oldest and largest silverback leading a family of females, their young and younger males called blackbacks. The silverback makes the decisions on when his group wakes up, eats, moves and rests for the night. Because he must protect his family at all times, the silverback tends to be the most aggressive. In such situations, he will beat his chest and charge at the perceived threat.
Gorillas are shy animals that are most active during the day. At dusk, each gorilla constructs a ‘nest’ of leaves and plant material in which it will sleep. Mothers usually share their nests with nursing infants.
Young males may leave their family groups as they become older and either live as solitary silverbacks or create their own family groups. The silverback has the exclusive rights to mate with the females in his group.
We have been poaching these beautiful animals for many years now. There were two key reasons - at the beginning of the last century zoos became popular across the West and they all needed exotic animals as trophies that they could show off. Due to this, there was a huge demand for gorilla babies. Gorillas are extremely protective of their young ones and in many cases, to take one or two babies, the entire Gorilla family of 15-20 adults had to be killed.
The other reason for poaching was the demand of Gorilla hands which were popular as ashtrays. Unbelievable, but sadly true...
Poaching has not stopped even now, the animals are always at risk of being killed. Every year forest rangers find hundreds of traps in the forest area which are kept to catch the animals. Despite destroying so much in the past, we are intent on destroying even more. I am not sure when this madness will end...
Coming back to my trip, after my first visit to the Reception centre of the park, I was intrigued by these majestic animals. I was still not convinced that I should go for the trek, but this visit made me read up quite a bit about Gorillas and Dian Fossey. Musanze had decent internet connectivity, and I was up late learning and absorbing.
Another huge deterrent for me was the price tag. The trek costs a whopping $ 750.
However, on my last night in Musanze I was completely convinced that I must do the trek. I didn't have any money on me and I could not withdraw any more cash form the ATMs due to limit on maximum daily withdrawals. So the only option left for me was to use my credit card. Using a card is of course not a problem, but often the card machine doesn't work at the reception centre. It was almost a nail biting finish for me, till my card was swiped and I got an approved receipt! Now I was finally enrolled for the trek. The rather slow receptionist who was making the receipts gave me preference over all the other guides and pissed them all off, I was, however, very happy :)
There are a total of 19 gorilla families in the park, out of which 11 can b visited. The rest are part of research and can not be accessed. I had asked around before about which family I could visit and had decided on Amahoro family. It is the second largest group and has the largest number of Silver backs (male gorillas over the age of 12 years). As this was not the peak tourist season, I actually could pick the family I wanted. In peak season the treks are booked months in advance and you can't just come, pay money and do the trek. I was super lucky to be here in the non-tourist season!
Since it was rainy season, I borrowed a rain jacket and gloves (to save my hands from stinging nettles). Our guide gave us an introduction of the family, and some more instructions on how we must respond in case of an aggressive gorilla. Only a group of eight are allowed to visit a family in a day, so it was small and cozy group. Apart from the eight of us and the guide, we also had four armed escorts.
The trek could take anywhere between one to five hours, depending on where the specific family is. Thankfully gorillas do not live on mountain tops, so we didn't have to climb a volcano all the way to the top.
I had already trekked up to Mount Bisoke, so anything else was a piece of cake. There were only a few steep hikes and we all managed to do it all without much assistance. A couple of girls in the group were slow, but then it was also their first trekking experience.
Before the trek starts, a group of men called trackers, already go in the mountains to locate the gorilla family. As the gorillas do not sleep at the same spot on two days, its not easy to predict their location. The good thing is that they are not GPS tagged and so they pretty much live as wild animals with little interference from us, except, of course, when we come face to face :)