June 30, 2011
Over the course of our 2-week safari we did 4 gorilla treks- two in Rwanda and two in Uganda. Four treks is pretty unusual for most tourists visiting Rwanda and Uganda because the trekking permits are very expensive, costing $500 a person for each trek. It may sound pricey, but the money goes to helping conserve these amazing apes. There is a big misconception by the western world that in Africa wild animals are just walking around mingling with locals. This could not be farther from the truth and in most countries mega fauna like gorillas are only found in national parks because that is the only area they are safe in. If a gorilla group wanders out of a national park the park rangers will closely monitor the group and make sure it returns to park unharmed. The gorillas are still under constant threat by poachers and could not survive outside the walls of the park. They also need the wild forest habitats only found in the national parks. Every inch of land in Rwanda and Uganda is cultivated or has someone living on it except for the parks and you can see really clearly in the picture below the boundary line of Bwindi Impenetrable Forest National Park in Uganda. The cultivated land on the left side of the picture used to be dense forest like on the right side before humans cut it down.
The money from the permit goes to protecting the park, fighting to keep the boundaries, paying rangers and trackers, medical care for gorillas, education for locals about great apes, and to local communities like the displaced Batwa who were removed from the National Parks to protect the gorillas. The high price for foriegners also helps keep down the price for locals which is less than a 10th of the foreigner cost so they can have a chance to see the gorillas too. This conservation system is slowly working and the Virunga population has seen a 14% increase in the last 12 years according to WWF, but Gorillas are over all still very threatened and are still considered endangered by IUCN.
Each trekking group consists of 8 people plus a ranger, one or two trackers and porters as needed. The porters are all local people some of which used to be poachers and have been retrained to be porters. Most of the time in Africa poachers aren’t making that much money. It is the black market seller that makes a fortune. With a little education and retraining the former poachers are taught the value of keeping gorillas alive and they learn to make enough money to support their families through helping to protect the gorillas by being porters for tourists and scientists going to visit the gorillas. The treks are often long and arduous and can reach over 8 hours in Bwindi so $10 (in Rwanda) and $15 (in Uganda where the treks are usually harder and longer) is money well spent. The porters will not only help you carry your gear (which if you are bringing cameras can be a lot), they also give a helping hand to make sure you don’t fall off the mountain or sink into the mud, which is really priceless. I probably would have died or greatly injured myself over a dozen times if my porter wasn’t holding my hand. If the porters help you out a lot or are carrying particularly heavy packs (like 30 pounds of camera gear) it is customary to give them an extra tip in addition to their fee. Our lodge packed us lunch everyday that we never ended up eating so we also gave our porters the packed lunches, which they were really appreciative of. On our last trek in Uganda my dad and I were the only ones who got porters and by the end of the trek the two of them were carrying everyone’s packs and helping everyone down the hill, which really isn’t fair for the porters so I recommend that you hire a porter if you are carrying a pack because it’s not fair for one porter to be helping 4 people and they are too nice to say no!
It is important to support the locals who are finding jobs that profit off of conservation instead of poaching. As I’ve said before conservation only works if the locals want it, understand it, and work for it. A severed gorilla hand or decapitated head (sold illegally to be used as ashtrays or mounted on walls by very sick people in my opinion) can sell for as little as $20 by a poacher to an international seller. $20 was the market price for Diane Fossey’s favorite gorilla, Digit in a local Rwandan market. The black market dealer turns around and sells the hand or head for thousands of dollars to rich people in the western world. I didn’t love the 1980’s Sigourney Weaver movie about Diane Fossey’s life, Gorillas in the Mist as much as Diane Fossey’s book of the same name, but there was one scene I loved. In the movie Bob Campbell, a National Geographic Photographer, is trying to convince Diane Fossey of the importance of photographing wildlife and why it is so important to share the photos with the world. He tells Fossey to not blame the Batwa for poaching the gorillas. He says blame the doctor in Miami who hires the man who hires the Batwa. The Batwa feed their family, the man gets a silk shirt and the doctor gets a head for his wall or a hand for an ashtray. Fossey angrily says that she can’t reach the doctor in Miami. Campbell replies back, ever been to a doctor’s office without a National Geographic in the waiting room? Poaching is purely supply and demand so with no demand poachers would stop murdering in order to supply. Fortunately reputable zoos no longer snatch animals from the wild like they did 50 years ago. Many zoos now have formed conservation society’s to protect wildlife and help create new genetic pools through breeding centers like WCS at the Bronx Zoo or ZSL at the London Zoo. However, there is still a lot of live trafficking in wildlife for pets, entertainment, and for non-reputable zoos. A live infant gorilla can reach over $20,00 on the black market and each live baby gorilla caught represents a handful of dead adults killed in the capturing of the infant. For more information on how you can protect gorillas and the amazing work of Diane Fossey check out the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund International.
While I disagree with some of Diane Fossey’s ideas and methods about conservation I believe that her work was amazing and the modern protections gorillas are given are largely owed to her. She didn’t believe in gorilla tourism because human diseases can be passed to gorillas and by the end of her life she had become very possessive of the gorillas, referring to the mountains and the gorillas as her own. It is indisputable that humans can pass diseases to gorillas, but precautions can be taken like signing a waiver stating you are healthy and educating tourists on the danger they are putting gorillas in if they go on treks when they are sick, particularly with respiratory infections. A simple cold in a human can wipe out an entire family group of gorillas. I had the chance to chat with an amazing young woman doing a study on gorilla health in Bwindi with Oxford Brookes University. As part of a survey she asked if when doing treks I would be willing to wear a surgical mask and gloves to help prevent the passing of diseases. I was already wearing gloves because of stinging nettles and thorns, but I think adding a mask would be an easy and great addition that I and most tourists would be happy to make. After all if people are traveling that far and spending that much money to see gorillas don’t they care about the future of the species? You can read more about Diane Fossey’s life in her book, Gorillas in the Mist, or on her fund’s website. Her methods were controversial, and her murder still remains a mystery, but we owe her so much for the knowledge she gave us about gorillas and they would probably be extinct in the wild now without her.
When you visit the gorillas (especially in the rainy season) you really see how “in the mist” they are. At the end of the treks locals come meet you where you exit the National Park and have trinkets to sell like small gorilla carvings and shirts that say, “I trekked for Gorillas in Volcanoes National Park” with the name of the gorilla group that you visited printed on it. My father purchased one and I laughed when I saw the back of it. On the back of the shirt it reads “Mzungu in the Mist.” He is not great with languages and thought Mzungu meant gorilla in Kinyarwanda. I explained to him that Mzungu meant foreigner (basically it translates to “whitey”) in Kinyarwanda, the local language, and kids had been oh so affectionately yelling it at us for the past week. The term used to be quite derogatory, but is now generally used more jokingly by children. But hey, after 6 hours of trekking I am proud to say that I was a Mzungu in the mist!
Our first trek in Rwanda was just under 6 hours, which included an hour with the gorillas. Only one hour is allowed with the gorilla groups as to not bother them and allow them to be the wild animals they are. There are an estimated 768 mountain gorillas at the latest count living in Rwanda, Uganda and the Democratic Republic of Congo. As the locals like to say the gorillas have no passports and freely move between the countries. Gorillas live in family groups usually consisting of one dominant male known as the silverback and then a group of females and infants. Sometimes a group will also have juvenile males known as blackbacks who will either have to challenge the silverback or leave the group when they reach silverback maturity. Some groups do have multiple silverbacks, but one is always more dominant. Gorillas in the wild can live between 35-45 years, but can reach over 50, which is the normal lifespan for gorillas in captivity. Gorilla groups are patriarchal and the baby gorillas love climbing on the silverback’s back to play with him and you can often see many babies huddled around the silverback. They are also very loyal to the dominant silverback and will actually “tattle” on the females in the group if they see them mating with another male.
Not all the gorillas in Volcanoes National Park are habituated and meeting an unhabituated gorilla would not be a fun experience because silverbacks are very protective and a full grown silverback is incredibly strong and can rip apart a 6-foot 200 pound man easily. However, the rangers have worked for years to habituate 7 gorilla groups in Volcanoes National Park and humans can now safely visit without alarming the gorillas. Of course they are still wild animals and certain precautions should be taken like keeping a safe distance from the gorillas, showing submission to the silverback, not pointing or shouting near them, no using flash photography, and never making eye contact with any gorilla as it is a sign of aggression to them. On our second trek my dad mistakenly made eye contact with a female gorilla as she turned around to look for her baby and instead caught my dads eye and she started to display her dominance by beating her chest and pounding the ground, which if he hadn’t looked away quickly could have ended with him being charged.
As I mentioned above each trekking group consists of 8 people plus a ranger, one or two trackers and porters as needed. The forest is dense so the trackers lead you through it carrying guns and machetes. The guns are to scare off elephants and buffalo that sometimes make appearances in your path and can be very aggressive, but are only used to make warning shots in the ground, which scare them off. The machetes are used to by the trackers to clear a path and my dad had fun posing with it when we got out of the forest.
The rangers are incredibly knowledgeable and can identify the gorillas by their noseprints, which are distinctive like our fingerprints. The rangers and trackers can identify each gorilla by name. We had an amazing tracker named Felix who we loved so much on our first trek that we requested him on our second. He was actually Ewan McGregor and Charley Boorman’s tracker in their documentary Long Way Down. He had never seen the whole documentary and didn’t own a copy of the DVD so my dad and I bought one are sending it over to him. I hope it makes it! For our golden monkey trek we had another amazing guide named Francois who has been working with gorillas for over 30 years and started his work with Diane Fossey. He was very energetic and pointed out plants to us that the gorillas eat and actually demonstrated for us how they eat them by actually eating the. He was a real character and made for an amazing trek! I would recommend asking for either of these rangers if he you can! Only 56 trekking permits are issued each day, which means if you want to visit them book in advance!
Stay tuned for Part II on gorilla tracking in Rwanda where I will talk more about the actual treks themselves, give some advice on when to go and what to bring, and share lots more photos and video!