Rwanda's Gorillas - 2017

Travel Arrangements:


Author: Lois Gray

Photos: Kay Gilmour



Safaris in Zambia and Rwanda: August 22 to September 5, 2017

I NTRODUCTION Four of us were already acquainted from previous trips and knew we would enjoy being with one another again, especially since Mark was the Africa Easy Representative and our leader. But what a wonderful surprise when we met Laurence and Jim, South Africans who had been friends for years and were also well acquainted with Mark and Mayumi. We all just "clicked" almost at once. As soon as we realized that all of us had undertaken this trip with the same goals in mind, we knew this combo would be a complete success. We all wanted to see as much wildlife & birdlife as possible and we all had the patience it takes to get good sightings, experience behaviors, take good photos and name every bird we saw and heard with precision. Zambia and Rwanda were new countries for 4 of us and places visited long ago for the others, so no one could have been more eager than we were to begin our explorations! RWANDA Rwanda is a small, landlocked Central African country bordered by Burundi, Democratic Republic of Congo, Tanzania, and Uganda. Claiming 26,338 square miles of territory, it is slightly smaller than our state of Maryland. Rwanda has a green and mountainous landscape composed mostly of grassy uplands and verdant hills. A temperate

climate is created by altitude (average elevation is 5243 ft.) and two rainy seasons, one from February to April and the other from November to January. The highest point is Volcano Karisimbi at 14,826 ft and the lowest is on the Rusizi River at 3,119 ft. The population is 11,901,484, composed chiefly of the Tutsi and Hutu tribes. It is one of the most densely populated countries on the African continent. Young people dominate the demographics with 41% of children from birth to 14. Another 19% are between 15 and 24 years of age. People from 25-54 make of 33% of the population while people 55- to 64 make up only 5% and the older than 65 only 2%. Reasons for this strange division become clear in Rwanda's tragic, horrific and highly convoluted history. Surprisingly, since Zambia (then called Northern Rhodesia) was a colony of Belgium until 1962, French and English are two official languages along with Kinyarwanda, the native tongue which about 93.2% of the people speak. Only very small percentages speak either of the European languages. 50% of the people are Catholics and 40% Protestants, with local animist traditions claimed by the rest. R WANDA ' S H ORRIBLE H ISTORY Even before the Belgians left the Rwandans to run their own affairs, there was constant enmity between the two major tribes, with first one and then the other wielding power and persecuting the other. Many times there were emigration crises as one group or the other was running away to neighboring countries. These conflicts continued after independence until finally in l994 the ruling government orchestrated a statewide genocidal program in which for 4 months Rwandans murdered their fellow citizens in barbaric ways. Three-fourths of the

Tutsis & moderate Hutus were killed and many others fled to neighboring countries. Remember, that these genocidal uprisings had occurred from 1959 onwards but none of them were as organized and thorough as the 1994 horror. The hideous genocide devolved into a civil war which was only stopped by UN Peacekeeping forces with the help of the Ugandan government which was harboring so many of the exiles and refugees. Finally, in 1999, local free elections were conducted peacefully and then in 2003, the first post-genocide President was elected. In 2009, a joint military operation in conjunction with the Army of the Democratic Republic of the Congo rooted out the militant and extremist refugee Hutus and Tutsis that were continuing to threaten the new and fragile democracy. With all the killing that has gone on in the more remote past and also the recent past as well, no wonder there are very few older people left in the population; those generations have all perished. If anyone is interested in a longer and more detailed history of this woebegone country, here is a link to a good source. More recent events herald a possibly more positive future for Rwanda. A government of Unity and Reconciliation has been established and the entire country has been educated about the past and helped to face the future. School children are taught respect for all peoples and prejudice is being attacked head-on. An incredibly effective Museum in the capital city is a required destination for all citizens from children to survivors of the past—Kigali Genocide Memorial Center. _Memorial

This amazing memorial teaches the root causes of genocides, how hatred towards peoples can be orchestrated by tyrants, extremists of all stripes, even religions. It demonstrates propaganda techniques used in the Rwanda genocide as well as all other holocausts on the planet that we know about even in the distant pasts. It is a chilling reminder of how easily people can be demonized, made scapegoats, and dehumanized. Besides these lessons, the museum contains histories of many other genocides perpetrated by so many countries. It is also a memorial specifically for the Rwandans who died. There are videos of survivors telling their stories of almost unbelievable cruelties and barbaric behaviors. A mass grave site for over 250,000 dead is on the premises as well. A sobering visit indeed! Even scary, considering what's happening in our own country right now! Before we went on this trip, several people asked us if we thought it safe to travel there now. We blithely answered, "Yes, Indeed" because they are heavily promoting tourism now, especially gorilla trekking. And that's why we were going! We never felt anything but safe while in the country. GORILLA TREKKING Rwanda shares the Virunga Mountains with Uganda where many of the world's gorillas reside and where Dian Fossey did her seminal research on the Mountain Gorillas. She spent her life studying them and ultimately lost her life trying to protect them. There are two species of gorilla in the world: Gorilla gorilla and Gorilla beringei. We visited the subspecies Gorilla beringei beringei in Rwanda. The Dian Fossey Foundation is located in Rwanda as well. If you are interested in

knowing about all the gorilla species, use this site--http://www.gorillas- We enjoyed an evening fight from Lusaka to Kigali, landing in the Rwandan capital after dark. Thus we were not able to appreciate the wonderfully modern Serena Hotel. We were too tired after a very long day and knew we would be on the go fairly early the next day. As mentioned above, our first visit of the day was in The Kigali Genocide Memorial Center. We spent about 3 painful hours there but it was certainly not to be missed. It was gratifying to see young students touring with their schoolmates (Hutus and Tutsis together) and there were many older Rwandans with us as well. The young people were properly grave and respectful and the older ones looked pained and pensive. Our uppermost reason to visit Rwanda was to see the gorillas in their natural habitat. I can even say that our primary reason for traveling anywhere is to see the animals and birds in their wild state wherever Mother Nature has put them. The next day, we drove out to the Gorilla Mountain View Lodge which would be our home during our gorilla trekking activities. It is a very nice place, comfortable and very large as well. Nice grounds and spacious rooms.

As usual, our suite was about as far from the common areas as possible, but the long walks did us good. Before reaching the lodge, we stopped at the Dian Fossey Foundation's Karisoke Research Center to observe the continuing work being done in her name and also to learn more about the gorillas we would be visiting. It is not a sleek modern building, but a simple concrete structure in the middle of a small town. This was reassuring actually because it made us believe that contributions go to gorilla conservation and research as she would have wanted and not to make some beautiful building enshrining her name and legacy. But that legacy was clear in the exhibits and the zeal of the people working and volunteering there. It was there that we discovered how the $750.00 per person per trek fee is disbursed. All of it is directly or indirectly connected with conservation of the gorillas. A percentage goes to the farmers whose fields are often disturbed by the gorillas who leave the national park to enjoy the fresh fruits and vegetables the farmers are cultivating. Any farmer whose fields are disturbed by the animals is recompensed for his loss to prevent "revenge" killings. A different percentage goes to the surrounding villages for improvements for the people there: clinics, schools, & other desirable public projects. Some goes to pay the rangers and trackers who protect the gorillas from poaching as well as guiding the tourists to the sightings. Other monies pay for continuing research. And soon there will be more money to fund these efforts. We learned that our costs were as stated above and would be honored even though we purchased our "tickets" several months ago. Since July of this year, the new costs is $1500 per

person per trek! All these efforts on behalf of the local communities and people help to prove to them that the preservation of the gorillas and their habitat is very worthwhile for them! Without the gorillas, tourists would not come to Rwanda in such numbers. The Foundation folk were very happy to tell us that there has not been a killing of a gorilla in Rwanda (either revenge killing or poaching) in the past three years! That's an achievement worthy of respect and support! While we were driving from the Foundation out to the staging point for the treks, we noticed more and more people walking in the same direction we were headed. Hundreds of people were moving together. Ladies in their Sunday best with colorful dresses and flamboyant hats, men in "Sunday Go to Meeting" clothing. Children skipping along in their best as well. And it was not Sunday! We kept asking what was going on—it seemed the whole population of the country was on the move. "You'll understand soon enough, we were told." But before the mystery was cleared, we stopped at the staging area where trekking groups are formed, where the guides are assigned, and where the porter's wait to be hired. Groups are kept small and some attempt is made to match trekkers by abilities and ages. That way young folks are not made to slow down to wait for the less fit tourists. It seems an excellent system, but it does take some time (about an hour and a half usually) to get everything sorted out appropriately. Each gorilla family is visited only once a day by tourists and tourist groups are limited in size as well. We never got a clear idea of how many families live within trekking distance, but it must be at least 17 since we saw what appeared to be hundreds of people waiting to be put in a group. Since the families were spread all over the mountains,

some groups had long distances to drive to reach their starting point where the Rangers had already located that particular family. Some of the starting points were as much as 2 ½ hours from the staging area. Our little group of six had all purchased our tickets early so we were pretty much guaranteed a trek each day. Others who came without a ticket were often not so lucky since if the prepaid tickets took all the spaces available, they would have to try to buy a ticket for another day. Our first family was called the "Anniversary Family" for reasons we never learned, but our drive was only about 45 minutes. As we began driving towards our starting point, we were seeing more and more people on the roads until we passed huge empty fields where thousands of folks were already gathered. There were great white tents standing on both sides of the road and portapotties "bloomed" into the fields. Now our guide explained that we were here on the day of the very important "Naming Ceremony." It is an annual event with picnics and political speeches and general merriment in honor of the gorilla babies who had survived their first year of life (infant mortality is a problem among gorillas even without murder or poaching). During the ceremony, each of the surviving babies is given an official name and placed in the record books. All the people gathered seemed to be in great spirits enjoying the festivities. What a wonderful way to involve the people of Rwanda with the conservation efforts in preserving the gorillas in their country!

TREK NUMBER 1 When we reached our trailhead, we had other opportunities to get porters and we decided to hire two for help with Kay's camera and with difficult parts on the trails. The cost is $10.00 per porter and they are worth every dime of their price! It is also possible to get walking sticks at the trailhead too, but I already had one of my own and Kay did not want to use one. Our guide's name was Placide & he was clearly named appropriately. He was a quiet man, thoughtful and walking deliberately but not so fast that we could not keep up.

The beginning of the trail went right up through a farmer's fields on narrow and very stony and sandy paths used by the farmers every day for planting, cultivating, harvesting, and the like. The way up was steep but not horribly so but we did learn that we had climbed 1300 ft. & were at 9500 ft when we reached the gorillas so we must have started at 8200 ft. Neither of us had any problems with breathing or fatigue, but I was so happy to have those porters I wanted to shout and jump for joy and relief. The sky was clear over our heads and it was getting increasingly warm as we hiked but that was not the reason for my elation. The problem for me was the big stones in the narrow path. I

have real balance issues and that kind of terrain is my worst nightmare in hiking!

Here's where those wonderful porters (Fidel and Anastaze) became invaluable. They held my hand when the trail was troublesome to help me keep my balance (I certainly did not want to fall) and if obstacles were large, they simply picked me up and put me on the trail beyond the pile of stones or whatever was the problem. The National Park is divided in this area from the farmlands by a primitive stone fence which we surmounted by a stile which I could manage without difficulty. It had taken about 1 & a half hours to reach the park boundary. Once in the park, the trail presented other difficulties: slippery sands in steeper grades, dense growth along the paths, hidden stumps, holes, and snags to trip up the less steady. Here

again, my heroic porters saved the day for me. Sometimes they pulled me and sometimes they pushed me but always they kept me from losing my balance. Another 45 minutes and we reached the place where the rangers awaited us for the final short hike to where the "Anniversary Family" was "nesting." Again, I was helped, but this time by a ranger because the porters are not allowed into the viewing areas because the authorities do not want too many people around the gorillas at any one time.

Avit was tall and very strong and he insisted on holding my hand all the way to the little grassy area where we would stand to look slightly downwards at the family. Maybe my white/grey hair was his clue that I would need some help—who knows? But it was much appreciated.

Maybe it was the exertion, maybe the anxiety during the difficult hike, maybe dehydration, or maybe it was the thrill and happiness at seeing those gorillas so close and so peaceful, but whatever caused it, I cried when I saw them. There was a big silverback asleep among his family members and he never really stirred. Those who were awake were chewing on eucalyptus branches and leaves, a la koala bears. There were several adult females and some teenagers as well as some toddlers among the family.

The kids who looked like our 8-to 10-year-olds were climbing small trees and swinging from vines over and behind us. We had to stand during this entire hour because there was no place to sit. Females

watched the youngsters but did not appear concerned. There was a 3- 4-month-old infant who behaved just like human babies. He lay on his back and kicked his feet and legs clumsily but vigorously.

He would grasp at a toe or hand and stare intently at it as if trying to understand just what it was and how it was connected to him. He gurgled some with little sounds and the females watched him much more closely than the older kids. It was impossible for me to look at these wonderful creatures and not become very emotional. To me, there is consciousness in those eyes as well as intelligence. I am fairly convinced that we descended from the same mammalian family tree as

the gorillas and the other primates and this first visit with the wild gorillas did nothing to dissuade me. All too soon we heard the 1-hour alarm go off on the ranger's wrist and we knew this experience was ended. But, no, just about that time the family began to move around, even the somnolent silverback. They moved slowly on all fours but with considerable dignity—except for the youngsters who were still gamboling in the trees. The small baby was lifted by its mother to be carried off. But the group moved in different directions—some following the silverback, moving off to the right of where we human primates stood and others heading left. The ranger signaled we could move along behind the animals and so we saw them in other places but only for very short times. And as I and some others went with Avit to the left, one of the youngsters brushed my right leg lightly as he shoved his way through the dense foliage. We had been warned not to touch a gorilla no matter how close it might approach us so I obeyed the order and did not reach down to feel the youngster's coat. Because of the confusion of the gorillas departing in different directions, we actually got a little more than an hour among them! What a privilege and a treat to observe them so closely. We were definitely much closer to these apes than we had been when in front of the Mwamba pride of lions! Though I am fairly sure that we descended from the park on the same trails we climbed, I really do not remember much about the descent except that Fidel and Anastaze kept me on pace with the others and never let me slip or fall. We thanked them both heartily and gave them a generous tip in addition to their regular fee!

But the surprises were not over yet. As we were driving back to the lodge, we chanced upon a fairly rare monkey. Many folks go to another part of the Park to trek to see these primates; the rare and critically endangered and beautiful golden monkey. He was all by himself when the guide spotted him on the ground, We pulled over and watched him forage and then quickly climb a nearby tree. He is a very attractive creature and we got to see him without any trekking at all. Kay and I were both so tired, although exhilarated, at the end of the adventure that we told each other we just would not attempt the 2 nd trek the next day. Even though we had paid for it and there is no refund, we just decided our money would be a donation to the Fossey Foundation.

TREK NUMBER 2 All that first afternoon and into the evening, we kept assuring ourselves that we would skip the next day's gorilla trek. Our fellow travelers, Mayumi, Mark, Jim, and Lawrence, as well as Nadia (Africa Easy's owner), kept telling us during dinner that we just had to do it again, urging us to reconsider our hasty decision. But we went to our suite that night still saying we would not be doing it! The next day dawned beautifully and everyone we met and saw at breakfast was in a high state of excitement, ready to trek again! So, I am sure you are not surprised—we agreed to do it again! And are we ever glad that we did! "Special Family" we observed on this day really was special in so many ways. Plus, the trek was shorter, if steeper. And the drive to the trailhead was shorter as well. Plus our guide this time was one of the few female guides, Loyce. How could we not go with her name so close to mine? As we drove to this different trailhead, we passed the area where the "Naming Ceremony" had taken place and we were amazed to see that the fields had sprouted beautiful and colorful flowers overnight. The closer we came to those fields, the clearer we could see. It was not flowers at all that reflected their colors. It was thousands of paper cups, plates, drink cans, napkins and other detritus left by the happy celebrants. Though the sight could have been dismaying, it was not because many people, men, women, and children were busily at work in those fields picking up all the debris and leftovers from the celebration! This time we also noticed the cultivated fields we passed that looked like cotton fields—full of real white flowers rather than cotton bolls.

We were informed that this crop represents a significant export for Rwanda. The plants produce Pyrethrin—the main ingredient for insecticide, used by farmers and gardeners all over the world. Again we hired two porters since the first two had made our initial climb so successful. Emmy & his much stronger friend whose name I never could understand both worked for us just as well. Perhaps even more was demanded of them too. On the very steep and rocky descent (an alternate path from the one we used to climb up), I probably would have fallen innumerable times and broken who knows how many bones.

The two porters practically carried me down all the really steep spots with lots of loose rocks and even some bouldery piles. I was very grateful to have them at my side. We also learned on this trek that even people who cannot walk up or down the trails will have a way up & back, but more on that later. So why was "Special Family" given that designation? Because its recent history is so different from any other family ever observed during Fossey's time or in more recent years. Several years ago, the family's original silverback went missing. No one really knows whether he was killed by angry farmers, poached, or killed in a fight with another silverback over territorial and harem rights. For six months, the family was led by the alpha female, again unheard of behavior. She kept them

safe and well fed. During that time, she "interviewed" a couple of interested unattached males. But apparently none made the team and she drove them off. Later the current silverback wandered in looking for a home & family and she accepted him as the new leader and protector of her family. Wonder what he showed that the others did not? He is very big and maybe to her eyes handsome too. And for about 2 years now, Special Family has become more ordinary in that it is led by a big male silverback rather than a female! However, through this time that she has relinquished her leadership role, she has proven to be an excellent Alpha female as she looks after him and makes sure he is well cared for. We saw a proof of this when we finally got to our viewing site. The silverback was contentedly eating the inside of a horizontally- placed tree trunk which had been split open so that the softer parts were exposed. While the male dined, she sat at one end of the trunk and refused to allow any other family member even to sneak a little fragment of the trunk. As soon as anyone approached, she started screeching and baring her significantly large teeth in a fearful growl. The reckless one would immediately scurry away and hide behind another less audacious family member. When the silverback had eaten his fill, demonstrated by his lying down on his back and relaxing, she would allow others, including herself to come to the tree trunk! But not until he was completely relaxed.

This group was much more active than the "Anniversary Family!" There were a couple of teenagers that are called "Troublemakers" by the guides and rangers because, just like teenage boys, they run around trying to pick fights with others. They make a charge at each other straight on or better still sneakily. Then they pull fur or slap around. Constantly teasing someone else. Adult females don't pay them much mind unless they get too close to a really young gorilla and that behavior they don't tolerate. Of course, the "troublemakers" are like human bullies; they never pick fights with the big fellows—especially not with the silverbacks. Besides the big guy in charge, there were two young males just beginning to show the silvering fur on their backs. When they are mature, they will be driven out of the family to go find a new one for themselves. That's how Mother Nature prevents inbreeding and keeps the gene pool as rich as possible! One of the most amazing experiences on this day was that Kay was told to go sit next to a female who was sitting up on the little rise where all of us humans were arranged. (We could sit during the observation time on this trek.) Kay looked askance at Loyce because we had been told not to approach the gorillas or touch them or even stare at them lingeringly. And here's the guide prompting her to scoot over next to the young female. So Kay carefully moved over next to her. She said that the young female looked at her for a few seconds and then went back to her own thoughts while slowly munching on a piece of tree. A little later, she pushed herself up and went down to join the family again in the little depression where they were nested. Kay was never even aware when she left her side; she was that quiet and deliberate.

These viewing experiences, of both families, brought home to me even more clearly that these creatures really are some of humankind's closest relatives. Scientists tell us about DNA results that show how amazingly related we are and biologists record the behaviors of the primates which confirm what the DNA results have given us.

Watching the Rangers and guides who are with these animals every day protecting and exhibiting them revealed that they have developed a primitive language of sounds to communicate with them. They purr, softly "grrr" at them, rumble a bit, and use hand signals to back up their sounds. The gorillas understand these efforts at "talking" and respond. Some sounds are reassuring to the gorillas, reminding them that we mean them no harm. Others are warning signals directing the animals not to come any closer to the observers. Some just communicate a pleasure in one another's company peacefully. As I said before, this experience, even combined with my observations of captive gorillas, solidify my belief that these creatures are sentient beings with a consciousness even though it is probably different from our own. The beauty of animals, especially the higher primates, is that they do not display the terrible behaviors of human beings which are so well documented in the Kigali Genocide Memorial Center. (Well, I guess I have to modify that statement in light of the chimpanzee wars that Jane Goodall documented during her length studies of that species.) Here's one last note on how organized these folks are with the gorilla trekking and how determined they are that all visitors get their chance to observe them. We had noticed in our wanderings over the property of the Lodge a small, middle-aged Japanese lady who walked haltingly and with difficulty using a cane. After the first trek, we just could not imagine how this lady was going to negotiate those steep and treacherous trails. But we were assured that she had also done the first trek visiting a different family from ours and that she was planning to trek on the second opportunity as well! We were flabbergasted and really a little disbelieving until we saw her mode of travel on the second

day at the staging area.

Four porters put her on a stretcher-like gurney and carried up and down the mountain! Strong and determined men these porters are. And apparently this was not particularly unusual; disabled folks are often conveyed to and fro for gorilla viewing. WOW! CONCLUSION Because of difficulties with flight availabilities to our various homes, Jim & Lawrence and Mark & Mayumi were able to leave on the same day we completed the 2 nd gorilla trek. We had time for all 6 of us to have a farewell dinner at a very famous hotel for our goodbyes. That facility is the Hotel Rwanda of movie fame. Don Cheadle starred in a Hollywood movie about the genocide, centering on the hotelier at that time who gave refuge to many desperate people who had nowhere to hide. Of course, the hotel has been renovated since l994, but the exterior presents the original appearance. We felt a bit strange considering what had gone on here not that many years ago. Kay and I spent that night and the next one there awaiting our flight to Nairobi and then to Dubai. We had thought we might like to go birding for half a day while we waited but decided that we had seen enough birds by now. Plus we knew that without our 4 brilliant birders, we would not be able to identify them definitely anyway. So we opted to laze around the comfortable patio outside and catch up on journaling and reading.

Zambia and Rwanda are both amazing countries to visit for those of us who want to seeanimals, as manaynd as oftenas possible.

We thoroughly enjoyed this trip, even more than we ever imagined, because of our delightful traveling companionMs, ark and Mayumi Brazil, Jim McLuskie and Lawrence Fenn. We also thank Nadia Eckhardt, owner of Africa Easy, for planning this trip for us and putting us together with wonderful birders with wrsyenses of humoarnd the sharpest eyes around!

Click Logo to View Kay's Photo Album of this Trip

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