A Moment with the Mountain Gorillas in Rwanda

November 11, 2015 by

Animal Encounters, Middle East & Africa, Places to Go

If your bucket list includes observing gorillas in the wild, Rwanda should be your destination of choice. Its mountain gorillas — the world’s most endangered apes — live in the Virunga Mountains across Rwanda, Uganda and the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

A mountain gorilla in Volcanoes National Park in Rwanda

A mountain gorilla in Volcanoes National Park in Rwanda

In Rwanda, an estimated 480 gorillas — half of the world’s remaining population — call  Volcanoes National Park home. The park and primates gained fame after American zoologist Dian Fossey’s defense of the animals, and her murder in 1985. True to its name, the park also features three extinct and six active volcanoes.

One of the main appeals of Rwanda as a gorilla trekking destination is the relative ease of access to the animals. The departing town for most tours — Musanze (formerly known as Ruhengeri) — is about two hours away from Kigali by efficient buses or organized tours. Once there, you can reach certain gorilla groups within an hour of walking through the rainforest. This allows you to see the gorillas as a day trip from Kigali, though staying the night in Musanze, where budget to luxury lodging and restaurants are available, is recommended.

Your day starts early with a briefing at the park headquarters, covering information on the gorilla group you’ll approach, hiking details, gorilla etiquette, and safety tips — for you and the primates both. The park hosts 10 gorilla groups and rotates visits to prevent overexposing the apes to human contact. In the same spirit of protecting the gorillas, visiting groups are limited to eight people and stays restricted to one hour a day. Note the visit might be cut short if the rangers see any sign of the primates being stressed by your presence. Trekking can take from one to eight hours, depending on how far your gorilla group is located and how difficult the terrain. The assigned soldiers are for your and the gorillas’ protection, a requirement given proximity to the border with Congo and a legacy from past conflicts.

Getting up close to the dominant male

Getting up close to the dominant male

As you trek through the forest, trackers are in constant radio communication to find the gorillas. As you reach your group, be prepared for serious thrills as you come face-to-face (or close enough) to a full-grown gorilla, many of them three times the weight of a man. The sheer size of the wild animals stops you in your tracks. The gorillas grab and munch on bamboo, peaceful and powerful at the same time. Your eyes meet the dominant male’s, and he looks right back at you, unfazed. You might notice older males displaying a distinctive patch of silver fur on their backs, conferring upon them the apt name of silverback gorillas.

While the dominant male watches over the family, babies play together or look at you but do not dare approach, standing on their mothers’ back. Suddenly your apprehension is gone, and you are enjoying the magic of the moment. During your allocated hour, you follow your group as it progresses through the bamboo forest. You might be up for real excitement if a member of the group abruptly jumps toward you; the speed is astonishing, and you might be pushed away as you don’t have time to move. Unless the rangers detect any aggression, this sudden charge is not personal. The gorillas are just focused on their daily routine, feeding and interacting with one another; you are in their territory after all.

A baby gorilla with its mom

A baby gorilla with its mom

Your visit is nearing its end way too fast, but as you head back to the park center, you mind is still with the gorillas, memories you will cherish forever. We did and still do to this day.

While the Volcanoes National Park is open year-round, hiking is recommended during the dry season (December to February, and June to September) as the trails become strenuous in the wet season (April, May and November). With 80 permits issued daily, securing these can be problematic, especially in high season, so booking early is a must. The $750 permit gives the country an economic reason to protect the gorillas and secure the park safety with a 24-hour guard for each gorilla group. Around 20% of the fees go to the local communities, support their development and encourage them to take part in the conservation effort.

 — Contributed by Patricia Pagenel



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