Rwanda’s glorious Mountain Gorillas

There is something emblematic about the Mountain Gorillas of Rwanda. They have become cherished symbols of hope for a nation so recently torn apart by genocide – not to mention being significant earners of tourist dollars. In a small country with a rapidly growing population, where the pressure on land for agricultural is intense, the identification of the gorillas with the well-being of the nation may, ultimately, prove to be the thing that secures the future of the Mountain Gorilla.

Dominant silverback gorilla in the Volcanoes National Park, Rwanda, Africa

Dominant silverback gorilla in the Volcanoes National Park, Rwanda, Africa

Gorillas in the Volcanoes National Park, Rwanda, Africa

Gorillas in the Volcanoes National Park, Rwanda, Africa

Gorillas grooming in the Volcanoes National Park, Rwanda, Africa

Gorillas grooming in the Volcanoes National Park, Rwanda, Africa

There is a ceremony, made famous by the support it gets from the President of Rwanda and international celebrities, which celebrates newborn gorillas. The annual naming ceremony – giving names to baby gorillas – takes place in the foothills of the Volcanoes National Park and attracts a large national and international gathering. The ceremony serves to cement the fate of the gorilla with that of the nation, and has done much to persuade local communities to tackle poaching and protect habitats.

Mountain Gorillas are extraordinary animals, and seeing them close up in their natural habitat was the highlight of my visit to Rwanda, and one of the most wonderful animal encounters I’ve ever had. Gorillas are extremely intelligent animals, living in complex social structures within extended families. They have a strict hierarchy within the group, at the head of which is a dominant male, known as a ‘silverback’ thanks to the grey hair they develop on their backs.

Dominant silverback gorilla in the Volcanoes National Park, Rwanda, Africa

Dominant silverback gorilla in the Volcanoes National Park, Rwanda, Africa

Dominant silverback gorilla in the Volcanoes National Park, Rwanda, Africa

Dominant silverback gorilla in the Volcanoes National Park, Rwanda, Africa

Dominant silverback gorilla in the Volcanoes National Park, Rwanda, Africa

Dominant silverback gorilla in the Volcanoes National Park, Rwanda, Africa

Gorilla groups are generally very peaceful, spending most of their time eating, grooming, playing and resting. Even in groups with more than one silverback, like the Susa group I was observing, there is no conflict between adult males. The dominant male retains his place at the head of the group until he dies, when an orderly transition to the second string silverback takes place. So strong are family ties, when a dominant silverback dies the group will often remain with the body for several days, before moving off to another location.

Silverback gorilla in the Volcanoes National Park, Rwanda, Africa

Silverback gorilla in the Volcanoes National Park, Rwanda, Africa

Silverback gorilla in the Volcanoes National Park, Rwanda, Africa

Silverback gorilla in the Volcanoes National Park, Rwanda, Africa

Silverback gorilla in the Volcanoes National Park, Rwanda, Africa

Silverback gorilla in the Volcanoes National Park, Rwanda, Africa

Gorilla groups have territories which overlap. Occasionally this leads to conflict with a male of another group, but interestingly the males defend their group rather than their territory. Gorillas are also extremely long lived, often to between 40 and 50 years, and like humans are largely active during the day. At night they build a nest on the ground to sleep in, often in family groupings.

Watching the Susa group at play and rest was magical. The huge and powerful dominant silverback – totally undisturbed by our presence – walked to the centre of his extended family and sat down. He gave our small group of awe-struck tourists the once-over and, realising that he had little to fear from puny humans, got down to the real work of the day. He played a little with one of the baby gorillas and groomed with some of the females.

Dominant silverback gorilla in the Volcanoes National Park, Rwanda, Africa

Dominant silverback gorilla in the Volcanoes National Park, Rwanda, Africa

Baby gorilla in the Volcanoes National Park, Rwanda, Africa

Baby gorilla in the Volcanoes National Park, Rwanda, Africa

Gorilla in the Volcanoes National Park, Rwanda, Africa

Gorilla in the Volcanoes National Park, Rwanda, Africa

Gorillas grooming in the Volcanoes National Park, Rwanda, Africa

Gorillas grooming in the Volcanoes National Park, Rwanda, Africa

Occasionally he’d lift up his giant head and check on the rest of the group. Eventually, content that all was well in his world, he lay down and rested. Around him the group continued to play and groom, thanks to his calming presence, ignoring the tourists snapping photos and pointing out other gorillas to each other. The Susa group is big, more than forty individuals; there is activity going on all around you and gorillas will suddenly appear out of the foliage, sometimes too close to us for comfort.

Dominant silverback gorilla in the Volcanoes National Park, Rwanda, Africa

Dominant silverback gorilla in the Volcanoes National Park, Rwanda, Africa

Baby gorilla in the Volcanoes National Park, Rwanda, Africa

Baby gorilla in the Volcanoes National Park, Rwanda, Africa

Dominant silverback gorilla in the Volcanoes National Park, Rwanda, Africa

Dominant silverback gorilla in the Volcanoes National Park, Rwanda, Africa

Dominant silverback gorilla in the Volcanoes National Park, Rwanda, Africa

Dominant silverback gorilla in the Volcanoes National Park, Rwanda, Africa

After about an hour in the presence of these glorious gorillas (visits are limited to one hour each day), we started our descent back down the mountain. I think I managed the entire journey back with a smile on my face.

Mountain Gorillas of Rwanda’s Volcanoes National Park

Rising early in the half light of dawn, I stumbled around my cabin on the outskirts of Ruhengeri, the closest town to the magical Volcanoes National Park. I hadn’t slept well, the night was filled with unusual noises and was surprisingly cold, but these weren’t the real reasons for my fitful night’s sleep. I was too excited to sleep: in the morning I’d have the chance to see Rwanda’s famous Mountain Gorillas. The excitement I felt as I tried to rustle up a cup of coffee can only be described as ‘child-like’.

Silverback dominant male Mountain Gorilla, Volcanoes National Park, Rwanda, Africa

Silverback dominant male Mountain Gorilla, Volcanoes National Park, Rwanda, Africa

There are few animals on the planet that have captured the imagination in the same way as the Mountain Gorilla. In part, this is due to the work of controversial zoologist, Dian Fossey, who dedicated her life to the study and survival of the Mountain Gorilla. Fossey did much of her research in Rwanda’s Volcanoes National Park, and it was here in 1985 that she was murdered and buried. The film Gorillas in the Mist, staring Sigourney Weaver, made Fossey’s story – and the Mountain Gorillas she loved – world famous.

The Mountain Gorilla is still endangered. Approximately 880 survive in the wild, all of them wedged into a corner of East Africa which has seen decades of conflict, poaching and habitat loss. While gorilla populations in Rwanda and Uganda have stabilised, the lawlessness of the Democratic Republic of Congo has seen massive habitat loss and many gorillas killed by poachers. Half of all Mountain Gorillas live in Rwanda, and I had secured a US$500* permit from the Rwandan Tourist Board to visit one of the eight habituated groups.

Mountain Gorilla, Volcanoes National Park, Rwanda, Africa

Mountain Gorilla, Volcanoes National Park, Rwanda, Africa

Mountain Gorilla, Volcanoes National Park, Rwanda, Africa

Mountain Gorilla, Volcanoes National Park, Rwanda, Africa

Mountain Gorilla, Volcanoes National Park, Rwanda, Africa

Mountain Gorilla, Volcanoes National Park, Rwanda, Africa

The driver I’d hired to take me to the National Park headquarters was late, my initial frustration gave way to gratefulness when we stopped to pick up two National Park guards hitching a lift to work. We had a chat about their work and, when it came to sorting the assembled foreign tourists into groups (maximum of eight people per group), they sorted me into the Susa group with only three other people. The Susa group is the largest of all gorilla groups, with over forty members, including two Silverbacks and a pair of twins.

Landscape around the Volcanoes National Park, Rwanda, Africa

Landscape around the Volcanoes National Park, Rwanda, Africa

Landscape around the Volcanoes National Park, Rwanda, Africa

Landscape around the Volcanoes National Park, Rwanda, Africa

Landscape around the Volcanoes National Park, Rwanda, Africa

Landscape around the Volcanoes National Park, Rwanda, Africa

Its a long drive to the volcano where the Susa group lives, and they’re often found high up the mountain – requiring a long and steep climb. The scenery en route up the volcano was glorious. We passed small farm huts and people working in fields of what looked like potatoes. Our guide said they were ‘Irish’ potatoes, a staple crop in this part of Rwanda. In the past, the gorilla habitat has been destroyed by farmers. Much work has been done with communities to reinforce the gorilla’s importance to the local economy, most are now supportive of the national park.

We reached the boundary of the park – little more than a wall – and suddenly we were walking through dense vegetation. It was a hot and sticky climb, but we got lucky, the Susa group was quite low down the mountain. After a surprisingly short walk – we’d been warned it could take five hours – we found them, along with the armed park guards who protect them.

Entrance to Volcanoes National Park, Rwanda, Africa

Entrance to Volcanoes National Park, Rwanda, Africa

Volcanoes National Park, Rwanda, Africa

Volcanoes National Park, Rwanda, Africa

Volcanoes National Park, Rwanda, Africa

Volcanoes National Park, Rwanda, Africa

We heard the gorillas long before we saw them; several young gorillas were charging around chasing each other and play fighting. They were so oblivious to our presence that a young gorilla even ran into the legs of one of our group. That was unfortunate, but unavoidable. Typically, tourists have to keep a good five meter distance from the gorillas. Because of our shared ancestry, anyone with a cold or similar infectious disease cannot visit the gorillas for fear of transmitting human diseases, to which they have no immunity.

Mountain Gorilla, Volcanoes National Park, Rwanda, Africa

Mountain Gorilla, Volcanoes National Park, Rwanda, Africa

Aping around, young Mountain Gorillas, Volcanoes National Park, Rwanda, Africa

Aping around, young Mountain Gorillas, Volcanoes National Park, Rwanda, Africa

Aping around, young Mountain Gorillas, Volcanoes National Park, Rwanda, Africa

Aping around, young Mountain Gorillas, Volcanoes National Park, Rwanda, Africa

While we were watching the young gorillas playing, and taking in the sheer magnificence of these truly amazing animals, the dominant male Silverback made his entrance. I can say, without fear of exaggeration, I have never seen a more noble and commanding animal in all my life…he was so human in his attitude to his unruly family, casting a fatherly eye over the group, chastising the occasional miscreant and showing a remarkable amount of affection for such a powerful and intimidating animal. Basically, a model father.

Silverback dominant male Mountain Gorilla, Volcanoes National Park, Rwanda, Africa

Silverback dominant male Mountain Gorilla, Volcanoes National Park, Rwanda, Africa

Silverback dominant male Mountain Gorilla, Volcanoes National Park, Rwanda, Africa

Silverback dominant male Mountain Gorilla, Volcanoes National Park, Rwanda, Africa

Silverback dominant male Mountain Gorilla, Volcanoes National Park, Rwanda, Africa

Silverback dominant male Mountain Gorilla, Volcanoes National Park, Rwanda, Africa

It was pure joy to watch this family of gorillas interact, to see the group dynamic and to see them at play in the safety of the national park…but more of that later…

* The price has been increased to US$750 in the last year

Rwanda, Land of a Thousand Hills

Perhaps the most bewildering thing about Rwanda, is just how ordinary and normal it feels when you travel around the country. It’s history, and the genocide which was perpetuated on its people, looms large everywhere you go. There are memorials to the dead in almost every village and hamlet in the country: inescapable reminders that, for Rwandans, there was no corner of their country left untouched by the brutality, no community or family that didn’t suffer death and destruction.

Yet, in this most exceptional of places, life continues to be lived in the most seemingly unexceptional way. That says a great deal about the resilience of Rwanda and Rwandans.

Silverback dominant male Mountain Gorilla, Volcanoes National Park, Rwanda, Africa

Silverback dominant male Mountain Gorilla, Volcanoes National Park, Rwanda, Africa

Rwandans don’t want to forget what happened in those murderous days in 1994, when a deliberate and terrible wave of violence was unleashed across the whole country. They certainly don’t want the international community to forget what happened here. The same international community which stood idly by, passively allowing the genocide to claim the lives of nearly one million people. Men, women and children, old and young, were slaughtered by the military and Hutu militias, many tortured and killed in the most horrific manner imaginable.

Interior of the church at the Ntarama Genocide Memorial site, the clothes are those of people killed in the church, Rwanda, Africa

Interior of the church at the Ntarama Genocide Memorial site, the clothes are those of people killed in the church, Rwanda, Africa

Shoes of the dead inside the church at the Ntarama Genocide Memorial site, Rwanda, Africa

Shoes of the dead inside the church at the Ntarama Genocide Memorial site, Rwanda, Africa

If the genocide defines people’s perceptions of Rwanda, Rwandans also want the world to know that their country is much, much more than just that one catastrophic period in its history. Talking to people as you travel around the country is humbling, and every person I met had a thirst to know where I was from, what my life was like and whether I was enjoying my time in their country. Some people talked openly about the family members and friends they lost in the genocide, but mostly it seemed inappropriate to ask too many questions.

Rwanda landscape, Rwanda, Africa

Rwanda landscape, Rwanda, Africa

View over Lake Burera, Ruhengeri, Rwanda, Africa

View over Lake Burera, Ruhengeri, Rwanda, Africa

Women sit by Lake Kivu, Rwanda, Africa

Women sit by Lake Kivu, Rwanda, Africa

There is a wealth of information – news stories, academic research, biographies, histories, documentaries and films – detailing Rwanda’s history and descent into genocide. The film, Hotel Rwanda, is one of the more moving accounts; and the book, Shake Hands with the Devil: The Failure of Humanity in Rwanda, by General Roméo Dallaire, the UN Commander in Rwanda, is a startlingly human account of someone forced to witness the genocide first-hand without the power to prevent it.

In Rwanda, its impossible to avoid the legacy and memory of the genocide, but this wasn’t the reason I wanted to visit. A friend had returned from Rwanda and her description of the country and its people fascinated me, made me want to understand it better. In the end, it was the opportunity to see one of the most iconic of all creatures on this planet, the Mountain Gorilla, that tipped me over the edge into booking my flights.

Baby Mountain Gorilla, Volcanoes National Park, Rwanda, Africa

Baby Mountain Gorilla, Volcanoes National Park, Rwanda, Africa

Beach on Lake Kivu, Gisenyi, Rwanda, Africa

Beach on Lake Kivu, Gisenyi, Rwanda, Africa

A couple of weeks isn’t a lot of time, but Rwanda is a small country with probably the best maintained roads in Africa. Travelling is easy and quick, although if you want to get to some more distant places, hiring a 4×4 is probably the best idea. The thing that struck me most about Rwanda, is just how beautiful and verdant the countryside is. Although it is hard to escape the fact that, in this tiny country with a growing population, almost all the available land is already used for agriculture.

This is important. Land rights were one of the hidden causes of the genocide, and competition for land and water could cause future conflicts. Its also important because some of the last remaining wilderness areas are under serious threat from agriculture. This is putting pressure on the habitats and animals which could be the source of a tourism boom; while the loss of trees for firewood and to clear land for crops, could severely effect the watershed.

View over Lake Kivu, Kibuye, Rwanda, Africa

View over Lake Kivu, Kibuye, Rwanda, Africa

Sunset over Lake Kivu, Kibuye, Rwanda, Africa

Sunset over Lake Kivu, Kibuye, Rwanda, Africa

Rwanda is addressing these, and many other issues, with limited resources, but from my experience it is looking to the future with confidence. Although it’s involvement in the conflict and theft of natural resources in neighbouring Democratic Republic of Congo, casts a long shadow over that future.

Sunset over the Volcanoes National Park, Rwanda, Africa

Sunset over the Volcanoes National Park, Rwanda, Africa

Travelling around the country though, Rwanda struck me a stable, safe and welcoming. It certainly deserves the name the Ministry of Tourism has bestowed upon the country – Land of a Thousands Hills. There are hills everywhere, including the volcanic Virunga mountain range, home to mountain gorillas which roam across the borders of the Democratic Republic of Congo, Rwanda and Uganda. It was a journey I’m unlikely to forget any time soon.