The Mountain Gorilla – gorilla gorilla berengei
The Mountain Gorillas of Rwanda were made famous by Diane Fossey who dedicated her life to their future and immortalized them in her book and the film ‘Gorillas in the Mist’. There are about 700 Mountain Gorillas remaining in the world today, of which half live in the Virunga Volcanoes. In the past poaching and habitat destruction were the main cause for concern. However with publicity, tourism and education regarding the plight of the Mountain Gorilla, the authorities have been able to halt this rapid decline.
There are few animals in Africa about which so many legends circulate. His enormous size, his extraordinary strength and the fact that he lives in mysterious forests of luxuriant vegetation have contributed to his mystique. The troop consists usually of a dominant male and up to five or more females and their young. It is basically a stable family with the young only leaving after they reach sexual maturity. Females join another group while young males remain solitary until they have an opportunity of forming their own troop.
This primate is of impressive dimensions; some males (such as Guhonda the silverback of Sabinyo Group that you may visit) attain over six feet in height and weigh more than 440 pounds. The head is massive and the huge jaws are equipped with powerful teeth. Far from being an aggressive animal, as the legends claim, the gorilla is gentle and peaceful in its habits. It is only when threatened that he adopts an intimidating attitude in which he howls in a most frightful way and beats his chest with his fists. Should visitors find themselves in his presence at this moment, they will be advised to assume a submissive, non-threatening attitude. Once his confidence has been restored, the gorilla goes on about his business accepting the intruder.
It is estimated that there are about 170 gorillas in the Rwandan side of the park. They are very sociable animals, living in groups of three up to forty. Being sedentary, they are continually looking for food in a living space that is comparatively restricted. They are active only during the daytime and build nests in which they pass the night. The nests built in trees are occupied by the females and young ones, while the males seem to prefer nests on the ground. Their food consists mainly of leaves, buds, tubers and sorts of wild celery from the umbelliferous family.
The trek to find gorillas can be quite short, but on most days at least an hour or two of rough hiking each way is necessary. Each visit is by permit and limited to one hour with a professional Gorilla tracker in charge who will coach you in the safety rules and body language required to come close to the Gorilla troops
At the Park Headquarters you will be assigned your group for today’s trek. Before you set off your guide will introduce himself and give you a briefing about the group that you are going to seek. You then drive the short distance to the trackers base in the foothills and meet your trackers and army rangers who will accompany you on the trek. Sticks are thoughtfully provided and extremely necessary as the terrain is slippery and sometimes the nettles take a lot of knocking back.
The trackers remain with their selected group and are familiar with that group’s movements and habits. You will notice how the Gorillas communicate with the trackers whilst you observe the group.
It is important to bear in mind that Gorilla trekking is strenuous and grubby – wear clothes that you don’t mind getting dirty, wet and muddy and that will dry out quickly and won’t chafe you as you climb. A waistcoat with lots of deep pockets is very useful as you will be asked to leave all bags, sticks and backpacks with a tracker & porters once you are within 200 meters of the group. You need pockets for spare film, disks, water bottle and any valuables or documents that you are carrying.
Once you are ready you head off for one of the most exhilarating and moving wildlife experiences you can have: you get so close to these giant primates, observing them observing you – their almost human movements, innate dignity and social interaction make a unique connection within each of us.
The climb begins through the lush terraced farmland of the lower volcanic slopes. As the slopes become steeper and rockier, the vegetation becomes thick and tangled; the guides must use their machetes to help clear a path. Huge trees, clinging vines and undergrowth add to the challenge of swift streams and slippery red mud underfoot.
Usually at around 8,000 foot signs of the huge animals become apparent. Damage to the bamboo trees is an obvious sign as the gorillas relish the young tender shoots and break older stems to suck the sap. The smell of gorilla may waft by in the stray breeze or, if one is really near, it is strong and unmistakable. Sounds, which can be remarkably loud crashes or dull reverberating thuds particularly when there are juveniles in the group – their hollow chest thumping makes a distinctive impression as they crash through the undergrowth around you.