2017 is the fiftieth anniversary of Dian Fossey’s Gorilla Fund – Daniel Allen headed to Volcanoes National Park in northwestern Rwanda to see how her apes are faring
When a personal butler wakes you with a steaming cafetière of arabica, you know your day is probably going to be a good one. When your balcony offers a spectacular dawn view of Rwanda’s Volcanoes National Park, you know the day is going to be great. Throw in a long- awaited encounter with mountain gorillas and things start to get really special.
“For most people, witnessing mountain gorillas in the wild is a moving, humbling experience,” says Philip Mason, Sabyinyo’s Kenyan manager. “You are there because these massively powerful animals let you be there. One look at a gorilla’s hands, or into its eyes, and you realise that you’re looking at a species that is on the cusp of being human.”
In recent times, more than 20,000 people have come to Rwanda each year to see gorillas. Eight habituated groups are currently open to visitors (a maximum number of eight tourists per group is allowed), while nine groups have also been habituated for research. Each group is monitored daily, all year round, by researchers and trackers from the Karisoke Research Centre, founded by Dian Fossey 50 years ago this year.
The name Dian Fossey will forever be linked to the mountain gorillas of Rwanda. An American primatologist, anthropologist and gorilla conservationist, more commonly known to those who encountered her as ‘the gorilla lady’, Fossey undertook a pioneering study of gorilla populations in Rwanda’s Volcanoes National Park in the 1970s and early 1980s.
“I think it is safe to say that Fossey single-handedly saved mountain gorillas from extinction,” says 27-year-old Bernice Iwacu, one of Volcanoes National Park’s expert gorilla guides. “By living alongside a group of these apes, she demonstrated that these smart and gentle animals weren’t actually savage killers after all. She showed that gorillas are a lot like humans, with individual characters, emotions and complex social hierarchies.”
Our goal is a 28-strong group of mountain gorillas called Pablo. Led by our effervescent guide, who regularly contacts the group of trackers shadowing Pablo by radio, we plunge onwards and upwards into ever thicker bamboo forest. Solitary giant fig trees, their branches draped in beards of shaggy lichen, rear skywards through the dense canopy as we ourselves are briefly tracked by a cohort of chattering golden monkeys, intrigued by our presence. The going becomes increasingly tough as the trail turns into a challenging mix of viscous mud, tree roots and waist-high nettles.
The radio suddenly bursts into life – a rapid-fire mixture of Kinyarwanda (the official language of Rwanda) and English. Bernice silently motions us to drop our bags and move quietly through a thick screen of bamboo.
Strength and gentleness make an arresting combination, and in this forest clearing it is all around; 28 mountain gorillas are resting and playing after an early meal of succulent bamboo shoots.
We crouch quietly in the low vegetation, content to observe the gorillas of Pablo go about their daily life, as Bernice and the trackers reassure the habituated apes with a selection of guttural grunts. A hulking silverback evaluates us briefly, rests his head on massive hands in a distinctly philosophical pose, and goes to sleep. There’s never a moment when we feel in danger – the group instantly accepts our presence as we move within metres of their extended family circle.
I could sit and watch the gorillas of Pablo all day long, but all too soon Bernice calls time on our primate-primate interaction. We slink away reluctantly, memory cards replete with photos, each awe-inspired
by the day’s unique experience among this group of tolerant, enchanting, highly intelligent animals. 50 years after Dian Fossey began her tireless quest to save the mountain gorillas of Rwanda from extinction and change the world’s view of these caring beings, the last 60 minutes have been truly priceless.
To read the full story of Daniel’s Rwandan adventure, find the new Nature Diaries feature in issue 49 of World of Animals, in shops and online!
Words and photos: Daniel Allen