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Old Karisoke

While in Rwanda, we didn’t end up filming the gorillas that Dian Fossey worked with. Bureaucracy prevented that, and I won’t bore you with the details. But we wanted to film her gravesite, meet the head of research for the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund, and also see how the local community has gotten involved in conservation.

We were able to do all of that, but the day we hiked to Old Karisoke, (the former research site where Dian lived and is now buried) it was a miserable, rainy day.  We had only one chance to film it, so we set out to climb the massive mountain anyway.  It was the hardest hike we’d done so far. Mainly because it was so steep, hiking from 2000m at the base up to 3000m where her old camp was.  And the thistles and nettles flanking the trail were so fierce they burned and cut us through our pants!  It was slippery and I used the wooden staff the guide handed out, and now could see why people found them so useful! 

Ian Redmond explained how it used to look before the remnants of the buildings, looted and destroyed during years of conflict and disuse, had been swallowed up by the forest. The research site has been rebuilt in a different location, but this place felt sacred.  It felt historic, and was more beautiful and mystical looking than any place we’d been to so far. The trees smothered in fluffy mosses, branches hanging heavy and, yes, misty, all around us.  Seeing Dian’s grave was much more moving than I thought it would be, there in the verdant forest, alongside the tiny wooden, lichen-covered grave markers of over a dozen of her gorilla subjects that had died and were lovingly buried there.  The torrential rain had cleared just long enough to film the sequences we needed and it was such a special experience, one that I will never forget.

We were also able to meet a group lead by reformed poachers who work on community projects instead of killing animals illegally in the park.  On the day we went to film them, they were building a wall around the park boundary, to keep buffalo and other animals from venturing down into people’s fields where they’re more likely to get shot for crop-raiding.  I met the man leading the group, and asked him about his past. He admitted that as a teen, he would set snares for bushmeat (not actually intended for gorillas, but an inadvertent threat to them) in the forest near where Dian and her rangers patrolled.  He explained how they were very sneaky and would often skirt right by them undetected.  Ian, who had worked with Dian in the late 70’s explained to him that he was there during that time and had destroyed hundreds of those snares on his patrols.  The man was quite surprised, but shook Ian’s hand and explained that they would have been sworn enemies back then, but he and his family no longer poach, and they now share a common concern for the conservation of the Park and it’s animals.  It was such a rare moment between two men meeting for the first time and realizing their histories had been so intimately entwined all those decades ago. The hunter and the hunted now shaking hands and sharing a few words in Kinyarwanda with forgiveness passing between them. 

It showed that people can and DO change and the lives of endangered animals can be saved, if we work at it.

Just setting out to hike up to Dian’s old research site and final resting place, in some heavy rain. It’s funny to think at first we tried to dodge rivers like this, since we ended up walking IN one for hours:

Ben and Stu in a lot of rain Photo by Holly Carroll

That’s not a river, that’s the trail. And we hiked it from 2000m to 3000m elevation! (Photo by Craig Carter).

That's not a river that's the trail Photo by Craig Carter

It was SO much easier on the way down, but not really less wet.

On the way back down

Holly talks with an ex-poacher (via a Park translator) and introduces him to Ian Redmond, the man who destroyed hundreds of his family’s snares in the 70’s while working for Dian Fossey. (Photo by Mike Dillon).

Meet your enemy Photo by Mike Dillon

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Gorilla Orphans

Here’s the good news:  there are ONLY FOUR mountain gorillas in captivity in the world!  And, the mountain gorilla population has increased in the last decade.  There are now around 750 animals and the three countries that have them- Uganda, Rwanda, and D.R.C are doing a good job protecting them.

Here in Virunga National park, the four captive gorillas are kept at Senkwekwe Sanctuary. The sad thing is that the sanctuary is named after a silverback gorilla that was murdered in 2007.  I say murdered because it wasn’t accidental, there is a charcoal ‘mafia’ in the area who harvest wood for charcoal in the Park, and in retaliation for having their business hindered, they murdered Senkwekwe and many of his family members.  They’re buried in a small graveyard near the park headquarters, along with other gorillas that have died, some thankfully from natural causes.

The orphans include a survivor from the Senkwekwe massacre and a few others who have been accidentally snared, or confiscated from illegal traffickers. They have a lovely wooded enclosure where they can spend their days foraging for ‘wild foods’ and they have a keeper who clearly adores them and has been with them since that first one was rescued from the scene of Senkwekwe’s bloodshed.  The hope is that they can one day be released into the wild as a group, so they have better chances of survival, particularly since the oldest among them is a female. They really seem to love each other, each of them having a strong bond with one in particular, but tolerating the other two as siblings do. (Like many human ‘non-traditional’ families I guess).  These guys are so lovely and being a short walk away from where we were staying at Mikeno lodge, it was fun to go and photograph them after a leisurely stroll as opposed to an uphill slog.  (You may notice they look a bit different from the ‘wild’ mountain gorillas-that’s because their captivity and grooming stereotypies cause their coats to be less fluffy than their wild counterparts).

Though I know some of you find these types of stories disturbing, I share them because it is the reality of the complex struggle to preserve the apes. But also, because in the case of the mountain gorillas, things ARE improving, and if we can just make this same type of progress with the other apes, perhaps our grandchildren will be lucky enough to see them in the wild, and not just in zoos.

A mountain gorilla peers through the wire of his enclosure at Senkwekwe Sanctuary, Virunga National Park, D.R.C:

Through the wire photo

This guy lost his hand to a snare, and is captive, but other than that, has a lot going for him….(photo by Mark Lamble)

Mountain gorilla orphan

This female, when a bit older, could help them survive as a group in the wild (Photo by Mark Lamble)

Another gorilla orphan

… but they still have trees to climb…. (photo by Mike Dillon)

But they still have trees to climb

I know how you feel Jeremy.

Jeremy in a common pose photo

It could be worse, those four captive gorillas could be HERE…

Virunga Mountain Gorilla Gravesite

The rangers of Virunga National Park are doing their best to save the mountain gorillas, and winning the battle for now…

Virunga National Park logo

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Trekking with Grauer’s Gorillas

For those that have not already had the incredibly unique experience of trekking to see gorillas in the wild, it’s pretty special, and well worth the effort.  Each place is a bit different.  Here at Kahuzi-Biega National Park, we’d arrive around 8 in the the morning at the Park headquarters to sign in, get porters and find out where the gorillas were. Then we’d all load into the cars and drive to the closest hike-in location. Here the road is really good and it was a short drive to where we’d start the walk, and we were lucky that the gorillas were relatively close so usually only about 30 minutes to an hour hike to find them.  The forest here is definitely dense and there’s lots of vines and spiky plants, nettles and other unpleasant vegetation that try to get you through your clothes, and of course, the occasional run-in with the dreaded army ants!

But then when we’d get close to the group, the rangers would alert us that they were nearby, we’d don our face masks (to limit disease transmission to the gorillas) and we’d start setting up our equipment to film them. Then they’d clear some vegetation with machetes to reveal 1, 2, or many animals, just sitting there feeding, or relaxing!  I had been to see the mountain gorillas in Uganda in 2003, but my first encounter with eastern lowlands (Grauer’s) was just as amazing as that first time so long ago in Uganda.  It still blows my mind that when you step into their domain, they give you an interested glance, and then go back about their business. It feels a bit like walking into a cafeteria and there’s only strangers there eating, some look up and notice you, others don’t, but they all go back to their food and their conversations, as if you don’t exist.  Except these are some sort of Buddha-like forest people, eating their lunch on the ground, or in the trees, smacking their lips, belching reassurance grunts to one another, farting, and ripping apart salad and eating it with fingers!

Sometimes, the animals were quite interested, particularly the juveniles. So they’d stare at what we were doing, only half-heartedly eating their food items, or wrestling with their friends, but mainly staring at us.  On a few occasions, an individual would even approach us, breaching the 7 meter safety rule (also to protect them from diseases).  In these moments I was absolutely torn by how cool it was that they were coming close, but also fearful that it was unsafe for them to be getting that close. I wasn’t afraid for my safety, more just wondering if we should be moving away so as not to encourage that behavior.  I don’t know about you, but whenever I am a tourist, I always somehow see myself as different, or BETTER than all the OTHER tourists.  I have this attitude of “well I’m glad I got to have that close encounter, but it’d be a problem if that was happening with ‘regular’ tourists because what if they didn’t know the appropriate behavior?”  This of course, is a totally hypocritical view to have, because we are ALL visitors, and rules are in place for the safety of the gorillas, and we ALL need to remember that it’s for their safety.  Our own selfish desires to ‘make contact’ or to get that stunning photo really need to come second to their health.  And it truly can affect their survival. There have been cases of gorillas that have died from respiratory disease, measles, and other contagions because of unsafe proximity to humans. 

It’s also important that the rangers be consistent and don’t relax the rules just because they might get rewarded by a tip from a tourist, because then that would undermine the whole system.

So basically, the rule of thumb is that you keep the safe distance, but if one approaches, you try to back up, if you can. Also, if they try to touch or taste your camera boxes, you need to move them out of reach of the animal as well!  Also, because visitor group size is limited, our porters or anyone not needed for filming must stay back, out of viewing range of the gorillas.

On this one particular day, the majority of the family were in a ‘gorilla pile’ as I like to call their power-lounging sessions.  They were under a thicket of vines, but we had a beautiful intimate view of the group in there. The silverback was grooming his son, a couple of his females were snoozing, and the littlest babies were wrestling, climbing the vines above, twirling around on their brachiating wrists and then dropping boisterously down onto their dad!  I wasn’t sure if they were trying to annoy dad or whether they were just having a good time, either way he was tolerant and gentle. I was really enjoying the scene, but then out from the side popped this very interested older juvenile or mature female, (it’s hard to tell the difference) who clearly took a very pointed interest in something behind me! I turned around to see what was peaking her curiosity and Stu had just arrived down the trail with some piece of camera kit, but was standing stock-still when he saw her.  She was staring right at him and started walking toward us to get a closer look at him… and didn’t’ stop until she was about 5 meters away!

We couldn’t have backed away if we wanted to because both cameras were set up behind me, with dense vines behind us.  Ian was filming just behind me, I was taking photos, and this gorilla was enthralled with the ‘new big white guy’.  She stopped for a second, but then approached even closer, on all fours, just staring at Stuart behind me, and at one point I said while continuing to film, “Ian, you’ll tell me if I should be scared, right?” But then she stopped her advance, sat on a log, stretched a leg out and braced it against a tree, and gave us a side-pose.  It was magic!

The crew and the porters (that I affectionately call the turtle brigade) beginning the hike in to find the gorillas (Photo by Mike Dillon) 

Crew and the turtle brigade about to hike in..

Gorillas chilling in a thicket

Gorillas in a thicket

A juvenile plays around while the others nap

Hanging juvenile

Eastern lowland (Grauer’s) gorilla, striking a pose for us (Photo by Ben Cunningham)

Buddha pose gorilla

Look at the tourists getting photos of a gorilla! (Photo by Mike Dillon)

best shot of our best shot of buddha

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More photos of Eastern Lowland Gorillas in Kahuzi Biega National Park

GOT YOU, you little bastard”

Got you little bastard

More gorillas in Kahuzi Biega National Park

Mom and baby kbnp

That is ONE BIG dude

One big silverback kbnp

 “I gotta do something about these nails!”

Need a manicure

More magic moments with the Eastern lowland gorillas….

Mom and juvenile e lowland

I think they’re as interested in us as we are in them!

Inquisitive juv kbnp

In case you were wondering what why so many flies around the gorillas, here’s the cause- it’s a gorilla-sized poo! (and that’s Craig’s size 10 boot!)

Gorilla poo kbnp

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First Eastern Lowland Gorilla I’ve Ever Seen!

First eastern lowland gorilla

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GORILLAS!

March 18

Having made it to Bukavu, D.R.C, we are now filming Eastern Lowland gorillas in Kahuzi Biega National Park for a week!  It’s a surprisingly different-looking landscape from where we’ve been, with tall mountains, lush cultivation, and a bustling city right on the shores of the massive and beautiful Lake Kivu. Our hotel, the Orchid, is right on the lake, we all have our OWN rooms with hot water, and in the gardens on the grounds I saw about 10 species of birds in the 15 minutes upon my arrival.  I LOVE Bukavu already!!

View from the Orchid hotel of beautiful Lake Kivu

Orchid hotel view of Lake Kivu

Bustling Bukavu

Bustling Bukavu

Kahuzi Biega National Park

Kahuzi Biega National Park

Not a REAL gorilla just yet…

Statue in Kahuzi Biega NP

Mike Dillon films as we trek to meet up with the gorillas

Mike filming us hiking