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:
That’s not a river, that’s the trail. And we hiked it from 2000m to 3000m elevation! (Photo by Craig Carter).
It was SO much easier on the way down, but not really less wet.
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).