Tourists in the Mist: Finding Rwanda's Famous Apes

Last month I was sent to Rwanda on assignment, to take a look at the health care system in the remote western part of the country. Evangelical pastor and best-selling author Rick Warren had been invited by Rwandan President Paul Kagame to help his country as it struggles under the weight of the genocide that took place there 14 years ago. Our complete report on that remarkable journey will be filed in the coming weeks. But first, another story.

We found ourselves with one day "extra" in Rwanda and a great desire to see whether the reports of a thriving eco-tourism business were true. Our mission was to see how the mountain gorillas, one of the most endangered animals on the planet, are doing under the management of one of the poorest countries on earth. According to the World Wildlife Fund, these gorillas are on the brink of extinction.

Watch the story tonight on "Nightline" at 11:35 p.m. ET

Our guide, translator and driver for the trip was a man named Themis, a local journalist and a survivor of the genocide.

Even at 5 a.m., the roads were clogged with people walking to work — cars are a luxury in a country where the average income is $250 a year. Rwanda is called the "Land of a Thousand Hills," and our two hour drive to the Virunga Volcanoes Region where the gorillas live gave us a firsthand look at why. The road carried us higher and higher, around and around through the early morning mist. Suddenly the whole concept of "Gorillas in the Mist" became quite clear. The mist was clearly not Hollywood hype. We were hoping the gorillas weren't either. Of course, it is impossible not to mention the 1988 movie when you visit these Rwandan gorillas. The gorillas we were hoping to see are relatives or at least neighbors of those immortalized in the film, starring Sigourney Weaver, which chronicled the life and death of the legendry zoologist Dian Fossey.

Fossey, an American living in Rwanda, spent years living alongside those mountain gorillas to study and ultimately protect them. Her decades of work showed for the first time how complex, intelligent and diverse they are, and her fervent desire to protect these great apes is what many believe led to her murder in 1985.

As we drove on, even the highway became a reminder of Rwanda's troubled past. The otherwise developed road system is marred by crater-like potholes.

"In 1994, when they were fighting they dropped many bombs," said Themis. "That's why you see those [potholes]."

The bombs of course were fired during the genocide; still, 14 years later, the backdrop to all life in Rwanda. A genocide that in the course of four months saw the murder of almost a million people in an ethnic slaughter that left no one untouched … including the gorillas.

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