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.

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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.

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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.

Population in Peril

The war was part of the mountain gorillas' problem, but only part. They have been killed for food, died from exposure to human disease (which is why no one under 15 can make the trip, children being known incubators of disease) and their babies have been captured and sold on the black market. In some cases four or five adults were slaughtered to steal one gorilla baby. Two hours after leaving the hotel in Kigali, we arrived at the base camp to meet our guide and head out in search of the gorillas. The fact that such a tourist camp can exist at all is something of a miracle. After all, most people would not put the words "Rwanda" and "tourism" together, but the government is determined to do so. In this country with so little, great care and attention has been put into creating an eco-tourism program that protects the gorillas and helps the people in the communities that surround them. All the while giving folks like us a chance to visit them, for a price.

We were introduced to Eli, our tour guide, and the four tourists in our group, each of whom had paid $500 for the chance to visit with one of the gorilla families, if we can find them.

"Before we leave this place, I would like to show you pictures of the group we are going to visit," Eli said. "This is Amhoro group."

The Amhoro — or peace family — consists of 18 members. One adult male silverback dominates, and he's in charge of the mating (he keeps the females for himself) and finding the food. Our group has two silverback males; the second one is handicapped, having lost one hand to a trap. Keeping track of the gorillas who, after all, live in a jungle isn't easy — no electronic bands here. In Rwanda, it's nose prints.

I wondered who took the prints. Eli laughed. There was no printing, just careful study.

"They have to do careful observation of the gorilla using binoculars. They make a drawing," Eli said.

Nose prints aside, counting gorillas is important work, the only way to see if the families are gaining in numbers. Proudly, Eli tells us, the mountain gorilla population is starting to grow, up 7 percent last year.

There is no precise count of the remaining mountain gorillas. It is estimated there are only about 800 left in the world, including the ten families of the great apes in Rwanda. Three of the families cannot be visited by tourists. They are being studied by those continuing Fossey's work at a research center continued in her honor. But the other seven families are visited once a day for an hour by small groups of tourists (no more than eight at a time). Many believe these seven gorilla families are forging the backbone of a new future for Rwanda, by luring 10,000 tourists a year to the badly scarred country. Last year, the gorilla tours brought in some $7 million, 5 percent of which goes to the local communities, for schools and health care.

Getting to the Gorillas, With Guides and Guards

The locals now realize they too have a big stake in helping the gorillas. Largely gone are the traps from the forest, but while the gorillas are protected, they are not completely safe. Poachers are still a problem, and a danger for tourists. We had two armed guards accompany us on our climb, and I asked about the automatic weapons.

"We have gorillas, but we also have buffaloes and elephants," Eli explained. "Second reason is the poaching problem. … So to avoid such problems, we have the guy in the back. So when we reach poachers, they have guns, it's for our safety."

So, with our guides in front, our guards in back, we headed off to find our gorillas. Let me say, a little walk in Central Park this is not. The terrain is pretty tough, the altitude is high, the ground muddy … and the path, well, let's just say, it comes and goes. Remember we only had one day to make this trek, and I had a plane to catch. Eli said as I worried aloud, "But Cynthia, the gorillas don't know about our schedule."

So how are we to find our gorilla family? Each night trackers are dispatched to locate each of the families. Our trackers had been following our family since dawn, and every time Eli' s walkie-talkie crackled we thought it would be the news we were waiting for. But after more than an hour of walking, bad news. We had another two and a half hours to go to reach the family. And what, I suddenly wondered, if the gorillas didn't feel like a visit today? One of our fellow travelers got me worried.

"Someone had been tracking for seven hours in the rain and they were following the gorillas on a path like this for several hours and then they found out the gorillas had escaped into the Congo and they had to go back without seeing them," she said.

After another hour of mud the good news came (the gorillas were close), but so did the bad news (we had to make our own path to get to them). Literally, no exaggeration, we were up to our necks in bushes, the machine gun toting soilders now using their machetes to hack us a path through the thick under-brush. We came to a cliff. No turning back now. We picked our way down the face of a steep mountain.

Visiting the Great Apes

Now almost four hours from the base camp, the trackers said we'd made it, and were within minutes of the nest where the gorillas had settled. We were ordered to leave our bags, our walking sticks, everything behind before forging ahead. That's because gorillas know their human cousins a little too well.

Eli says the gorillas sometimes confuse walking sticks with spears, and attack. Since the males can weigh 400 pounds, none of us wished to make them angry. The gorillas have reason to fear humans. Just last year, just across the border in the neighboring Democratic Republic of the Congo, ten gorillas were slaughtered. Life in the jungle is still very dangerous.

And then, before I realized where I had entered, we arrived in the nest of 18 mountain gorillas about to take a nap after feeding all morning. And yes, happily, they are vegetarians. An adult eats 60 pound of plants a day, if he can find it. And then sleeps it off.

There were some amazing moments. Channeling my inner Fossey, I tried to connect with one of the females — sorry I can't read her nose print — and as she lay down, so did I, and I swear we played peek a boo.

The leader — Ubumwe as he's called by the locals ("the boss") — has been in charge for about eight years. We also saw the second silverback, Kajorte, the one who lost a hand a few years back in a trap set for antelelopes.

And there were new additions to the group — the gorilla babies made a swing and played just like human babies. The desire to reach out and touch the gorillas is tremendous, especially the babies.

According to research, about 50 percent of baby gorillas don't reach their third year. It can be from disease, inbreeding, or poaching.

We positioned ourselves about three feet away from the nearest gorillas, as instructed by the guides. But as we were warned might happen, the boss made big threatening noises and charged us. Dominance matters in the jungle and we readily submit to his, lying down and looking away as we were instructed.

We were allowed to stay only an hour, and just as we were told we'll have to go, the boss beat his chest — yes they really do this — once again showing us who's running this operation, and the gorillas marched off in stately fashion.

And so our excellent adventure — almost a spiritual experience we all agree — is over, well worth every muddy footstep. This family of mountain gorillas may not know it, but they are helping preserve not just their own species … but a lot of people's lives in this struggling country as well.

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