Tourists in the Mist: Finding Rwanda's Famous Apes

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.

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