Virungas, Home Of The Last Mountain Gorillas

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The protection of the mountain gorillas owes a lot to the Volcanoes National Park in northwestern Rwanda and a community trust named SACOLA. Photo (c) Stephane Gautronneau.

Welcome to the Virunga Mountains, where tourism can bring hope to a critically endangered species.

Only roughly 880 mountain gorillas remain on Earth, surviving in the Albertine Rift montane forests, between Bwindi Impenetrable Forest and the nearby Virunga Mountains. Their lush, volcanic slopes straddle the borders of Uganda, Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of Congo – countries that have been a hotbed of human violence from which the gorillas have not escaped unscathed. But they are now finding hope in eco-tourism.

I simply wasn’t prepared for that moment when you find yourself in the middle of a family of mountain gorillas. Covered in mud, short of breath after hiking several hours through a steamy rainforest in high altitude, my excitement started ramping up when my guide pointed out a few munched bamboos and asked us to leave our bags behind. The first snores came out of the foliage and, all of the sudden, black fur flashed between the leaves.

Two juvenile gorillas came to investigate, while the cutest fuzzy baby tumbled from trees to grab my hand. In theory, visitors should never get closer than 7m but gorilla etiquette tends to flout human rules. Peering into those liquid-brown eyes was one of the most intimate, powerful, experiences of my life.

An Extraordinary Journey

Marcia Gordon started Extraordinary Journeys with her daughter Elizabeth, in 2008, gathering a team of 18 women passionate about travel, conservation, nature and people. This high end travel agency only works with eco-conscious camps and lodges having close supportive relationships with local communities.

Sabyinyo Silverback Lodge is one of them. Part of the Governors’ Camp collection, developed in collaboration with African Wildlife Foundation and owned by a Community Trust, SACOLA, this luxury retreat offers marvellous service, plush accommodations and incredible views of Rwanda’s Volcanoes National Park.

With 60 full time employed staff members for nine cottages, it offers a genuine and caring atmosphere. From the personal butlers and night watchmen dedicated to each bungalow to the cooks filling the kitchen with laughs, they are all selected for their personality, passion and expertise. Sharing a glass of wine and a plate of homemade tortellini and homegrown vegetables with the lodge manager, Alisa, she explains the sustainable touch behind every detail.

“For each night spent in the lodge, a $92 fee is given to the SACOLA community, which decides how it should be used - creating schools for kids, financing community banks or even creating a poultry project for the widows of the genocide, from which we bought the eggs we used tonight for those tortellini.”

Marcia Gordon adds: “Luxury tourism definitely plays an essential role into conservation when working with the right partners, using this income to drive socio-economic and conservation initiatives in the communities.” Her daughter Elizabeth says: “Our clients are down to earth, curious, and wealthy enough to have the will to give back, to protect the planet”.

Wealthy and engaged they need to be, after the price of a one-hour encounter with gorillas doubled overnight. The Rwanda Development Board announced in May 2017 an increase in the price of Gorilla Permits from US$750 to US $1,500 for all visitors, securing a better experience, stronger conservation sustainability and local communities development.

My guide, Emmanuel Harerimana, grew up in a family of nine children, caught in a vicious spiral of poaching. Being caught for the first time, his dad had to sell their land to pay for the fine. His eldest son had no choice but poaching to feed his family: “At 14, I’d rather kill an antelope and risk a gorilla’s life than see my family starve to death.”

In 2005, Harerimana was however saved by Edwin Sabuhoro and the association From Poachers to Farmers, which turns poachers into expert wildlife conservation agents or ties them to local cultural centres that provide knowledge, crafts and daily activities for tourists. Today, even Harerimana’s father sells handcrafted gorilla sculptures at the centre. Thanks to conservation initiatives and the right kind of eco-tourism, the total number of mountain gorillas has held firm, and even slowly increased over the course of the last decades to reach an estimated 880.

An Endangered Species

Back in 2003, a research team led by primatologist Peter Walsh predicted that without aggressive investments in law enforcement, protected area management and Ebola prevention, the next decade would see gorillas pushed to the brink of extinction. Innocent Mburanumwe, DRC Virunga National Park deputy and head of southern sector, says: “Direct or collateral poaching is one of the first threats to gorillas, with habitat loss due to illegal charcoal production and mining exploitation.” One of the prime reasons for gorilla poaching is the extensive bush meat demand in urban centres from West to Central Africa and European black markets. Gorillas are also tracked down to create hand trophies, for traditional medicine and for their live infants. But many gorillas also suffer from collateral damage, often being maimed or killed by ropes and wire snares intended for antelopes or other forest animals.

Habitat loss also has a daily and direct impact on gorilla populations: locals and refugees need land and firewood to survive. This often leads to disasters such as in 2004, when Rwandese settlers crossed the border and illegally cleared 1,500 hectares of forest.

Although most refugees left the camps in North Kivu around 1996, the presence of rebel groups and militia is also a threat to the gorillas. Another issue — human ailments — receives lighter attention from the media, yet it might be one of the most important killing factors today. Indeed, the land surrounding mountain gorilla habitat is some of the most densely populated in Africa, and with increased contact with livestock, locals and tourists, mountain gorillas are becoming increasingly exposed to a variety of infections.Today, infectious diseases account for more than 20 percent of their mortality. The most common infectious disease in mountain gorillas is respiratory disease.

If gorillas were to disappear as a species, it would obviously endanger a whole ecosystem and the biodiversity structure that relies on them spreading seeds and pollens, and all the other species living around them, humans included. “Fighting for the conservation of gorillas is the best way to conserve the whole forest and living animals. It’s a powerful umbrella species,” says Luis Flores of the Centre de Rehabilitation des Primates de Lwiro in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

The Silverback Mountain Gorillas

The mountain gorilla (gorilla beringei beringei) is one of two subspecies of the eastern gorillas. Far from the image conveyed by movies such as King Kong or Congo, the powerful ‘gentle giants’ are easy-going vegetarians who lead a peaceful and playful life. Sharing 98.3 percent of their genetic code with humans — they are our closest cousins after chimpanzees and bonobos — the mountain gorillas display many human-like behaviours and emotions. Extremely intelligent, mountain gorillas communicate using a great range of sounds and gestures, even using tools in the wild. Living in family groups of five to 30 individuals led by a single alpha male called a ‘silverback’ (referring to a patch of silver hair they develop on their back and hips when reaching 12 years of age) that often tops 200kg.

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