The views expressed in this blog are the author's own and do not reflect those of VSO

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Apes Galore

Well, there are definitely two things that people know about Rwanda and this is the second one. We thought at first we were unlucky, because of the crowds, to have booked to visit the gorillas on the same day as Kwita Izina, the naming ceremony for gorillas born in the previous 12 months. This ceremony has existed for years for the naming of Rwandan children but since 2005 has become a feature of the gorilla protection programme. It occurs annually in June in the village of Kinigi near the Volcanoes (Virunga) National Park and this year at total of 22, under one-year-old, gorillas were named including the first successfully reared gorilla twins since 2004. When we arrived at NP headquarters early in the morning, dances, food and medicine displays, and music performances were just commencing, put on for the special occasion. It was a double bonus. We could visit the gorillas in their natural habitat and then hopefully return later and participate in more of the events planned for the day long festivities. These were to take place in a large, open area not far from park HQ.
Twa (pygmy) dance leader
After our briefing and group allocation - no more than eight people are allowed in each of the seven habituated gorilla groups on any one day- we set off in a 4x4 along an impossibly rough road fashioned out of large basalt rocks and past some of the poorest people yet seen in Rwanda. I do hope that the economic benefits of gorilla tourism will eventually trickle down to these farming communities in ways beyond the occasional use of porters or the selling of mini-gorillas and T-shirts at the edge of the National Park. From there we were to begin our ascent into the mountain, hopefully, tracking at least some of our intended gorilla group, Kwitonda (the humble one), named after the 35-year-old chief silverback. This group originally crossed into the Rwandan side of the Virunga Mountains escaping conflict in the DR Congo. War experience seems to have made Kwitonda a more gentle gorilla than usual, hence the name of his 21 member group.
The habitat
Our human group consisted of tour leader, Olivier, three porters for those who chose to employ them and a guard with a gun to protect us against roving buffaloes or testy elephants. We proceeded uphill at quite a pace struggling at times to avoid tripping over fallen branches along the heavily overgrown track. Thistles, which gorillas love, stinging nettles, for which plastic over-trousers and gloves are recommend, and scrubby second growth were the norm with intermittent small to medium sized tree cover - jungle in its true sense. Olivier had been carrying a walkie-talkie and after around 45 minutes of climbing we suddenly stopped. In front of us were three National Park rangers whose job it is, not only to protect the gorillas from poachers, but also to follow their movements within the group's territory to make it easier each day for tourists to see them. I have only heard of one tourist party, in gloomy, wet weather, failing to see any apes which must all have been sheltering. I don't know if they got their money back to offset the bitter disappointment! The presence of the rangers indicated that the Kwitonda mob were in the vicinity. This was the moment when we left behind walking sticks, water bottles and backpack food with the porters. It's definitely not kosher to eat and drink in front of gorillas and, who knows, maybe they would snaffle the walking sticks for their night-time nests or for the more elderly members of the troop! Then armed only with (flash prohibited) cameras it was upwards and onwards all hoping, no doubt, for a special Attenborough-like moment.
Mum and 6 month baby
Now you might think that after all this build up and the massive hype associated with gorilla tourism in Rwanda - it is the country's second biggest income earner after coffee - not to mention the exorbitant cost of the trip, $US500 dollars for non-residents and $250 for overseas residents like us, that you would be bound to be let down by the experience. Not a bit of it. Nothing can prepare you for that utterly awesome (lapsing into teenspeak is justified!) moment when you round a corner and almost bump into a giant male silverback who just happens to be lounging in the grass. This was (the recently mature) silverback number 4 of the group who immediately loped right in front of us and fell in a heap in the open on the other side of the path. When a gorilla sets off somewhere you don't ask questions, just get out of the way as fast as you can. He then proceeded to give his nuts a thorough scratching. Typical male said the Canadian woman next to me.
Silverback number 3
We could see activity on the other side of the clearing in thick undergrowth and headed in the direction of what turned out to be Kwitonda group morning central. A mum and six month old baby were resting against a tree with a fellow sister caring equally for the babe. The vegetation was so dense we didn't know what was going to happen next and from which direction. There was a crash behind us and another huge silverback peered through. This was number 3 in the family hierarchy. His face looked distinctly Neanderthal as you may adjudge for yourself in the above picture. Then a couple of females bustled past with babe jumping from one back to the other. The only thing missing was a lollypop ape to direct the traffic. Over to the left another silverback made his appearance. This was number 2 in the pecking order. He might get a hairy leg over when the chief wasn't looking but he'd have to be quick or the Big Ape's anger would be keenly felt. All fertile females are, after all, supposed to be the leader's for mating purposes. This was all going according to plan but I began to feel like Patrick McGoohan in that old hit show 'The Prisoner' which had a vapid modern re-run on telly not long ago. Yes, you are number 2 but where is number 1? The tension was mounting. A few lesser members put in appearances. We had seen most of the clan but the very special gentle giant had still not shown his coat.
Hitching a lift
Suddenly there was a noise and the tall foliage behind us opened to reveal a much more mature male gorilla with a thicker mane of head hair flecked with grey on the sides. This was the main ape himself - Kwitonda. He was obviously a huge media tart because he promptly sat down and let everyone in our group take a massive number of photos. Anthropomorphising horribly I have to say that I thought his eyes looked very sad. Go on, click away with your foolish devices, shallow creatures. Or, he may have been unhappy because of his clearly developing ape boobs a condition with which I can readily sympathise. Soon, he grew tired of the paparazzi and in a trice Olivier was forcing us back to make way for the Paul Kagame of this particular world. I only managed one snap of his silvery back as he ambled into the bushes to have his fur checked out by some of the females. Gee, there are a lot of flies in the Virungas so heaven knows how many ticks and mites there must be. (In one those amazing coincidences my own primate partner has just come out complaining of an itchy back and I have just extracted what looks like a dead tick! No, I used tweezers, not my teeth.)
As we followed Kwitonda, some smaller apes were playing in the tree above and one released the biggest waterfall this side of Victoria narrowly missing one of the guides. How can creatures eating almost entirely cellulose (with the occasional protein filled safari ant) manage to produce so much urine? I look forward to replies from all you expert nutritionists. The icing on this ape cake was a hoped for glimpse of the newest addition to Kwitonda's extended family, a three month old baby which we finally saw in poor light in the protective arms of its adoring mother. There I go anthropomorphising again. The gorilla mother looked, well... like a female gorilla. She breast feeds the baby for three and a half years during which period she is infertile so the turn over conception period with female gorillas is never less than about four years. After a series of pictures with tourists and gorillas in the background (okay, so it wasn't quite the quintessential David Attenborough moment but it will do), it was time to head back down the mountain. Our allotted time of one hour with the Kwitonda clan was up. Even for a nature lover like me, who has had some pretty amazing wildlife experiences over the years, this was special and I commend it to anyone with the time and money to spare.
Anyone have nail clippers?

Getting to the heart of the matter

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