To talk about gorillas you think of Sigourney Weaver playing the famous Dian Fossey fighting to save the mighty gorillas in the Central African rainforest, or Charles Darwin and his evolutionary theory. But those of you who know more will realise gorillas are a shy and good-natured vegetarian primate far from the character depicted in films like King Kong and Congo, only when these beautiful animals are provoked do they attack to protect themselves and their family.
In Rwanda I had the unforgettable privilege of taking a hiking trek in Parc National des Volcans to come face to face with these extraordinary animals. Parc National des Volcans borders two other National Parks in Uganda and The Democratic Republic of Congo, Virunga National Park in DRC and Mgahinga Gorilla National Park in Uganda are not only home to gorillas but eight volcanoes, five of which are in the Park in Rwanda. It was also the base of Dian Fossey.
Gorillas are the largest and most powerful of the apes with a DNA 98-99% identical to humans. Adult males reach an average height of 150-170cm and weigh from 135 to 230kg. Females are smaller, but both male and female are tremendously powerful.
This was clear to me as I came face to face with the largest silver back gorilla and his family, crouched just a mere four metres away with a park ranger beating his chest and making gorilla noises so to blend in with the family I could hardly belive it. £350 for a permit but a once in a lifetime opportunity and completely priceless.
We watched in amazement as a family of gorillas, one a tiny little baby sat and looked back at us, chewing bamboo and so at ease in their surroundings. The baby rolled about the grass, playful and mischievous, the Father, the silverback watching him with a protective eye. The family we encountered was the Sabyinyo family, made up of nine members we only saw five as the others were elsewhere but gorillas are usually very sociable animals and live together.
Due to years of gorilla poaching and hunting for bush meat and to sell on the black market the gorilla sub-species ranges from endangered to critically endangered. Animal welfare organisations warn that in certain areas due to hunting and reduction of habitat these majestic creatures are in danger of becoming extinct.
Although they are said to be on the verge of extinction, until recently the mountain gorilla were one of conservation's brightest success stories. Decades ago they were on the brink of extinction then conservation measures in Central Africa was introduced with the presence of patrolling rangers to protect the gorillas and of course tourism. £350 for one permit will see gorilla tourism generating a lot of money each year, of course it's Africa, there's corruption, we don't know exactly where all the money goes but what we do know from proven statistics is that the gorilla population, untill recently was secure and the gorillas were free of danger.
But now, the aftermath of the genocide that erupted in Rwanda in 1994, claiming the lives of approx 500,000 people, and creating refugee camps with people living in destitution on the borders of the gorillas' reserves has slowed down the increase of the gorilla population. Continuing political unrest threatens to undo almost 20 years of remarkable conservation work. The governments of Rwanda and Uganda are working to eliminate the threat to the mountain gorillas right now and with tourism and the conservation methods working to protect the animals the population is steady but not increasing.
But in DRC, illegal logging, the bush meat trade, mining, the charcoal trade and a new strain of the Ebola virus could drive gorillas into extinction in as little as 15 years, according to a new report from the U.N. and Interpol. Due to the isolated and patrolled habitat in Uganda and Rwanda the mountain gorillas have not been hurt too badly. But the park rangers who protect the mountain gorillas in Virunga National Park have recently reported a dramatic rise in the poaching of many other species, including elephants, buffalo and lions.
There are three subspecies of gorilla, western lowland gorilla found in West Africa, eastern lowland gorilla found only in DRC and mountain gorilla found in the three bordering National Parks of Uganda, Rwanda and DRC. These are the species that I saw and are one of the most endangered animals in the world with only 600 said to be left, all in the wild as there are no Mountain Gorillas in captivity, they are divided almost equally between Rwanda, Uganda and DRC.
An exhilarating trek through the foothills of the Park offers incredible views in all directions. Stopping briefly to wave at women and children working in nearby fields and listen to gorilla stories from our tracker the walk went by quickly. Then, abruptly, the trail enters the national park, immersing us in the mysterious intimacy of the rainforest, alive with the calls of colourful birds.
We trekked only for an hour before we came face to face with the family of gorillas, I had heard horror stories of hours of uphill trekking in mud and thick jungle, hacking back trees with machetes. People running out of water and having asthma attacks due to the altitude and getting claustrophobic in the jungle.
But as we entered the jungle and began our trek I hardly noticed, we couldn't have been trekking for more than an hour, the branches were already hacked away by the tracker in front so the only problem we had was climbing over big bamboo roots and finding something to grab onto as we clambered up slopes. I was too busy looking around in the hope of glimpsing a gorilla and taking in the breathtaking scenery that I hardly noticed how long we had been trekking.
Then suddenly we were face to face with one lone gorilla, a female contentedly eating a bamboo shoot oblivious of the group of humans slowly creeping up on her, to be this close to an animal I had seen only through the eyes of David Attenborough seemed somewhat surreal, watching as she studied the bamboo, wondering what she could possibly be thinking, had she noticed us? Was she even fazed? We quietly crept past her to find the Sabyinyo family who were happily playing not far from the loner gorilla, also part of the family we were told.
We had 60 minutes with the family, at first snapping away on our cameras, trying to get the perfect shot. Unfortunately the gorillas were in the shade so my photos didn't turn out as good as i'd have liked, but soon I realised it didn't matter and put down my camera to enjoy the moment for what it was. Study these mesmerizing animals, soak up the experience. The gorillas at first sat quietly apart from the baby and a young teenager playing, the baby swung from branches and climbed on his Dad back, cheeky and happily playful. But without notice the silver back stood up on all fours, showing just how big and powerful he was, we all crouched down watching intently, slightly nervous if i'm honest, realising the power of this animal and the vulnerability of us mere humans in comparison.
He stormed towards us, I sat frozen on the spot, people in front of me stumbled backwards and the trackers stood up, warning us to stay crouched down, then suddenly but thankfully the gorilla turned in towards a tree and sat down just a couple of metres away. A warning no doubt, the baby was playing around, running from tree to tree, passing very near us and the silverbacks protective instincts told him to watch his child, the natural instinct. You are never to look a gorilla directly in the eye so I kept my eyes diverted but I couldn't help but think that he was staring at us, warning us. Gradually the whole family moved to join him, the baby hanging off his Mother.
Before we knew it our time was up and we had to make our way out of the rainforest, past the family and begin the trek home. It was a bit of an anti-climax, the time had gone so fast, it felt like I had been watching for ten minutes, but worth it to spend time with these animals, a total privilege. The most expensive hour in my life but one that I will never forget.
I heard some people say back at the base that they were so happy they had the opportunity to see the gorillas in their natural habitat as they might be extinct in a few years, that they can show their grandchildren mountain gorillas as they won't get the chance to see them themselves. I hope with all my heart that this will never be the case, that these extraordinary animals will never become extinct, they are beautiful and intelligent and caring.
But unfortunately due to political instability nothing is ever certain in Central Africa, gorillas are hunted for their hands to be sold as trophies on the black market for money and as bush meat when families cannot eat. It's survival of the fittest, gorillas can't protect themselves from hunters, all we can hope is that the Governments of Rwanda and Uganda continue to use conservation efforts to protect them and tourists won't be put off with rumours of corruption in gorilla tourism as all that matters is that this, whatever the price is conserving the life of an amazingly intelligent animal so similar to humans.