On July 22, 2007, park rangers at the Bukima Patrol Post in Virunga National Park heard eight gunshots ring out in the night. In the weeks that followed, they would discover the bodies of three female mountain gorillas-Mburanumwe, Neza, and Safari-and a 500-pound silverback, named Senkwekwe, all shot dead by unknown assailants. Just a month earlier, they had discovered another female, Macibiri, shot execution style in the back of the head; her infant, still alive, was found clinging to her dead mother’s breast. Each of these gorillas was part of the 12-member Rugendo family, a group of endangered mountain gorillas well-known to visitors at Virunga National Park and beloved by its rangers. Yet, in less than 2 months, 7 members of the Rugendo family had been murdered, including its patriarch silverback who was tied to a bed of bamboo poles and carried from the scene by 15 men in a photograph that made headlines around the world.
The killing of mountain gorillas at Virunga National Park shocked the world not only for its brutality, but also for its sheer importance. Mountain gorillas are one of the most endangered animals with only an estimated 820 existing in a small corner of the world and none living in captivity, putting them on the list of critically endangered animals. Unlike lowland gorillas which can survive in zoos, mountain gorillas have always died when taken into captivity, making their continued survival increasingly difficult. To make matters worse, the world’s few remaining mountain gorillas inhabit a small geographic area in Central Africa threatened by habitat destruction, poaching, charcoal production, illegal animal trade, human disease, war and civil unrest.
While mountain gorillas are large, physically imposing creatures, they are not the violent beasts often depicted on film. In fact, mountain gorillas are gentle, affectionate, and intelligent animals living in highly-socialized family groups led by a dominant silverback responsible for protecting the family. Mountain gorillas are peaceful creatures that spend most of their day foraging for food, playing and grooming, only displaying aggression when there is a threat to the silverback’s dominance or the family’s well-being. Though some families contain more than one silverback, only one is dominant and he alone is responsible for mating with the group’s adult females.
Mountain gorillas are also among the animals most closely related to humans, with approximately 98% of their DNA matching our own. They are playful, emotional and family-oriented, displaying a depth and intelligence that is eerily similar to their human counterparts. This has created a paradox for the future of gorilla conservation as tourism becomes the greatest asset for protecting these creatures and also one of the biggest threats for gorillas which are highly susceptible to human disease, but lacking the adequate physical defenses to protect themselves.
Human similarities, Hollywood lore, dwindling numbers, and increased isolation have all contributed to making a visit with mountain gorillas one of the most memorable wildlife encounters to be had anywhere on the planet. There are only three countries in the world where mountain gorillas exist – Uganda, Rwanda, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo- and it is becoming increasingly difficult and expensive to visit them. The most reliable and safe locations in which to track gorillas are Bwindi Impenetrable National Parks in Uganda and the Parc National des Volcans in Rwanda. As of this year, permits for gorilla tracking in both countries will be raised to $750, allowing for a one-hour visit with wild mountain gorillas. And with a limited amount available each day, proper planning is required to ensure you can obtain the necessary permits to make this dream trip happen.
With gorilla tracking becoming more expensive and crowded in Uganda and Rwanda, we elected to travel to the Democratic Republic of the Congo instead. It had been five years since the infamous gorilla killings that shocked the world and adventurous travelers were beginning to trickle across the borders into the town of Goma and Virunga National Park. For several months, the southern sector of the park had been considered safe with over 100 tourists visiting the gorillas and Nyiragongo Volcano each month. Most travelers reach the park from Rwanda, crossing the border at Gisenyi into Goma, the capital of North Kivu, and continuing approximately 25 miles to the park headquarters at Rumangabo. Alternately, the park can be reached via the border town of Bunagana, Uganda and making the approximately three-hour trip to Virunga National Park.
Situated at the heart of the Albertine Rift in the eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo, on the border with Uganda and Rwanda, Virunga National Park is the oldest and most diverse national park on the African continent. Extending 186 mi (300 km) north to south and 14 mi (23 km) east to west, the park is comprised of savannas, swamps, forests, lakes, lava plains, hot springs, active volcanoes, high altitude glaciers and even ice fields. Virunga also contains one of the greatest concentrations of wildlife found anywhere in Africa, containing more bird, mammal and reptile species than any other protected area on the African continent. Along with 200 of the world’s critically endangered mountain gorillas, the park is also home to savanna and forest elephants, buffaloes, giraffes, antelope, okapi, warthogs, lions, chimpanzees and lowland gorillas.
Virunga National Park is often said to be Africa’s most beautiful national park; ironically, it has long been one of the most threatened. Founded in 1925 by King Albert I of Belgium, the first national park on the African continent (originally called Albert National Park) was created primarily to protect the gorillas living in its forests. The park thrived during its first 35 years until 1960 when Belgium granted independence to the Congo. Thus, began the struggle to protect Virunga as the Congo began a decades-long deterioration into political upheaval, war and civil unrest. By the mid-1980s, the Congo (then called “Zaire”) had dissolved into chaos and the park suffered terribly as poaching depleted large mammal populations, infrastructure was destroyed, and many rangers were killed. Over the course of the next 25 years, park staff suffered an almost uninterrupted series of trials that threatened to destroy Africa’s oldest national park.
By 1994, assault rifles had become readily available, allowing poaching gangs and rebel groups to attack patrol posts, looting and killing rangers. Armed groups occupied vast sections of the park, placing hundreds of mines on paths leading into the forest. Then in July 1994, in the course of just a few days, nearly two million refugees poured across the border into Zaire fleeing the massacres in Rwanda. Five refugee camps were constructed along the borders of the park and in the years that followed the management of Virunga was dominated by the urgent needs of 750,000 refugees. Deforestation became rampant as up to 80,000 people a day began entering the park and cutting firewood. Other problems brought on by the camps included cutting of bamboo, poaching, dumping waste, general disorder and anxiety, collapse of tourism revenue, and the shortage of natural resources for local communities.
By 1997, the Rwanda refugee crisis had destabilized Eastern Zaire, forcing an overthrow of the government in which the country was renamed Democratic Republic of the Congo and beginning the Second Congo War, otherwise known as the Great War of Africa. Involving eight African nations and 25 armed groups, the Second Congo War was the deadliest conflict since World War II with more than 5.4 million people killed and millions more displaced from their homes. During that time, armed groups occupied the forests inflicting systematic destruction while locals and rebels alike tore apart infrastructure in search of construction materials. Wood-cutting and poaching were rampant creating disastrous consequences for wildlife as armed rebel groups controlled vast areas of the park. The northern sector of the park was subject to continual incursions and attacks and many park employees had already been killed or wounded as they struggled to protect the park. By the end of 2008, it seemed as if Virunga would be all but destroyed.
Remarkably, Virunga National Park has survived thanks to the steadfast dedication of a remarkable staff made up locals and foreigners alike, in particular Park Director Emmanuel de Mérode and the 680 park rangers under his command. Mérode, the son of Belgian royalty, grew up in Kenya before receiving his doctorate in biological anthropology at University College London where he wrote a thesis about food security and the illegal bush-meat trade in northeastern Congo. He began working full-time at Virunga National Park in 2001, training rangers for the Zoological Society of London, before being appointed Director of Virunga National Park by the Congolese government on August 1, 2008. Mérode possesses a unique understanding of conservation and cooperation from years of living and working in DRC that has allowed him to work with local communities, government officials, and rebel groups to maintain Virunga National Park even as forces all around the park threaten to tear it apart. Undoubtedly, he would give much of the credit to those who deserve it most- the brave rangers who risk their lives each day to protect Africa’s oldest national park.
These are no ordinary park rangers. In the last twenty years, over 150 rangers have been killed protecting Virunga National Park, with 11 killed in just the first 7 months of 2011 alone. It is difficult to imagine a park where rangers risk their lives each day in order to defend against ambushes, poachers, illegal charcoal producers, and various armed militias. Yet, despite the inherent dangers, a remarkable group of Congolese men have come together to form a well-trained and organized, military-style unit that secures and protects the park and its precious wildlife from the many elements that threaten Virunga National Park.
One such ranger, named John, would be leading our trip to visit Virunga’s famed mountain gorillas. A second-generation ranger with over 15 years experience in the park, John has worked closely with the mountain gorillas and can identify them by name. He explained that we would be visiting the Rugendo family, the same group of gorillas which had been attacked in 2007. John shares a great affection for this family of gorillas and became visibly choked up when talking about them. It would take about an hour and a half walking before we would reach the gorillas, he explained, and then we would have one hour to spend with them. During that time, we were told to keep a distance of 15 feet (5 m) and wear a surgical mask to help prevent transmission of disease. Eating, drinking and smoking is not allowed and flash photography is prohibited as well.
We left the beautiful setting at Bukima Camp with three rangers: John, our guide; another who carried my bag and cleared the trail with his machete; and a rifle-toting ranger who brought up the rear. A maximum of eight people are allowed on each trip, but it would be just Rachel and I, as we had seen no other travelers in the DRC. At first, the trail was wide, climbing into the lush green forest where wild orchids bloomed all around us. The sky was heavy with clouds and I feared rain might spoil our trip. The humidity in the jungle had me sweating and rolling up my sleeves, but with each step we grew closer to the gorillas and I noticed less the moisture soaking my clothes. We continued the gradual climb to a fork in the path and then John led us into the thick of the forest. Hacking away the brush before us, he cleared the narrow trail while the forest seemed to swallow us more with each step.
After almost an hour, we arrived at the gorilla’s nest and John told us they were just twenty minutes away. Trails were almost non-existent now, but our guide continued to clear the way. Step by step, our anticipation grew and I was not sure whether the humidity was to blame for my sweaty palms anymore. I could feel my heart beating faster as my eyes scanned the forest searching for the animal we had traveled halfway around the world to see. Then, I spotted it. It was just a black spot in a sea of green, but it was the sign that our visit had begun.
The rangers passed out masks and I retrieved my camera, making sure that my pockets were stuffed with everything I needed, including extra batteries and memory cards. Together we followed John closer to the gorillas, pushing through thick brush and bamboo until we found ourselves standing 15 feet from a 500-pound silverback gorilla. There are moments in your life that you will always remember, but never be able to adequately explain- such is the feeling when you come face-to-face with one of the few remaining mountain gorillas left in the world. At first, we could only stand and stare. The huge, powerful animal was so close that we could smell his musty fur and giggle at his gas. His chiseled chest bulged with muscles that could tear us apart, but the expression on his face showed only his indifference to us. Our guide stepped within feet of the massive creature and removed a branch that blocked our view, showing no sign of fear as he told us this gorilla, named Bukima, was the largest silverback at Virunga National Park. As our cameras fired away, the gentle giant just sat like a bored child suffering through his parent’s picture-taking. A once-in-a-lifetime experience for us was just a familiar daily disruption for this highly-evolved animal. Having been habituated to the presence of humans after many years and untold number of visits, Bukima and his family of mountain gorillas took little notice of us while they went about their daily routine.
Having grown tired of having his photo taken, Bukima rolled into a big hairy ball and covered his face, a sign for us to move on and let him rest. We found ourselves an open space from which to observe and photograph a female mountain gorilla named Rubutu who was perched in a tree above us with her baby, Mastaki, on her back. The little fuzzy ball of fur clung to her mother, snatching and eating the leaves around her. Then, to our delight and amazement, Rubutu climbed down the tree and walked right past us, so close that we could have reached out and touched the adorable wooly baby on her back. Of course, it is important not to make contact with the gorillas and to respect the required space, but often it is the curious gorillas who will come within just feet of their astonished admirers.
Looking back on my life and the experiences I have enjoyed, it is difficult to think of another hour in my life that was more precious than the one I spent with the Rugendo family of mountain gorillas. The minutes ticked away in a timeless flash of memories so unforgettable and compelling that it seems like we must have spent hours with the gorillas. But, in fact, it was only a collection of experiences so seemingly impossible that my mind can only comprehend it as a dream. For how could I have actually sat just a few feet away from one of the world’s few remaining mountain gorillas and listened to the crunch of bamboo as he feeds; or to have smelled the musty odor of a female gorilla and her baby as they passed right next to me; and to have felt the absolute fear and fascination that comes with meeting the stare of a 500-pound silverback gorilla that could tear a human apart, but instead offers a tender and curious gaze. For that experience, I will be forever grateful to the remarkable people at Virunga National Park who have dedicated and risked their lives to protecting one of God’s most glorious creatures.
Just three days later, in the early hours of May 8, 2012, a rebel army of around 1,500 men under the command of Bosco Ntaganda crossed the park from the west and entered the Gorilla Sector, forcing our immediate evacuation. Within a couple of days, Bukima had been evacuated and the Gorilla Sector we just visited was occupied by armed rebel forces. For weeks, our friends at Virunga could only watch and listen as the war raged all around them, each day growing closer to the park headquarters at Rumangabo. By late May, patrols were dispatched to the Gorilla Sector to check on the gorillas, but each time they were ambushed with heavy fire from rebel militias. Faced with the worst fighting since 2008, park officials were eventually forced to evacuate all ranger families and staff to a camp outside of Goma. By late July, the fighting was literally on the doorstep of park headquarters and Rumangabo was under rebel control.
Despite the violence and the chaos of battle, both government and rebel forces have been remarkably respectful of the parks’ staff and its installations. An agreement was made in early August to allow a team of Virunga rangers to conduct a search for the gorillas and within days they had located four of the seven mountain gorilla families, including the Rugendo family. Rangers described their first contact with the gorillas in the months: “Members of the Kabirizi family circled them, he said, and most wanted to touch and smell them. One small juvenile shyly reached out its hand to touch Innocent’s boots, and another came up from behind to touch his back when he wasn’t looking.”
Today, Virunga National Park remains closed to tourists as conflict continues to rage in the eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo. Park rangers continue to come under attack from armed rebel militias and park officials are working round-the-clock to ensure the safety of park staff, the local community, and also the park’s wildlife. It is an incredibly difficult time for Virunga National Park, but with our help, they can continue the remarkable work they have been doing for decades working to protect Africa’s oldest national park. So please help us share the plight of Virunga in order to create greater awareness and to assist in much-needed fundraising that will protect both the park and the brave rangers working to save it.
To learn more about how you can help bring greater awareness to the plight of Virunga National Park and help protect its precious mountain gorillas, please visit Virunga’s website at http://gorillacd.org/how-you-can-help-gorillacd/