Gorillas of Virunga and Kahuzi-Biega National Parks

June 30, 2017

The story of gorilla conservation epitomises the battle to save Africa's wildlife. The majority of visitors choose Rwanda or Uganda as their destination to see mountain gorillas. But most of Africa’s Eastern gorillas are found just across the border in Democratic Republic of Congo. I visited Virunga and Kahuzi-Biega National Parks, where gorilla sightings are equally impressive, even if the region is slowly emerging from decades of civil war.
Mountain gorilla silverback in Virunga National Park in Democratic Republic of Congo

Mountain gorilla silverback in Virunga National Park in Democratic Republic of Congo

I raised my camera and peered through the lens at the silverback. We were a few metres away from the 200-kilogramme male gorilla on the slopes of Mount Mikeno in Virunga National Park in Democratic Republic of Congo.

He was sitting upright, his immense back towards us. The biggest ape on the planet clearly knew we were there but he ignored our small group of tourists and rangers.

A silverback is simply huge. His head is three times bigger than a man’s and the shoulders are as broad as a small car. The long, powerful arms look as if they can snap the spine of a man like a toothpick. They’ve been known to kill each other in territorial stand-offs and a new dominant silverback will sometimes kill the young of a previous male.

Despite his undoubted strength, however, the silverback slowly pulled leaves off a vine and placed them delicately into his mouth with the calmness of an avuncular Buddha eating a haute cuisine salad.

Their scary reputation, mythologised by King Kong, is clearly unfounded. Most of the time gorillas are serene, preferring to avoid physical confrontation. More than 90 percent of their diet is plant matter and their most carnivorous snacks are ants and termites. They’re not the bloodthirsty apes depicted in the comic-books.

The other nine gorillas in the family were spread out in the dark forest around us. Two adult females were close by, grooming each other. A mischievous youngster swung in the branches nearby, dropped down right next to us, then scampered back to the adults. Cameras clicked away incessantly, and we oohed and aahed under our breaths, enraptured by the moment.

Then the silverback turned and faced us. His dark eyes peered at me through my camera lens. Instinctively I looked away. Gorillas may seem gentle but the piercing stare of a silverback is as intense as encountering a bull elephant.

I wanted to follow up the brief eye-contact with “hello, how are you?”, just as I would with a human. But then I realised I was looking at a gorilla.

He stood up and came ambling straight towards us on all fours. We backed up against a tree. I knelt down and made myself small, looking down at the ground. He brushed past me within centimetres and carried on slowly to the rest of his family in the forest.

“Those eyes, their hands, their feet… they’re just like us” whispered one of the British guests, her eyes wide as dinner plates.

The boundaries that humans have created between ourselves and the rest of the animal world come tumbling down when making eye contact with a gorilla. We are like them and they are like us.

Innocent Mburanumwe is warden of the southern sector of Virunga National Park, where the mountain gorillas are found. He grew up in a family of rangers who were responsible for protecting and habituating gorillas, and during his work has viewed gorillas thousands of times. He saw his first gorilla at the age of 11 while helping his father with a park survey. (Read my full interview with Mburanumwe here).

It’s this sense of kinship that makes a gorilla trek perhaps the ultimate African safari. While the continent’s other iconic wildlife species tug at our hearts, the gorilla seems to tug hardest at our souls.

We share 98,4% of our DNA with gorillas. They are more closely related to us than any other animal besides chimpanzees and bonobos, which share 99% of our DNA. But although the science proves it and we intellectually know it, it’s only when a gorilla stares at you that perhaps you feel it.

Experts theorise that it was 10 million years ago that gorillas and humans shared a common ancestor. On a geological timescale, that’s moments ago. The Cambrian explosion began 541 million years ago when animal life burst forth onto the planet. If this period is condensed into a 24-hour clock, it was just 25 minutes before midnight that our common ancestor was walking around.

Modern-day taxonomists have described two species of gorillas: Western gorilla and Eastern gorilla. Each is divided into two subspecies: western lowland and Cross River gorilla, and mountain gorilla and Grauer’s gorilla.

The two western subspecies are found in lowland tropical rainforest across Gabon, Republic of Congo, Cameroon and Equatorial Guinea. The two eastern subspecies occur in and around the Albertine Rift, in the Great Lakes region of Africa.

The mountain gorilla (Gorilla gorilla beringei) is found in the cool, high rainforests on the slopes of six dormant volcanoes that stretch 80km along the shared borders of eastern DRC, northwestern Rwanda and southwestern Uganda.

Along with two active volcanoes – Nyiragongo and Nyamuragira – these eight volcanoes are known as the Virunga Mountains, derived from the Kinyarwanda term “kirunga”, meaning “high isolated mountains reaching the clouds”.

The largest population of mountain gorillas lives in these mountains, spread across DRC’s Virunga National Park, Rwanda’s Volcanoes National Park and Uganda’s Mgahinga National Park. About 20km to the north-east, and separated by transformed farm land, Uganda’s Bwindi Impenetrable Forest has the only other population, considered by some to be a third subspecies.

The other eastern subspecies – Grauer’s gorilla (Gorilla gorilla graueri) – live mostly in the forests of the Mitumbo Mountains, the Imtombwe Massif and in the adjacent lowland forests and swamps of the vast Congo Basin. Their largest population lives in the 6 000 km² Kahuzi-Biega National Park, southwest of the Virungas.

Some anthropologists have listed up to 34 morphological differences between the two eastern subspecies. Mountain gorillas have slightly longer hair and a longer palate. The Grauer’s gorilla is considered the largest of all gorilla subspecies, but even to experts the differences between the two eastern subspecies are difficult to notice.

The great apes comprise gorillas, chimpanzees, bonobos and orangutans, and are the animals most closely related to us. Despite our kinship, they are all in possible danger of extinction in the wild. Like the rest of Africa’s wildlife, gorilla populations have collapsed since human populations exploded and the white man arrived with his gun.

In 1856 the French-American explorer Paul du Chaillu was the first non-African man to confirm the existence of a gorilla, by shooting one in Gabon.

In 1921 Prince Wilhelm of Sweden killed 14 mountain gorillas. In that same year an American naturalist, Carl Akeley, shot five for the American Museum of Natural History. According to George Schaller, the first biologist to study gorillas seriously, between 1902 and 1925 more than 54 mountain gorillas were killed.

The decimation of wildlife populations was matched by the grotesque treatment of locals by a group of private Belgian companies that were owned by King Leopold II. A few thousand colonists held despotic reign over 2,6 million km² of what was known as the Congo Free State.

Between 1891 and 1906, upwards of 3 million Congolese died because of horrific violence and pandemics like small pox and dysentery. Thousands of locals who refused to be enslaved in the rubber plantations were executed and the Belgian’s paramilitary Force Publique were known for chopping off the hands of labourers.

In the last 50 years, as human populations have burgeoned, huge areas of natural forest have been cleared for agriculture, both by colonists and subsistence farmers, further shrinking the forest habitat of the largest ape.

In the last 30 years, armed militia and soldiers have shot and snared much of the wildlife. During the 1980s, Virunga National Park had 27 000 hippos, the largest population in Africa. By 2005, there were no more than 350. There was a similarly precipitous decline in elephants, lions, antelope, Cape and forest buffalo.

And gorillas haven’t escape the slaughter. As recently as the 1960s Cologne Zoo in Germany placed an order for two baby gorillas, resulting in several adults being killed during the capture process. In 2007, seven mountain gorillas were killed in Virunga National Park, shot probably by a group of armed militia.

Today both gorilla species are precipitously positioned despite intensive efforts at their conservation.

Together, the two western lowland subspecies are the most numerous, numbering up to 100 000 individuals. But some scientists estimate that one-third have died of the Ebola virus, while bush meat poachers supply a growing population desperate for cheap protein. They are listed as critically endangered by the IUCN.

The two eastern subspecies are far fewer. In 1960 biologist George Schaller estimated a total of just 600 mountain gorillas, 450 in the Virunga mountains and about 150 in the Bwindi Impenetrable Forest. By 1981, the total number had fallen to just 400.

But today, thanks in part to global funding and tourism catalysed by researchers Dian Fossey, Bill Weber and Amy Vedder in the 1980s, there are now at least 880 mountain gorillas.

A census in 2010 estimated 480 individuals in the Virunga mountains, mostly in Virunga and Volcanoes National Parks. An estimated 400 were counted in the Bwindi Impenetrable Forest in Uganda.

“Tourism is the single biggest reason why mountain gorillas are still around today,” explained Mburanumwe. “Most of the money generated from tourism goes to conservation, the rest goes to developing facilities and employment for surrounding communities who live alongside the park.”

The doubling of mountain gorilla numbers could be seen as a success story, but because of the low numbers and their restricted habitat, conservationists remain wary. Surviving on the forest slopes of dormant volcanoes, surrounded by the most densely populated land in Africa, the gorillas are essentially trapped on an island. Signs of inbreeding are increasingly common.

Grauer’s gorillas are considered the most vulnerable of all subspecies, because of the rate of their precipitous decline. Since 1994 their numbers have plummeted 77%, from an estimated 17 000 to just 3 800 today.

Civil wars, armed militias and bushmeat trading are the main reasons, brought on largely because of the Rwandan genocide in that same year. More than 800 000 Tutsis were killed in a few weeks. When Paul Kagame and his forces eventually took control of the country, bringing peace, thousands of Hutu killers escaped west into the DRC, fearful of retribution.

There they coalesced and formed armed militias like the Mai-Mai, ADF and FDLR, extorting locals and profiting off natural resources, including coltan, a valuable mineral used in circuitry boards in smart phones.

But while there are certainly challenges to gorilla conservation, there is much potential too. It costs $750 for a permit to see gorillas for one hour in Rwanda’s Volcanoes National Park, but there is so much demand from international tourists that trek schedules can be booked up months in advance.

Today, the gorilla tourism industry is the biggest earner of foreign exchange for Rwanda. In Uganda, gorillas play an equally critically important role in the country’s tourism strategy.

Across the border in DRC, gorilla permits are cheaper, costing between $200 and $400. While the country receives far fewer tourists than Rwanda and Uganda, DRC has more gorillas, and sightings in Virunga and Kahuzi-Biega National Parks are as impressive.

After twenty years of civil war, and numerous skirmishes and battles, the spectacular Virunga National Park has found its feet again, albeit tentatively.

According to Emmanuel de Merode, the park’s warden, between 5 000 and 8 000 armed combatants are operating in and around Virunga National Park at any one time, attempting to control the fishing industry in Lake Edward and the charcoal industry in the rainforests. (Read my full interview with De Merode here).

About 550 rangers protect Virunga National Park’s 6 000km², ranging from the glaciers of the Rwenzori Mountains, to savannah and lakes, to the volcanoes of the southern sector, where the gorillas are found.

“It’s arguably the most biodiverse terrestrial park on the planet,” said De Merode.

Since 1996, more than 160 rangers have died while guarding Virunga.

“The hardest part of my job is having to bury the men that have been entrusted to me. It’s important to emphasise that most of these rangers have died protecting the local people, not the wildlife.”

Instead of only fighting fire with fire, De Merode believes the park can only save the mountain gorillas – and the rest of Virunga’s stupendous wildlife – if they can help bring stability to the troubled region.

“The DRC’s recent history has been a very difficult,” said De Merode. “It’s seen the bloodiest civil war in Africa ever. Six million people died. Every single one of the wars that have afflicted Congo and the countries around it have started either in or around the national park. So the fundamental purpose of this national park is to help bring stability and peace to the region. In achieving stability you also achieve conservation objectives.”

Virunga’s multiple small hydro-electric power plants, funded by the Howard Buffett Foundation and the European Union, supplies electricity to local people, and have created several thousand jobs where none existed before, mostly through the enablement of small-scale entrepreneurship in agriculture and food.

“For every 100 jobs we can create, we know that five to eight are picked up by ex-combatants,” explained De Merode.

There is perhaps no other region in Africa that is so beautiful, yet has seen so much death and destruction. The spectacularly photogenic and biodiverse Virunga and Kahuzi-Biega National Parks are both Unesco World Heritage Sites, with astounding levels of both faunal and floral riches.

Both these parks in DRC came into being because of gorillas. Albert National Park was created in 1925, the first in Africa. At Zaire’s independence in 1960 and Rwanda’s in 1962, it was split into two: Virunga National Park and Volcanoes National Park.

Kahuzi-Biega was created in 1970 at the urging of Adrien de Schryver, a Belgian conservationist who was the first person to habituate gorillas, bringing tourists to see Grauer’s gorillas already in the mid-1960s, at least 15 years before Rwanda started its mountain gorilla tourism programme.

Like Dian Fossey in Rwanda who was murdered by an unknown assailant, it is quite likely that Deschryver’s committed defence of the park and its gorillas led to his mysterious death in 1989.

Even though Congo pioneered gorilla tourism, visitor numbers plummeted from 1996, when the first of several civil wars started.

But things seem to be changing. Despite official government warnings not to travel to eastern DRC, more and more tourists are coming. Buoyed by a relative calm, and the powerful documentary Virunga, the park now earns upwards of US$2 million a year from tourism, most of it because of the big, hairy, mostly friendly ape.

“We have to be clear that eastern Congo is still not safe. Security has to be taken very seriously,” said park director Emmanuel de Merode. “But we ensure that all visitors to the park are properly protected when they come here.”

“If you manage security very well, Virunga National Park is a safe destination and the records demonstrate that. In the past few years, we’ve had close to 10 000 visitors on planned visits without a security incident.”

Most visitors to the park arrive either by air at the city of Goma, or by road at the nearby Rwandan border post of Gisenyi. Regardless, if you plan a visit to Virunga, either through the park authorities or an accredited travel agent, you are met and escorted by an armed ranger at all times.

Further south at Kahuzi-Biega National Park, tourists need to make their own way from the town of Bukavu on the southern edge of Lake Kivu to the park headquarters at Tshivanga, about an hour’s drive north-west. But as in Virunga, gorilla treks are led and accompanied by several armed rangers. Not once in either national park did I – or my companions – feel concerned for our safety.

When we visited Kahuzi-Biega, seven armed rangers escorted us deep into the forests of the Mitumba Mountains, in the east of Kahuzi-Biega where the vast Congo Basin meets the Albertine Rift. The forests here are even bigger and more biodiverse than those in the Virungas.

The rangers were short, but tough. Descendants of the Twa pygmy people, they clearly knew their way around the neighourhood. I admired Lushombo Bakongo and Lambert Cirimwami, the lead trackers. They hacked a way through the dense undergrowth as huge Newtonia trees soared forty metres above us.

I had no idea where we were. It was overcast and we traversed up and down several gorges. My sense of direction is usually quite good, but left to my own devices, I would have been hopelessly lost.

No matter how steep the path, Lushombo kept smiling, revealing a few missing teeth in a splendid grin. Lambert was senatorial and serene, and he made our trek seem like a normal occurrence.

“Given all the negative press about Congo, gorilla trekking in the DRC seems remarkably easy, if you know what you’re doing,” said Alastair Kilpin, a South African private guide who had planned our trip and was leading our small group of visitors.

“It’s easy to forget the sacrifices made by generations of rangers, researchers and conservationists, some of whom have died for the forest and the gorillas. It’s easy to forget that, if you’re privileged enough, you’re able to spend time with the largest, rarest ape in Africa, in the most biodiverse region on the continent.”

“This is the original Eden, where man most probably evolved, stepping out of the forests and onto the savannah. Visiting the gorillas is like time-travelling back to our origins.”

After 90 minutes of trekking up and down forested ravines, muddy and wet, we found the gorillas, part of the Chimanuka family with 19 individuals.

In close view was the silverback, feeding on his own. Two adult females lay nearby, while one was perched in a tree to our right. A youngster was climbing above us, picking his nose with aplomb. We all chuckled and took way too many photos.

Then Alastair suggested we put down our cameras for a few minutes.

“Just watch, and observe.”

The air was still, punctuated by the calls of sunbirds and turacos, and the odd rustling of leaves from the feeding gorillas. Mist moved across the canopy of the forest, now and again clearing to reveal pale blue skies. Beams of sunlight illuminated patches of a luminous green paradise. The forest smelt sweet and rich.

I was a few metres away from a young, sub-adult gorilla. He walked past, then stopped to look at me, his eyes full of mischief.

He beat his chest. Pok-pok-pok-pok. The sound echoed around the forest. He fell over and scratched his tummy. I smiled, and didn’t stop smiling for the rest of the allotted hour with the gorillas.

We walked back out of the forest, led by Lushombo and Lambert. We didn’t say much. The contemplative looks on our faces told a powerful story. Not only are the survival of gorillas at stake, but so too is the profound bond that we share with them. Without the largest apes roaming free, Earth would be a lesser place for human beings.

This article was originally published by Safarious.

 

Mount Mikeno in Virunga National Park. One of several dormant volcanoes on which slopes the last mountain gorillas on Earth live. Note the farm fields in foreground and to the right of image. This region of eastern DRC has one of the highest human population-densities in Africa, and demand for resources is immense.

Mount Mikeno in Virunga National Park. One of several dormant volcanoes on which slopes the last mountain gorillas on Earth live. Note the farm fields in foreground and to the right of image. This region of eastern DRC has one of the highest human population-densities in Africa, and demand for resources is immense.

Mountain gorillas in Virunga National Park

Mountain gorillas in Virunga National Park

Mountain gorilla in Virunga National Park

Mountain gorilla in Virunga National Park

vMountain gorilla baby in Virunga National Park

Mountain gorilla baby in Virunga National Park

Mountain gorilla in Virunga National Park

Mountain gorilla in Virunga National Park

Mountain gorillas in Virunga National Park

Mountain gorillas in Virunga National Park

My friend - and professional guide - Alastair Kilpin with young mountain gorilla in Virunga National Park

My friend - and professional guide - Alastair Kilpin with young mountain gorilla in Virunga National Park

Local home on the border of Virunga National Park. Emmanuel de Merode and his team of rangers have done a remarkable job managing such a biodiverse and disparate park in one of Africa's most volatile and poorest regions.

Local home on the border of Virunga National Park. Emmanuel de Merode and his team of rangers have done a remarkable job managing such a biodiverse and disparate park in one of Africa's most volatile and poorest regions.

Grauer's gorilla silverback with tourist in Kahuzi-Biega National Park

KahuziGrauer's gorilla silverback with tourist in Kahuzi-Biega National ParkBiega National Park - Democratic Republic of Congo

Rainforest in Kahuzi-Biega National Park

Rainforest in Kahuzi-Biega National Park

Grauer's gorillas grooming each other in Kahuzi-Biega National Park

Grauer's gorillas grooming each other in Kahuzi-Biega National Park

Grauer's gorillas of Kahuzi-Biega National Park apparently spend more time feeding in trees than the mountain gorillas of the Virungas.

Grauer's gorillas of Kahuzi-Biega National Park apparently spend more time feeding in trees than the mountain gorillas of the Virungas.

Portrait of Grauer's gorilla in Kahuzi-Biega National Park

Portrait of Grauer's gorilla in Kahuzi-Biega National Park

Who's watching who? Tourists and Grauer's gorilla silverback in Kahuzi-Biega National Park

Who's watching who? Tourists and Grauer's gorilla silverback in Kahuzi-Biega National Park

The imposing gaze of a Grauer's gorilla silverback in Kahuzi-Biega National Park

The imposing gaze of a Grauer's gorilla silverback in Kahuzi-Biega National Park

Ranger Lushombo Bakongo trekking through the rainforest of Kahuzi-Biega National Park

Ranger Lushombo Bakongo trekking through the rainforest of Kahuzi-Biega National Park

Our armed escort in Kahuzi-Biega National Park. Rangers (from left to right): Jacque Kalolo, Lushombo Bakongo, Nabanga Zairois, Machine Kaboyi and Tito Birindwa

Our armed escort in Kahuzi-Biega National Park. Rangers (from left to right): Jacque Kalolo, Lushombo Bakongo, Nabanga Zairois, Machine Kaboyi and Tito Birindwa

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