Journey to Virunga National Park

January 15, 2017

I recently travelled to Virunga National Park in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Virunga is one of the most spectacular national parks in Africa. It's the oldest formally-gazetted national park (established in 1925), the continent's first World Heritage Site and is probably the most biodiverse terrestrial protected area in Africa. And of course, there are mountain gorillas.
Mountain Gorilla Silverback Virunga

The first gorilla I ever laid eyes on: a silverback, the leader of the family, in Virunga National Park. He was about ten metres from me, feeding on some bark.

An encounter with mountain gorillas is profound and deservedly celebrated. When a silverback returns your gaze, the illusory barriers between us and the natural world that we have constructed in our modern-day minds come tumbling down.

Sitting among a family of 12 gorillas in Virunga National Park, I was powerfully reminded that I am also an animal, that I come from nature, that I am a tiny part of nature.

To me, gorillas could be the chosen messengers, sent by the rest of the Earth’s wild animals to guide us back into their world, the world we have left and have done so much to destroy. If this is the case, then I can’t think of a more appropriate messenger. Gorillas are astounding creatures, more closely related to humans than any other creature besides chimpanzees and bonobos. They are, in many ways, a more admirable species than our own: mostly gentle (unless threatened), emotionally and mentally intelligent, protective of their family, and living in harmony with nature.

And yet there are no more than about 900 left in the wild. Why? One word: us. Gorillas epitomise the woes of the planet’s wilderness and wild animals. Massive increases in human populations, concurrent and unsustainable demand for natural resources, and political instability, wars and exploitation by corrupt governments (both local and Western)…these have all combined to create an extinction vortex for wild animals. And gorillas in central Africa are being sucked down along with so many other species. Or are they?

Mountain gorillas are, in fact, one of the great conservation success stories – for now.

I quote Jonathan Kingdon in his excellent Guide to African Mammals:

In central Africa more than 90% of Eastern Gorilla’s recent habitat is now fields and surviving populations live in lands that were, until recently, marginal for agriculture. The takeover of what remains has been delayed because of a dawning realisation that walking amongs wild gorillas is one of life’s greatest privileges and an experience for which people from all over the world will pay handsomely. Gorillas have morphed from terrible cartoons of sub-humanity into a living and noble expression of humanity’s roots in nature.

Peasants from one of the most brutal killing fields in history now enjoy a level of well-being and contact with the outside world that was almost unimaginable. They owe their new-found prosperity and access to education to dedicated naturalists and scientists who persevered, and sometimes died, to convince global audiences that allowing gorillas to go extinct would dishonour humanity.”

Thanks to dedicated conservationists and researchers, their demise is no longer assured. I am in awe of the rangers in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Rwanda and Uganda who have given their lives to the protection of not only the mountain gorillas, but also the rest of the park’s natural wonders, as well as the local people, who have come to rely on the park for a sense of peace and stability.

People like Rodrigue Katembo and Andre Bauma are true heroes. Katembo was once a child soldier, who escaped a life of murder, put himself through university and is now warden in charge of protecting the volatile central section of Virunga National Park, where rebels are attacking rangers and locals. Bauma is the inspirational caretaker who looks after four gorilla orphans rescued from poachers. When the park was under attack from rebels, Bauma stayed to defend his gorilla family.

Katembo and Bauma are just two good people, along with the 600 odd other rangers of Virunga National Park, including the inspirational Emmanuel de Merode. (If you haven’t watched the documentary movie Virunga, then you should…its the best piece of impactful film making I have seen).

You can pay anywhere from US$200 (in DRC) to US$750 (in Rwanda) for a permit to spend just one hour with mountain gorillas in the wild. It’s probably the best contribution you can make to their survival, as all the money goes back into their conservation. The money generated from tourism has been the biggest single reason that we still can enjoy the privilege of sharing the planet with these remarkable creatures.

There are two species of gorillas: Western and Eastern gorillas, separated by the immense Congo River and the tropical rainforests.

The Western gorilla (Gorilla gorilla) lives west of the Congo and Ubangi Rivers, in Republic of Congo (not the same as DRC!), Gabon, Central African Republic and Cameroon. There are two subspecies of Western gorilla (diehli and gorilla), and their range is mostly lowland tropical forest.

The Eastern gorilla (Gorilla beringei) lives in a far smaller range, in DRC, Rwanda and Uganda, in the mountains of Virunga and Bwindi Forest. There are two subspecies: mountain gorilla (beringei) and Grauer’s gorilla (graueri). Some biologists theorise that the Bwindi population could be a third subspecies.

Enjoy the photos and the captions.

 

Where most trips to Virunga National Park begin. This is Goma, a city on the edge of Lake Kivu, on the border between Democratic Republic of Congo and Rwanda.

Where most trips to Virunga National Park begin. This is Goma, a city on the edge of Lake Kivu, on the border between Democratic Republic of Congo and Rwanda.

Goma in Democratic Republic of Congo

In the past, Goma's lake waterfront and gentle climate made it one of the most popular holiday towns for Belgian colonial locals and visitors. From the air, the city seems serene, but the reality on the ground is very different, as Goma has sporadically fallen in the firing line of armies and rebel groups for the last 20 years.

Lake Kivu next to Goma

Early morning view from Lac Kivu Lodge of a fishing boat coming back into Goma. Because of Lac Kivu's proximity to volcanic geology, the water of the lake has a PH of 8,6 and so is home to comparatively fewer species of fish (just 28) than one would guess for a body of water this size (about 89km at its longest and 48 kms at its widest). There are several thousand fishermen who rely on the lake's Tanganyika sardine, an introduced species of fish. Despite its beauty and placid appearance, Lake Kivu is a deceptive body of water. Because of its location in the Albertine Rift (the western part of the East African rift), there are immense amounts of methane and carbon dioxide within the body of water. It is literally an "exploding lake", and geologists have discovered evidence of biological extinctions around the lake, occuring about every thousand years or so, as large amounts of destructive gases are released. Today, if that happened, it would be catastrophic for the two million or so people living on its shores.

Goma and Mount Nyiragongo

Goma is one of the Democratic Republic of Congo's larger cities, with 1 million people living between the potentially toxic gases of Lake Kivu and the volcanic lava of Mount Nyiragongo, an active volcano about 18kms north of the city (seen here in this photo). Since 1883, the volcano has erupted at least 34 times, the most recent being in 2002, when lava erupted through a fissure on the southern flank of the volcano, flowing up to 1km wide through the city itself, reaching Lake Kivu. About 400 000 people had to be evacuated from Goma to Rwanda, and about 150 people died from carbon dioxide asphyxiation. The people of this gritty city have learned to live with both natural and political catastrophes. In 1994, millions of Rwandese people fled their country, coming to Goma to escape the genocide, which also sparked the first and second Congolese Wars in the late 1990s and early 2000s, the cause of 5 million people's deaths, mostly from disease and malnutrition.

Goma and Mount Nyiragongo

Mirroring the volatility of its volcanoes and potentially toxic lake, Goma's political and conflict history has given it a lot of negative press. It's easy to believe it's a dangerous place. But it's not - for now. Even though there are a few army vehicles on the roads, the city seems to hum to a peaceful tune. I found the people remarkably friendly, dignified and welcoming. Their spirit was a highlight of the trip, for me.

Charcoal Truck Goma

The road north from Goma to Rumangabo, Virunga National Park's headquarters. Although it's only about 40kms long, it takes about two hours to drive. And within a few minutes, you soon get a sense of the challenges faced by conservationists. The road is terrible, with huge potholes. Trucks full of charcoal are regularly encountered, as are Congolese army and UN troop carriers. This is a place of immensely fascinating - and unsettling - contrasts. At first sight, it's hard to believe that it is one of the world's astonishgly diverse biological areas, with mountain gorillas living on the slopes of the dormant and active volcanos nearby.

Mount Nyiragongo in Virunga

Virunga is an apt name for the mountains and the park. The name comes from "ibirunga", which means "volcanoes" in the Kinyarwanda language. This is Mount Nyiragongo (3 470 metres), seen from the road between Goma and Rumangabo, the park headquarters. It's one of two active volcanos in the Virunga Mountains, which lie on the Uganda, Rwanda and DRC borders, between Lake Edward and Lake Kivu. There are a total of eight volcanoes, and for the record they are: Karisimbi (4 507), Mikeno (4 437), Muhabura (4 127), Bisoke (3 711), Sabyinyo (3 674), Gahinga (3 474), Nyiragongo, and Nyamuragira (3 058). Note that the two lowest are the only ones that are active.

Virunga National Park

After about a two hour drive from Goma, we came to the Bukima ranger post within Virunga National Park, where we were briefed on the gorilla trek, and what we could expect. Most people speak French, as the DRC is a former Belgian colony. The briefing was in French, and my friend Gael translated for the group into English.

Virunga National Park Map

The map on the wall of the ranger post, showing the region, its volcanoes, and where the gorilla families are located. We walked from the Bukima ranger station (circled on the map).

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.

Virunga National Park boundary

As we set off on the gorilla trek, we walked along the park boundary, through farming fields, where local people are growing their crops. It's clear to see how the mountain rainforest has been cleared for agriculture. The boundary of the park is obvious, and clearly there was once far more forest in the area. Charcoal production is a huge industry, and has caused a lot of ecological destruction.

Virunga forest

Things are very, very green in Virunga's southern sector, where most of the mountain gorillas live. Up to 2 500mm of rain can fall in the Virunga mountains ever year.

Gorilla Trackers Virunga

After about two hours of trekking on the slopes of Mount Mikeno, guided by two armed rangers, we met up with the trackers who had earlier gone out to locate the gorilla family.

Gorilla Dung Virunga

The first solid evidence of gorillas. A very fresh dung ball!

Gorilla Baby Virunga

All the cliches and superlatives of gorilla trekking are deserved. When I saw this youngster hanging from the forest vines, my mind switched off, and my soul took over. No matter what you may have been thinking about previously that day, the presence of the gorillas dominate every cell of your being.

Gorilla Silverback Virunga

Trekkers are meant to stay at least 8 metres away from the gorillas, but because they are habituated to humans, they are very relaxed, and came within three or four metres of us. They are mostly vegetarian, eating vines, wild celery and three or four other plant species (though they have been known at times to eat ants and termites). Perhaps due to their mountainous, cooler habitat, their diet includes less fruit than the Western Gorilla species.

Gorilla Silverback Virunga

Male mountain gorillas can reach 200kg in weight, and up to 1,9 metres in height. They are as intimidating in real life as these statistics suggest. They will defend their family to the death, and yet they choose to tolerate and even accept human presence (once habituated through regular visits by humans).

Gorilla Tourists Virunga

The silverback got up suddently and walked past us, where my friends Gael and Carishma were sitting. This photo - taken with a 16-35mm wide-angle lens - doesn't do justice to the size of the silverback...my heart was pounding!

Gorilla Hand Virunga

The eyes of the gorillas are just one anatomical feature that reminds us of ourselves...the feet and hands are equally powerful symbols of our relatedness. If you read Jonathan Kingdon's Guide to African Mammals, you'll learn that it is feet and hands that have defined the primate species' evolution. We are who we are, and gorillas too, largely because of the role that our hands and feet have played in our evolution.

Young Gorilla Virunga

A young gorilla. As they get older, their eyes tend to darken.

Young Gorilla Virunga

Gorillas are astounding creatures, more closely related to humans than any other creature besides chimpanzees and bonobos. They are, in many ways, a more admirable species than our own: mostly gentle (unless threatened), emotionally and mentally intelligent, protective of their family, and living in harmony with nature. And yet there are no more than about 900 left in the wild. Why? One word: us. Gorillas epitomise the woes of the planet’s wilderness and wild animals. Massive increases in human populations, concurrent and unsustainable demand for natural resources, and political instability, wars and exploitation by corrupt governments (both local and Western)…these have all combined to create an extinction vortex for wild animals.

Andre Bauma and orphaned gorilla at Virunga's Senkwekwe Gorilla Sanctuary, where Andre and fellow rangers look after gorillas whose families have been murdered by poachers or soldiers.

Andre Bauma and orphaned gorilla at Virunga's Senkwekwe Gorilla Sanctuary, where Andre and fellow rangers look after gorillas whose families have been murdered by poachers or soldiers.

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