A Visit to the Kingdom of the Mountain Gorilla by Hank Lowenstein

We left New York on a frigid Friday evening in January, and after a brief stopover in Paris to acclimate to the time change, we arrived in Kigali Rwanda on the eve of the Inauguration of Barack Obama. I was wearing my official Obama tee shirt and cap, and everyone at the airport and at our hotel were cheering and shouting, “Obama, Obama!”

Rwanda is a tiny country, just over 26 thousand square kilometers or half the size of Scotland. There are over 11 million people here and over 25% live in the capital, Kigali. We stayed at the Hotel Des Mille Collines, the actual hotel from the film Hotel Rwanda, the powerful film depicting the genocide in this country during 1993 and 1994. Over a million human beings were slaughtered.
We were in Rwanda to be part of a film we helped to finance about the life of George Schaller, arguably the greatest living conservation biologist on the planet. Fifty years ago George did the very first studies of the mountain gorillas, actually preceding the more widely known work of Dian Fossey. Also part of our film team was Amy Vedder, who with her husband Bill Webber started the mountain gorilla tourism program in 1979. This program has grown dramatically over thirty years and now attracts some twenty thousand visitors annually. The program employs many local people and has made tourism to Rwanda the third largest source of revenue in the country.

It is a two hour drive from Kigali to the Virungas, a chain of still active volcanoes that form the borders of Rwanda, Uganda and the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). These areas are the home of some seven hundred mountain gorillas, which are the only remaining primates of their kind in the world. On the drive, as we climbed higher into the mountains, we saw the typical agriculture of Rwanda. There are terraces from the base of the hills right to the top, in layers and tiers of different crops. We also saw many workers in dark blue shirts creating new, yet unplanted terraces. Our driver told us that these were Hutu’s who had killed Tutsi’s during the genocide, and building these terraces was part of their punishment, which also includes prison time.

Thankfully, the genocide did not affect the mountain gorilla population, and today, with their protected status, they remain healthy and productive. In fact, as I am writing this, an announcement came in over the BBC website that ten new baby gorillas have just been born in the DRC! These gorilla’s are quite habituated to humans and as curious about us as we are about them.

We stayed at the locally owned and operated Kinigi Guest Lodge located at the foot of Mt. Sabinyo, one of the active peaks and an absolutely magnificent site in the early morning light with clouds sitting above the crater like a halo above an angel’s head. We had a suite with two bathrooms, a sitting room with a phone, TV and fireplace, and a very comfortable bedroom. The staff was terrific and the food exceeded our expectations.
Our first day of seeing the gorillas started at 6 AM. We met George and Amy and the three person film crew for breakfast and discussed our plan for the day. My companion and life partner, Edith, is the Vice Chair and a trustee of the Wildlife Conservation Society, the New York based organization that employed George and Amy when they were in Rwanda and for many years thereafter. The film was being made in partnership with National Geographic and will be shown in December of this year. We met our head tracker, guides, porters and security at the staging area and were given a complete orientation as to how we should behave while in the Park. This included a no contact whatsoever policy with the gorillas, as they are very susceptible to contracting human disease.

As we set off I thought we must have made an interesting sight: the film team, George and Amy, Edith and I, and an assortment of guides, tracker’s, porter’s and guards. We all were loaded down with filming equipment, personal camera’s, binoculars, rainwear of every type and most importantly, waterproof boots with deep cleats. The trail was up and steep and covered with thick slick mud that climbed over the top of our boots and threatened to suck them off our feet! We all had our pants tucked well down into our socks. This was to avoid the awful biting red driver ants that infest the ground in the Virunga’s.
Our head tracker said the gorillas were about a forty minute walk away, but it took us twice that time to even find their sleeping nests due to the difficulty of the terrain and the steepness of the trail. While the main group rested near the gorilla nests, the film team and the trackers went to see where the gorillas were. A half hour later they returned and said we would have to wait because the gorillas were in high bamboo, still feeding, and that the filming conditions were not good. The half hour turned into two hours, during which time it started to rain, just a mist at first, building into a torrent that had us scurrying for our rain gear and umbrella’s. It also got cold, and we got out vests and other warmer clothing. The rain stopped after an hour but we were told we still had to wait for the gorillas to move into better filming areas.

Some of us, including this writer, were becoming quite impatient, but after another fifteen minutes we were told to follow the guides. Within ten minutes we started to see the gorillas! We saw babies and juveniles first, then several females and black back males. The leader of this group of forty three individuals, the silverback male, was not in view. Mountain gorillas are the largest primates on earth. A full-grown silverback male can weigh over seven hundred pounds, and these are massively powerful creatures.. Mountain gorillas have thick black fur, prominent noses and foreheads, and keen, penetrating brown eyes that reflect the sunlight. They are strict vegetarians, eating the plethora of plants that abound in the Virunga’s. Their favorite foods are celery, bamboo shoots and other green stalks. These plants also provide all the gorillas their daily intake of fluids, as they drink almost no water. The gorillas seemed quite comfortable in our presence and very interested in what we were doing, especially when we made eye contact with them. The first young male I made eye contact with stared intently into my eyes, and I felt an immediate bond and sense of intelligence between us. It was I who broke the eye contact, and I believe the gorilla would have kept staring forever! It occurred to me that we had much to share if I had the language of the gorilla and he had mine.

The gorillas love to climb and play, and knock each other about, and their antics are quite funny to watch. We found ourselves laughing out loud many times as we enjoyed their spectacle. Since every group visiting the park is limited to one hour of actual viewing time, we were becoming anxious that we would not get to see the silverback. Within ten minutes that fear was dispelled. The silverback was gigantic! It’s head the size of four men’s heads, with hugely powerful arms, shoulders and legs. The guide said he weighed almost eight hundred pounds and stood head and shoulders above all the other gorillas. He was busy pulling down large bamboo trees and stripping the shoots, continuously feeding himself. Every now and again he would look at us, unperturbed, and then go back to eating. As we were frantically taking pictures and the field team getting every angle they could, several females started crossing between us and the silverback. They had small babies on their backs and they stopped just before they were about to come abreast of the silverback. He glanced down, looked back up, and the females went on by, apparently with the blessing of their Lord and Master.
Our hour was up and we began the long, muddy trek out of the forest. When we rejoined our porters and collected our gear, I took a look back at where we had seen the gorillas and found that tears were leaking from my eyes. It was a lifetime moment, a chance that few will ever have. I kept thinking about the gorillas as we slogged through the mud and the stinging nettle plants, I thanked my lucky stars that we had turned down an invitation to Obama’s Inauguration and come to beautiful Rwanda instead.