This day took most of us into the Virunga Mountains, a chain of Western Rift Valley volcanoes that straddle the borders of Rwanda, Uganda, and the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), for a first-hand experience with the critically endangered mountain gorillas. Considered a biodiversity hotspot, portions of the Virungas are protected by contiguous trans-frontier parks in Rwanda (Volcanoes National Park), DRC (Virunga National Park), and Uganda (Mgahinga Gorilla National Park). The highest peak, Karisimbi, is seasonally snow-capped and there are two active volcanoes in the range.
Many in the United States are familiar with the conservation work of Dian Fossey, who lived among, studied, and championed the cause of mountain gorilla conservation in the Virunga Mountains. Her work was discussed and documented in the biography by Farley Mowat entitled Woman in the Mists and was later made into the 1988 film “Gorillas in the Mist” – a term that became a reality for us today as we were given the opportunity to actually see gorillas in the mist. Dian Fossey started her career much as Jane Goodall did: The world-renowned chimpanzee conservationist gained the attention and support of the celebrated archeologist Louis Leakey, who was instrumental in securing funding for these early first-hand studies of primate behavior. Fossey’s work began in 1966, and soon after, she founded the Karisoke Research Center in 1967. Her work posthumously continues through Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund International.
Our trek took us in search of the Titus group, whom Fossey had first documented when Titus was a mere 4 year old. Now the family group of descendants includes one silverback male, a group of fertile females (one holding a 2 month old baby and the other pregnant), several adolescent males and a 2 year old juvenile who was about to go through a naming ceremony in September that would be a nationally-celebrated Rwandan event. After receiving a briefing and a walking stick, we slowly and sometimes painfully ascended the steep terrain through small family-owned fields of potatoes and pyrethrum flowers, which are grown to be processed into a herbal insecticide, to reach the national park boundary – a “Hadrian’s wall” of volcanic rocks built to prevent forest buffalo and elephants from invading the verdant fields below.
Within the park we climbed through lush vegetation, trying to avoid, sometimes unsuccessfully, the caresses of several varieties of stinging nettle found along the path. Winded after two and half hours of uphill trekking, two trackers and our national park guide led us into a small clearing. There, not more than twelve feet in front of us, lying together in a jumble of black fur was the sought after Titus group.
As we watched them calmly grooming each other, a silverback male suddenly stormed into the group slapping his chest, announcing his presence as the group made room for him to lie down with them. The curious and playful 2 year old came closer to us; we were warned to back up as the silverback watched us closely. It truly was a once in a lifetime event. The time allotted for our visit passed quickly and soon we were herded down the mountain, glowing with the satisfaction of having been in such close proximity to the mountain gorillas who continue to be studied and enjoyed by the fortunate few.
For now, the poaching that Fossey tried so hard to curtail is under control as the mountain gorillas have been elevated to the status of national treasures, not only in Rwanda but also in Uganda and the DRC. Today, a close working relationship between these countries strives to insure the survival of the mountains gorillas.
On this day, two of our members opted to participate in a Rwandan national public service program known as Umuganda, which means “coming together with a common purpose to accomplish a shared goal” in Kinyarwanda (the dominant language in the country). All Rwandans between eighteen and sixty-five are required to spend about two and half hours on the last Saturday of each month in community service projects. The program was adapted from pre-colonial Rwandan traditions by the present government of Rwanda. Our team members spent the morning participating in the repair of the home of a local family. They were warmly welcomed into the process, and amid laughter and sweat they learned traditional methods of preparing and installing roofing materials on the home of a local family.