Mount Bisoke, Rwanda and the Mountain Gorillas - Michael Dykstra

Mount Bisoke

We woke up at 4AM to leave Kigali at an hour when we’d reach Volcanoes national park in the north in time to go hike a volcano. We paid $75 to hike Mount Bisoke, one of 4 volcanoes in the range accessible on foot. The peak is 3711m (12,175ft), about 1100m above the base. The hike alone was very exciting, as it was a clear, sunny day with minimal humidity, so we had a crystal clear view of the tops of all the volcanoes in the national park. Before we began, the guide told us there was a chance we’d see gorillas. He said 40%, though I’ve heard numbers ranging from 5-60% and my friend living there had never heard of anyone seeing them on the hike. Even if a sighting does happen, usually they’re far away or only split-second sightings as they cross the trail. Still, I left my zoom lens on just in case.

As we started up the trail, we saw some signs that they were around. First some hand prints (4 fingers since they don’t walk on the palms of their front hands), and some fresh urine that I took a picture of because I thought it might be as close as I got to seeing a gorilla (not putting that one online :P).

Gorilla tracks

At one juncture, we stopped for a water break. A few seconds later we heard some rustling in bush not more than 20 feet away. Our guide, Jerome, said it could be a gorilla. I of course only thought of my childhood cartoon experience when rustling leaves was always either wind or a tiny chipmunk. But it wasn’t this time.

First glimpse!!

We first caught a glimpse of the big, black animal that was certainly a mountain gorilla (pictured above). I was happy enough with that, but then he turned around and came out into the open on the trail. Then one of his friends came. Then another. Eventually they all ran away (the first 2 were from one family, and the 3rd was from a different group feeling out the territory boundaries).

We continued a bit on the trail, and suddenly we were diverted off the path. I quickly realized it was because this guy was relaxing on the path ahead of us:

Big Gorilla on the trail!

There are many striking things about these animals. Seeing their muscles made me wonder if I should switch to eating grass instead of meat and protein powder after workouts. Their thick, black coat was a beautiful contrast to the surrounding greens. But above all, they were obviously intelligent. They can look at you in a way other animals don’t. When I look in the eyes of one of the many cows walking around Botswana, I see empty space. When I looked in the eyes of one of these mountain gorillas, I felt I was encountering an equal.

I realize this is the least important part, but the hike itself was really fantastic too..

After all that, we wondered if we might get lucky and see them again on the way down. Miraculously, that happened too :) The soldiers ahead of us notified the guide that there were gorillas on the trail. We were told to move quickly and not stop. "This one always like to.. to.. beat people," our guide informed us. Fair enough, I didn't stop to take pictures.  But what I did do was take my phone out to record this video, which turned out to be one of the highlights to show friends and family :)

Gorillas on the Trail

A few notes about the species:

Mountain gorillas- among the more endangered species in the world, they were declared severely endangered in 1996. Their numbers were decreasing so rapidly at that time that it was thought they may become extinct by the end of the century. However, fortunately, due to conservation efforts, their numbers are now increasing again and it is believed that numbers are once again over 1000 in the wild.

Still they now only inhabit one region of the world- a single mountain range shared by Rwanda, Uganda, and the Democratic Republic of Congo. There are about 400 that remain in Rwanda, which in recent years has led the conservation efforts in the region. These magnificent beasts are threatened by a number of things…

Political instability: While Rwanda is now a pillar of success in the region, it is doing so in spite of one of the worst humanitarian crises of my lifetime with the genocide in 1994, where 1 million people died in 100 days. The Democratic Republic of Congo has suffered a series of wars, and is experiencing substantial political instability now in the wake of a presidential election. Uganda has also been entangled in a number of disputes in the region. All this (understandably) takes priority off the environment and can directly lead to destruction of animals and habitat.

Poaching: While not typically caught for meat, there are traps set for other animals which may catch gorillas. Some silverbacks have learned how to release others from the traps, but they may still be maimed or taken if they aren’t freed quickly enough. Some of the worlds very wealthy have decided that baby gorillas could make good pets, and often adults need to be killed in order to pull away an infant to sell on the black market. After seeing the intelligence of gorillas first-hand, I can only imagine the devastation to the social structure if a little one is stolen away.

Habitat destruction: Since they only have this one mountain range, the gorillas are quite susceptible to small areas being destroyed. Fortunately, large national parks are a good source of tourist income for these countries, so money is being committed to keeping these parks safe and clean. In Rwanda it costs $1500 to track the gorillas (the cost was doubled last May to assist conservation efforts and decrease volume), while it’s only $600 in Uganda.

Hopefully we as humanity can help protect these beasts so that people can encounter them for generations to come; losing them would be a tragedy.

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