Melissa's Travels

Just Back From... Gorilla Trekking


's magnificent endangered mountain gorillas share 98 percent of our human genes, and today survive only in protected forests in Rwanda, Uganda and the Democratic Republic of Congo. (By recent estimates, their population is around 800.) On my first trip, in 2016, I arrived in early May just after the month that is dedicated to remembering the genocide of April 1994 in which one million Rwandans were killed. During 100 days the Hutu majority systematically murdered every Tutsi they could find. It is said that, though the Rwandans’ instruments of death—machetes and clubs mostly—were more primitive than the means used by the Nazis, they were more efficient in the speed of their killing. "Kwibuka," which means remember, was on slogans at the airport and banners hung all over Kigali and the rest of the country. Remember Unite Renew. This is the strategy of President Paul Kagame who has been in power since 1996. He abolished identity cards with the Hutu and Tutsi classifications. "We are all Rwandan," said my driver Shema, whose name means Pride; but, of course, it is more complicated than that.

The mountain gorillas, which today live only in Virunga and Bwindi national parks are not the gorillas you may have seen in zoos; (those are lowland gorillas). These creatures have never survived in captivity, though that fact hasn’t kept poachers from trying to kill all the adults in a family just to snatch a baby. It’s these kinds of kidnapping attempts and the fierce protective response that led to the King Kong misconception that mountain gorillas are aggressive carnivores. In fact, the giant vegetarians spend most of their days chomping on leaves, stems and the occasional fruit or insect. A silverback, or alpha male can ingest 75 pounds of vegetation a day, and when he is not eating, he is likely mating with one of the females in his harem or sleeping. Their behaviors have been said to include laughter, sadness and loyalty. A silverback male will protect his family even if he must die doing so, and if one of the females who have mated with him for life dies, he will take her children into his nest and care for them. To say that they are gentle giants is, for the most part, accurate.

The countries that shelter these last remaining apes have been through decades of war and upheaval, yet their leaders have come to recognize that tourism to see the gorillas promises economic opportunity, which they desperately need. A virtual army of rangers protects gorilla groups 24 hours a day, and in Rwanda, visitors must purchase a pricey permit that allows one hour in the presence of the animals. Patience, the ranger who led my group, had learned about the gorillas on a school outing as a child and was so enamored with the animals that he focused his studies on becoming a ranger. Six days a week, he treks into the national park with trackers and a group of no more than eight tourists to find one of ten habituated groups. Depending on the weather and the location of the family, the hike from the base station may be a gentle hour-long walk or a six-hour trek uphill in mud, but more than 90 percent of the time, visitors are rewarded with their full 60 minutes with the gorillas.

Before heading out of Kigali and toward the mountain lodge where I would be based for my gorilla trek, I stopped at the Genocide Memorial. I had read Philip Gourevitch's brilliant book We Wish To Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed with Our Families, which details the genocide and its aftermath. Neighbors had turned on neighbors. The church and the UN were aware of the atrocities and did nothing. In fact, nuns and priests were later tried as war criminals for their roles in massacres. Once the RPF (Tutsi rebel soldiers) regained control and Kagame became president, refugees in camps in neighboring countries, many of whom were the Hutu who had killed their fellow citizens, returned.

The Memorial visit begins with a short film about the genocide, which features a few survivors sharing their personal stories. I sat in the small theater with a group of teenagers from a local school. I knew the statistics. Every Rwandan had seen people they knew killed and the bodies of hundreds more lining the roads. Many had witnessed rape, torture and murder in their homes or on the streets. I couldn't help but wonder what were these kids' stories. Had they had Hutu parents who had been swept up in the killing just to survive as many had? Had they had Tutsi relatives whose entire families were annihilated just for being Tutsi? Children reportedly pleaded with their Hutu killers, saying they would stop being Tutsi if they would spare them, but Hutu wanted to erase the bloodlines so did not. Did these students consider themselves children of survivors or children of perpetrators? Could Kwibuka really ease—certainly not erase—the horror, the grief, the loss, the shame, the anger, the guilt that must exist in everyone? Could something similar happen here again?

The gorilla treks depart from a base station at 7:30 am. To reach our designated Group 13, named “Agashya” (meaning “Special”) we crossed through farmland neighboring the park where we met up with trackers for a short hike through bamboo forest. We were briefed on how to behave in the midst of the animals—quietly, with no sudden movements—and we followed the trackers in a straight line through the thicket of greenery until suddenly in front of us appeared a beautiful blackback, a juvenile male, perched on a bamboo canopy. He sat upright, casually pulling stalks from the branches surrounding him and munching on the leaves. Every now and then, he would glance over at us, his large brown eyes meeting ours. Did they show interest, boredom or connection? Impossible to tell, but also not to wonder. He was within arm’s length and after a few minutes rolled over on to his back and stretched out on his bed of branches and began to stretch and scratch his belly, maybe preparing for a nap.

A few minutes later there was a sudden crash of leaves behind Patience and in a whoosh like a fireman gliding down a pole, a female gorilla dropped from the bamboo above. When she landed on the ground, she barreled right through our group, almost shoving past one man with his camera poised, as though she were rushing to catch a subway. She was so close, I could have reached out to touch her fur mussed with its bits of leaves and branches. Another blackback rested a few yards away and after we observed him laze in his nest of branches, one of the rangers called us to a thicket where the silverback had appeared. This alpha male was given the name Agashya, which means “special” or “the news,” because he was an unhabituated male who had taken over the gorilla group from another male but he immediately accepted the ranger and tourist visits. A hulking black form, he loomed above us, leaning forward on his massive furry arms, with certain dominance over this dominion. Patience told us that he is also considered “special” because he has snatched females from other families to grow his group, which is now one of the largest in Virunga National Park.

The 3,000-square-mile park straddles three countries—Rwanda, Uganda and the Democratic Republic of Congo (formerly Zaire)—and while the gorilla populations have been on the rise in Rwanda and Uganda in recent years, those in Congo have been recently endangered by rebel fighting and oil exploitation. In the award-winning documentary Virunga, it is estimated that 200 rangers have been killed in Congo protecting the primates. It is a small number compared to the nearly 5 million people who have died in recent warfare but one of the rangers, whose father was killed in the civil war, explains that he feels that by protecting the animals that his father taught him to love, he is respecting his father’s wishes.

As we watched Agashya, other members of the group slowly started to emerge out of the forest, drawn to him or to his acceptance of us. He sat for a while pulling bamboo stalks and chewing them, as though basking in the attention and shutter snaps of our cameras (no flashes allowed). And then, as if on cue, when we all had the shots we wanted and our time was up, he rose and lumbered past us. His magnificence had been meted out and now the performance or participation was over. I have been on safari a dozen times and this had been one of the most thrilling wildlife experiences I have had. Part of the magic lay in the physical proximity. We had gone in on foot and stood within arm’s length of the alpha male, like visitors appearing before a king, but there was also the physical familiarity that cannot be denied, a recognition of shared traits. There is nothing quite looking into the eyes of our ancestors.

The Genocide Memorial is both an active memorial site for survivors to honor their lost loved ones and an educational institution that aims to prevent future genocides by looking back at other genocides, including the holocaust. Exhibits document the history that led up to the genocide, its events, its aftermath and other genocides. Some rooms are shocking with display cases of skulls and bones. The children's room shows images of a dozen children who were killed with plaques giving their age (3, 6, 9 months); their favorite activity (drawing, singing, laughing); their best friend (mother, younger sister, daddy); and then their means of death (machete, grenade in shower, smashed against the wall). Outside are gardens with mass graves and places of meditation. It is impossible not to be moved, but also not to be ashamed that the world allowed this to happen. The UN and the U.S., the French, we all knew what was happening and we withdrew our personnel and citizens and did nothing.

The whole time I was in Rwanda I found myself haunted by the question of what it is that binds us to each other. How could neighbors turn on neighbors? How could the west turn its back on an entire country? I thought of the men protecting the gorillas and the international support for their protection. And as we walked out of the forest, rangers and tourists united by the high of the encounter, I thought of a scene in the documentary Virunga, where one of the rangers speaks about the gorilla orphans that he cares for in the film. “They must not feel that they are abandoned. They must feel that they are part of a family.” Wasn’t that the message of the Genocide Memorial as well? That we are our brother’s keeper. Or at least we should be.

See photos from Melissa's trip in her Rwanda and Uganda Slideshow.

Read our Rwanda Destination Report.

Published onJune 21, 2016

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