Volcanoes National Park, Rwanda, Day 355

Mountain Gorilla, Susa Group, Volcanoes National Park, Rwanda, Africa

I was looking back at some of my earlier blog posts from the beginning of our Year of Wonder and noticed that I was much more restrained. My entries were shorter and to the point. Over the ensuing months I think I have become too enamored of my own voice. To that end I’ll try to make the sprint to the finish line as concise as possible. Having said that, it would be criminal not to spend at least little more time with the Mountain Gorillas of Volcanoes National Park. The genocide apart, Rwanda is probably most famous for its population of Mountain Gorillas and at about 480 individuals the numbers are, believe it or not, increasing and quite substantially – over 25% from 2003 to 2010 when the last census was performed. The scariest point in the modern conservation program was 1981 when only 254 individuals were believed to be in the tri-nation Virunga Mountains, of which Volcanoes National Park is a part. Of course the tricky thing about the gorillas is that they do not respect national borders. Currently, most are resident in Rwanda because of ongoing unrest in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. The rebound in gorilla numbers is very exciting, but at some point habitat destruction in Rwanda will harm this renaissance. Villagers who eke out a living on the precipitous slopes of the Virunga Mountains see very little benefit from the rich tourists who pass briefly through their hamlets, leading to some resentment which may in turn lead to fatal confrontation with the gorillas in their midst. So the Rwandan government has to find a balance to ensure  that everyone benefits from the eco-tourism bonanza afforded by the Mountain Gorillas of Volcanoes National Park.

The situation is actually even better than I mentioned above because Uganda hosts a separate population of Mountain Gorillas in the Bwindi Impenetrable National Park, which lies to the north of Volcanoes National Park. The consensus data here is less clear, but it is believed that as many as 340 individuals inhabit this park. The entire population of Mountain gorillas is therefore in the range of 800-900 individuals and rising (none incidentally live in captivity or zoos)!  But this success is due to intense conservation efforts on behalf of various governments and the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund. There are two other subspecies of gorillas, the western lowland gorillas (who live in West Central Africa) and eastern lowland gorillas (who live in the eastern Congolese rainforest) that lack similar protective efforts. 

Okay, here are a few fast facts about gorillas and then Christi and I really must board a plane:

Mountain gorillas reproduce slowly. Females only reach sexual maturity at aged 10 and over an entire lifetime (Mountain Gorillas live to about 35-40 years) they may have as few as 5 babies. Males do not reach sexual maturity until aged 15. Furthermore, only 50 percent of gorilla young survive their first year, although that number is likely to be higher in those groups habituated to man because they are protected and can receive veterinary care if necessary.

Mountain Gorillas and humans share 99.6% of their DNA. And while humans have unique fingerprints, gorillas have unique nose prints. Quite how anybody figured this out is unclear to me. I mean would you walk up to 400 lb silverback gorilla, rub ink on its nose and then try to get a print?

Mountain gorillas are the hairiest members of the gorilla family. They need long hair to keep warm at night in the Virunga Mountains. They live in families of 10 to 20, led by a dominant male called the silverback (for the silvery gray hair that grows as the male matures). Contrary to popular depictions, gorillas are not ferocious and aggressive, but rather gentle and shy (a bit like me really). The family unit typically spends 30% of their day feeding (Mountain Gorillas are vegetarian eating a variety of leaves, roots, flowers and bamboo when in season) , 30% moving and playing, and 40% resting.

Christi and I hate to leave these endearing gentle giants. It has been an amazing experience and we can only wish the Mountain Gorillas well. Their survival hangs by a thread. Man can either drive them to extinction or continue to nurse the species back to a viable population size.

In contrast to the tortuous, almost suicidal bus ride from Kampala to Kigali, our return journey is sublimely easy. The flight aboard RwandAir lasts 35 minutes, during which time I am served the fastest lunch of my life. But, hey, I had lunch. Entebbe International airport lies 39 km southwest of Kampala on the shores of Lake Victoria. It’s a US$25 taxi ride back to the Backpackers hostel and campsite, where we bump into a Dragoman group who are en route to Rwanda (Dragoman gets everywhere and I mean that in a good way). Christi and I barely have time to do laundry, eat, and repack ahead of tomorrow’s visit to Murchison Falls National Park.

Blog post by Roderick Phillips, author of Weary Heart – a gut-wrenching tale of love and test tubes.



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