Gorillas and Guerillas in the Democratic Republic of Congo
I crawled like a leopard after the still clenched fist ahead of me and received the signal to rise slowly to my knees. As I began to lift myself up, a copper colored snake slithered across my splayed hands. I stifled a scream by sinking my teeth into the quilted collar of my jacket.
At the prospect of being educated by African game rangers in a tropical rain forest, with the added promise of an experience I would find hard to forget, I embarked on a gorilla trek to the Democratic Republic of Congo.
Armed with a camera and several packs of cigarettes, with which to ease over any roadblock issues, I headed north out of Goma (east DRC), towards one of the last remaining mountain gorilla sanctuaries in the world.
A Small, Excited Party
Nearing the Virunga National Park, the road narrowed and twisted through forests punctuated with bougainvillea flowers, adding dashes of pink, orange and fuschia.
Twenty minutes later I arrived at what I perceived to be the entrance to Virunga National Park. A guide promptly frog marched me to the administration hut. Here I produced my pass and paid the US$250 fee for the gorilla hike before joining a small excited party of people who had already been processed.
We received a briefing about where we were going and the procedures we needed to follow. A short while later a Goliath, ebony skinned ranger, aptly named Maximus, appeared. His silent grinning sidekick, Rambo, shepherded us into single file and then fell to the back of the line. Maximus led the way, marching us for several hours, at a frightening pace, up the mist-enveloped mountain.
War and Lawlessness
Gorilla numbers have drastically diminished as a result of war and lawlessness in game parks in the eastern DRC. It is only in recent years that forest rangers have been allowed to resume work in parts of the reserve and begin the odious task of assessing the state of the animal population.
The World Wildlife Fund estimates that approximately 700 mountain gorillas live in central Africa, of which Virunga National Park holds 380. The Virunga gorillas’ entire world consists of 285 square miles of mountainous rain forest, which straddles the border between the Democratic Republic of Congo, Uganda and Rwanda.
Mountain gorillas are gentle, affectionate giants that are one of the most endangered animals in the world and are nearing extinction through loss of habitat and poaching.
During our ascent, I quizzed Maximus about his experiences.
“No one who has ever looked a gorilla in the eyes can come away unmoved,” he said.
Maximus spoke of his work and told that ranger patrols had to caution off refugees as the national parks and forest reserves were good places to retreat from opposition forces and also made for good poaching grounds.
“But these are the least of our problems,” he scowled in reflection. “We also need to guard against militia-men, the other kind of guerillas. Even though the war is over, they still come.”
A Difficult, Dangerous Job
Park rangers perform a difficult, dangerous and thankless task for which they rarely receive remuneration or recognition; and those rangers who stumble upon guerillas while doing their job have, historically, paid with their lives.
Excluding those killed during the civil war, around 80 game rangers have been murdered in the DRC whilst on patrol.
“Six of my colleagues were killed here in Virunga in 1997.” Maximus concluded, waving a hand in the general direction of east Africa, to emphasize the point. He felt certain the risk of meeting up with guerillas was likely to continue for some time still.
Tracking the Gorillas
The scenery was spectacular – after the initial grassland we headed into the dense jungle with Maximus constantly hacking clear a path with his machete. The deeper we ventured, the darker and muddier the jungle became.
During a short break the rangers explained that they were tracking the gorillas by way of their dung which, they claimed, was not too arduous a task, bearing in mind an average adult gorilla consumes around 60 pounds (30kg) of vegetation daily. Rambo explained that these good-natured vegetarians live in small cohesive family groups and do not travel more than two or three miles in a day.
A few hours later, much further up the mountain, I became aware of unfamiliar animal sounds filtering through the blackness of the surrounding jungle. All at once, the jungle fell silent. Maximus raised his muscular forearm and made a fist resembling a rugby ball, signaling us to halt.
He crouched and we followed suit. He began walking on his haunches towards a thicket, and we did likewise. He signaled for us to drop flat, which we did, me into ankle deep mud the color of dark chocolate.
A Cloud of Stinging Insects
A few moments later his still clenched fist signaled for us to rise. Scraping the mud off my face I raised myself to my elbows and into a cloud of stinging insects. They burrowed into my ears, nostrils and eyes and when I blinked I could feel their legs squirming and tearing down my cheeks.
Vermin or bug shrieking was forbidden, so under the circumstances, I did the best I could and wedged a tissue up each nostril and did the same to my ears. It later dawned on me that this was in fact, an ingenious idea as the lightly aloe-oiled tissue paper warded off the insects.
The ground mist was thick and the jungle’s density allowed only a few shafts of light to filter through the canopy above, but it was enough to make out the gleaming white teeth of Maximus grinning at me, a few feet away.
He stifled a chuckle with difficulty and whispered hoarsely, “Missy, you cannot see my gorillas looking like this. You will frighten the children. They will flee when they spy a wide-eyed, muddy, wild-haired female form rising up out of the undergrowth, with wads of tissue paper coming out of her nose and ears.”
We moved forward slowly and soon we were again signaled to stop and fan out. Maximus looked back at our party and indicated to a bush ahead which was being violently shaken.
The First Glimpse
Ten hours of air travel, a four-hour hike up one of the highest mountains in Africa and a brief encounter with a snake, afforded me my first glimpse of the legendary mountain gorillas of central Africa.
In this group there were perhaps ten gorillas, with one dominant, unfeasibly large silver back male.
I sat on a tree trunk near a female gorilla nursing an infant. Beside her sat another gorilla grooming a youngster. She used her fingers and teeth to comb through junior’s hair. Junior was entranced.
Rambo appeared beside me and quietly explained how a gorilla builds itself a nest for sleeping. A young gorilla shares its mother’s nest until it reaches the age of about three. Nest-building only takes a few minutes as the gorilla just sits on a main branch and bend smaller branches to form a small platform.
I had been warned not to approach the gorillas but instead to wait and see if they came to me, which a few of the younger ones did when they brushed by me. One put her hand on my forearm, lifting it to inspect a scar on my arm.
A Territorial Display
Whilst I was being inspected, a male gorilla, unfamiliar to the group, appeared. We witnessed a frightening territorial display when the resident male became excited. He stood to his full height and began beating his chest and hooting. He inched toward the stranger, growling and gnashing his teeth. Soon the stranger disappeared into the jungle.
The hour we were permitted with the giant apes passed in what felt like minutes. Rambo rounded us up and led the way out. I trailed behind with Maximus and stole a few final glimpses, the last of which was of an infant clambering up the chest of a silver back, who patiently indulged the young one without protest.
Tourist Dollars Buy Time
Maximus followed my gaze. “Every tourist dollar buys our gorillas another day,” he said, and then added, “but this is not enough. We need more than what money can buy. To be effective, our game rangers need motivation, equipment, training, and discipline. At this time, our government has commitments elsewhere, and soon the conservation effort will collapse.
“We find ourselves up against well-equipped and well-trained bandits and unless we solve these issues now mankind will wipe the gorillas out, less than a hundred years after they were first discovered.”
The underrated and all too often misconstrued contribution of the African game ranger is pivotal in the struggle to save the continent’s remaining wildlife. This was made all the more evident when I was privileged to witness a female gorilla nursing her infant.
The rangers who patrol the Virunga National Park, ensuring the safety of the world’s few remaining mountain gorilla, are dedicated conservationists who understand the forest and the gorillas better than most. They prize their jobs as guardians of such a rare world heritage and regularly risk their lives to protect it.
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