Thursday, August 2, 2012

Mountain Gorillas

The last portion of our time in the Virungas was devoted to gorilla trekking. Each student was able to go out twice to spend time with the gorillas. We went with the Karisoke trackers and researchers, not with the tourists. This meant that we could spend more than one hour with the gorillas every day. What an incredible experience to be in the presence of these magnificent animals and actually study them as researchers! This is my life-long dream.
            I trekked the gorillas three times, two of which were successful. The first day that I went up to find the Kuryama gorilla group failed. I ended up waiting 6 hours at the buffalo wall to no avail, as the trackers never found the group. That day was sufficiently disappointing, to say the least.
My second day researching the mountain gorillas was indescribable. Another student, Amanda, and I had the pleasure of trekking with Veronica AND Professor Netzin. We hiked to the Bwenge group, a family of 9 gorillas with one silverback (Bwenge), three adult females (Nzeli, Maggie, and Faida), two juveniles (Akaramata and Ntaribi), and three infants (Gasore (2), Ubuhamya (2), and Susukura (1)). We found the family on a very steep slope covered in nettles and thistles. My field pants did nothing to deter the effect of the stinging nettles. My legs got so many stings they were shaking out of control while we climbed. Thank goodness there were gorillas to distract me! The first gorilla I saw was Faida walking about 3 meters above me on the hill. We found Akaramata and Ham eating thistles.
Veronica showed me how they collect long-term data at Karisoke. They obtain 5,000 hours of data from this technique every year. You select an individual and observe them for 50 minutes. Every ten minutes, you record the gorilla’s activity, the group’s activity state, any individuals with 0-2 meters and 2-5 meters of the focal gorilla, and the distance to the nearest silverback. You also have an “ad lib” data set where you record a list of behaviors that gorillas do during the observation time like grooming, displaying, approaching, and pig-grunting. We picked a little male gorilla named Ntaribi to observe. He is 4 years old. I found out later that he is one of the gorillas my family supports! What a special treat to see him. While we watched him eat, Faida began climbing down the hill behind me. She walked toward me and her body brushed right past my leg! AHHHHH. Not only that, she had a tiny baby who is one year old named Susukura. She walked down to Ntaribi and began to play with him. The two of them were giggling and tumbling in the thistles. The little baby was walking around trying to get her mother’s attention.
31 year old Maggie
Susukura and Faida
After watching Ntaribi, Amanda and I needed some data for our respective projects. The gorillas moved into a flatter portion of the hill and we could see the entire family, except for the female Nzeli. The vegetation was less dense and we were very close to the gorillas. Bwenge, the silverback, was completely relaxed, probably because he is the only male of the group and has no social relationships to maintain. I began to distinguish the gorillas by their nose prints. Faida has a nose print that is a lopsided V (right side longer than the left) with a dot underneath. Bwenge has a T with a little squiggle on the right side. By the end of the time with the gorillas, I could easily tell who was who. They each look so different. While we were watching Bwenge and I was collecting data on him, Maggie came into view with her baby Gasore. It was a delight to meet her, she is one of the last gorillas left alive that Dian named and studied. She walked right up to us and sat down a meter away, grooming the little one. Then Gasore and Susukura began to wrestle each other and almost tumbled right into my legs. Akaramata was feeding nearby. We spent 3 and a half hours with the gorillas! I love this family. It is so calm. Each gorilla will hold a special place in my heart. I especially loved Akaramata and Maggie. I felt like I was a part of their family for a day.
Me with Bwenge
Maggie's infant Gasore
My third day researching the gorillas was entirely different than the day before and just as spectacular. Professor Dieter, Bernd, and I went to the Kuryama group. The group contains 14 gorillas: 2 silverbacks, 2 blackbacks, 4 adult females, 3 juveniles and 3 infants including an 8-month-old baby. The silverbacks are Kirahure (the dominant) and Vuba. Vuba is Titus’s son, a very famous gorilla. We climbed through the crop fields for almost an hour before reaching the park boundary. We began our hike through the forest and after 15 minutes we found the gorillas. We are already here????!! I was shocked by how quick the hike was. We smashed right through the nettles and found both silverbacks- Vuba and Kirahure- sitting with their arms folded with females and little ones surrounding them in the shelter of a bamboo grove. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw a tiny movement. I looked over and saw the smallest baby gorilla I have ever seen. Smaller than Susukura yesterday. She is 8 months old, and her mother is named Mahirwe. After having some experience with Karisoke data collection from Veronica yesterday, it was easier today to help out our researcher Teodette today. We selected Kirahure to watch first for 50 minutes. We followed Kirahure through the plants as he chomped on gallium and thistles. While we walked, I swear every time I turned around there was a gorilla… I would look to my left and there would be a gorilla just sitting there a foot away. It was so different than yesterday! It wasn’t as much as a family environment, it felt more chaotic. I swear I was a foot away from a gorilla for an entire two hours, they were so close! At one point, I was walking along following the gorillas and talking to Bernd. Then, Bernd called my name from a ways behind me. I turned around and looked down at my feet at a little gorilla. I am stunned by how tolerant they are of our presence and how close they come. Suddenly, we saw the buffalo wall! The gorillas are so close to the edge of the park! I was watching Mahirwe and the baby as the little one tried to walk alone, holding onto her mom’s fur. Cutest thing I’ve ever seen. Then, Mahirwe picked up the baby and put her on her back and walked right at me. She pig-grunted at me with her mouth open. I turned, but could not move out of the way due to the copious nettles nearby. Mahirwe grabbed my back with her hand and then let go and walked up to the wall. Bernd apparently got the whole sequence on video! I CAN’T BELIEVE A GORILLA TOUCHED ME!!!!! 

Kirahure on the Buffalo wall
            While we continued to observe the gorillas, they began to climb over the buffalo wall. We watched as Kirahure began to climb over the wall. He sat right at the top for a moment, surveying the fields and houses beyond. Then he climbed down until he was 2 meters from us. You could see him in his full glory with no vegetation shrouding his massive stature. He suddenly began a hoot-series and reared up beating his chest right there in front of us! It was so impressive to be that close to the silverback while he displayed. I have extraordinary photos of Kirahure standing with his silver back arched, looking out at the human’s land. I wonder what he was thinking. What a bizarre experience to see the family of gorillas wandering around in the fields outside of their natural habitat. Apparently this is becoming more of a problem as the gorilla population is nearing carrying capacity in the Virungas and there are too many gorilla groups for the habitat available.
Kirahure in the crop fields
Mahirwe and her infant
We watched Vuba for the next 50 minutes. He is an impressive gorilla and one of my favorites. He is huge! And he has a Mohawk. Professor Dieter said he looks exactly like his father Titus did, even his nose print with three dots. We then spent an hour with Mahirwe and her baby. When we left the group, the gorillas were happily singing while they ate. I have a video of them humming and belching along. What a day! We were within a one-meter radius of a gorilla the entire time. By the end of watching Mahirwe, it had been almost 4 and a half hours with the gorillas. I never wanted to leave them. It is an honor to join their lives for a day. I was so blessed to be there. After spending a combined 8 hours with the gorillas the past two days, I had fallen in love with these animals more than every before. Now that I have been here in Rwanda and lived my dream, I know this is what I want to do with my life. I will come back.
Amanda, Veronica, Grace
Although I feel sad to leave Rwanda, I couldn’t be happier about the experience I just had. I spent 40 days in Rwanda, I traveled the country, I visited my Compassion child, I played with orphans, I went to three national parks, I conducted my own primate research project, I saw more than 9 species of primate, I trekked chimpanzees, and I studied mountain gorillas. The people I met on this journey are etched forever in my heart. I couldn’t be more blessed to meet such kind, hilarious, loving friends. I miss them already. I couldn’t have imagined sharing this experience with anyone else.
America is so vastly different than the thrilling chaos of Rwandan life. I am going to miss the women with the babies tied to their backs and the baskets on their heads. I will miss the mosaic of hills blanketed in farm plots. I will miss the village children yelling “Mzungu!” and chasing after our car. I will miss the little stores painted bright Tigo blue. I will miss the crowds of Africans roaming the streets. I will miss the frites and pili-pili. I will miss watching primates every single day. I will miss hiking up the Virunga volcanoes through the stinging nettles. I will miss seeing the mountain gorillas.
Rwanda changed my life. Completely. I am not who I once was. Rwanda showed me the value of living your dream, the importance of loving life completely, and the beauty and complexity of this world we live in. I know now that I can achieve whatever I set my mind to. I came on this trip yearning to see what being a primatologist would be like, and I came home knowing that I will become a primatologist one day. The dreams of a little girl are blossoming into a beautiful reality I never thought was possible. This isn’t the end of my journey. This is only the beginning of a grand adventure. Wherever I may go, as long as I am happy, I am home.

Volcanoes National Park

The last portion of my adventure in Rwanda happened to be the very best. After our time in Nyungwe forest with the chimps and monkeys, we drove all the way across the country to the Northern province. We stayed in Ruhengeri at the base of the majestic Virunga volcanoes, prepared to spend a week with gorillas and golden monkeys. And what a week it was! Certainly one of the greatest weeks of my life.

Our first day in Ruhengeri consisted of presentations by researchers at Karisoke Research Center. Karisoke is one of the most famous primatology research centers in the world. It was founded by Dian Fossey in 1967 on the slopes of the mountains between Mt. Bisoke and Mt. Karisimbi. Now, the center is based out of the town of Ruhengeri and is the source of all research on mountain gorillas. Let’s just say that I have been dreaming about going to Karisoke since I was a little girl. We entered through the black iron gates into a two-story building with “The Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund International” stated in bold letters across the top. We went upstairs to an open room with rows of chairs and a projector. Sitting at the front of the room was Veronica Vecellio. My heart stopped. I recognized her immediately from the documentary “The Gorilla King” about the famous silverback, Titus. She was the featured researcher. She broke into a bright, warm smile and greeted us. There were a few others sitting at the back of the room that the professors also greeted. Then, a tall Rwandan man walked in. I recognized him as well. It was Felix, the director of the Karisoke Research Center. This really is a dream. I can’t believe I was with these people. Veronica and a man named Deo gave us two presentations about Karisoke and the gorillas and the golden monkeys.
During our second day in the Virungas, we hiked up to the original Karisoke research camp and Dian Fossey’s grave. A guide name Felix took the group of us up the mountain slopes. We walked for a half hour through the potato and pyrethrum fields before reaching the park boundary marked by a stone wall called the “buffalo wall.” There were tourist groups ahead of us marching off to see gorillas. The jungle was wonderful-- a dense, quiet forest beginning at 9,000 ft elevation rising up on the steep slopes of the extinct Virungas. As we weaved through hygenia trees and elephant nettles, some of the tourists that were in front of us began to break off. Suddenly as we were walking through the slick mud, I could noticeably smell gorilla. The thick, musty smell of the apes clung to the moist air. Unexpectedly, we distinctly heard through the vegetation a male gorilla do a loud pant series and then a chest beat. I could not believe this was happening. Then, I looked directly in front of me. Partially shrouded by a few shoots of bamboo was a huge blackback male gorilla sitting right on the trail. I immediately gasped and pointed. A GORILLA. Everyone started freaking out. None of us had anticipated seeing a gorilla today at all. We slowly walked towards him until we were less than 2 meters away and he looked directly into our faces. He sat there for a few moments. A magnificent, beautiful animal. He then turned and walked off into the brush. Two seconds later, a silverback gorilla came around the tree. I was shaking, not with fear, with exhilaration. The silverback walked right toward us and then turned and walked down the path. Two large blackback males followed him. Professor Netzin was pushing Amanda and me back as the gorilla brushed by just inches away. The silverback was preposterously close and I could smell his strong scent, but he didn’t seem interested in us. It all happened so quickly that I am still not sure it was real. We watched the three males walk on the trail and then into the vegetation. Everyone was crying, even both the professors. Felix said we were very lucky, that this was an exception. I have never felt so elated! That was spectacular.

At the original Karisoke Research Center camp
            Back on the trail, we climbed to above 10,000 feet elevation. The first thing I saw of Karisoke camp was a white metal sign pinned with rusty nails to a large tree. That moment of seeing that sign and realizing that I was really at Karisoke Research Center was one of the most powerful experiences of my life. This place is something I have dreamed of since I can remember.
The ruins of Karisoke camp
The camp is now a series of ruins lying in the forest. Karisoke sits in a landscape dominated by trees draped in light green lichen with soft grass and some thistles underneath. It was perfectly quiet. Beautiful. I understand why Dian called it “her mountain.” Felix showed us the ruins of the buildings, including Dian’s two cabins and a cabin labeled: ”Middle Cabin or Dieter Steklis’s Cabin.” My professors had built that house and lived there for two years while Prof. Dieter was Director. I still can’t believe they are my professors. Then, we visited the gorilla graveyard where Dian is buried slightly above the rest of the camp in a little grove. Volcanic stones surrounded the whole section. The tombstones were crude sticks with the names and dates of the gorillas’ births and deaths carved into wooden boards. There were probably 15- 20 gorillas buried here. Professor Netzin had collected a bouquet of gorilla foods while we were hiking up. She walked over to the graveside and began to cry. She placed the bouquet on her grave. It was a very emotional moment for all of us.
            By that time, it was 1:30 PM. We walked a little above camp and came out into a large open meadow. Mount Bisoke rose up on the right side of the open grass and Mount Karisimbi was apparently on the other side, although it was covered in clouds at the moment. After eating lunch, we walked straight ahead. The border of Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of the Congo lies on the other end of the meadow. We decided that the best thing to do when we crossed the border was to dance the “Congo-line.” When we crossed the border, we all lined up and grabbed the shoulders of the person in from of us and danced the “Congo.” We were laughing and tripping in the mud and grass. A joyful moment.
            Clouds rolled over the Virungas while we were hiking back and a lightning storm began above our heads. The light drizzle and the crash of thunder made the hike through the dense forest exactly like an epic adventure.
Dian Fossey's grave
Mt. Bisoke

Maya, Grace, and Bernd in the Congo after crossing the border!

Our third day in Volcanoes, we trekked golden monkeys in the bamboo forest portion on the mountains. Felix and Deo were our guides. It took us a little over an hour to reach the troop of 120 monkeys jumping through the bamboo shoots. Golden monkeys are critically endangered and exist only in the Virungas. They are known as “ninjas of the bamboo” because they zoom around from shoot to shoot. They get their name from the golden coloring on the backs. We had to weave through the bamboo to follow the little guys and collect data. We were able to get very close to them, close enough that one of them peed on me…
            I love this place already!

Holding a chameleon

Golden Monkey

Bamboo forest

Monday, July 23, 2012

Nyungwe National Park

I spent the last week in the most diverse portion of Africa, in terms of flora and fauna. Nyungwe National Park, Rwanda is an afro-alpine jungle sitting at 7,500-9,000 feet elevation atop a mosaic of steep hills and mountains. Nyungwe is a part of the Albertine Rift and is one of the most well preserved forests in the world. It contains 13 species of primate, including chimpanzees, which accounts for 25% of all African primates. Additionally, Nyungwe is the forest where the Nile River begins. When I arrived, I had no idea how rich the jungle would be or how intriguing. It is an incredible place, a rare jewel in the center of Africa.

We stayed at the Kitabi College of Conservation in a guesthouse right at the edge of the forest. What a beautiful place. The row of houses sits on the crest of a hill terraced by bright green tea fields. The landscape beyond reveals a montage of majestic hills covered in dense jungle and shrouded by a thin blue mist. I counted 14 rows of hills that I could see from that hilltop.

Each day at Nyungwe was a different experience. Our first day there, we drove the steep and curvy road to the Uwinka Ranger Station. We tucked our pants into our socks due to danger of army ants and set out into the forest. Two guides led us down a precipitous dirt path through the jungle to a canopy walk 70 meters above the forest floor. The canopy walk is an aluminum structure composed of three different bridges about 1 foot wide stretched between 2 tall towers. We walked slowly along the walkway—a serious adrenaline rush looking down through the holes in the floor and seeing how far up we were. As we walked, the bridge began to shiver and dip with our weight. We stopped in the middle and you could see across the forest to the hills beyond. A spectacular view of a unique paradise untouched by humans. It looked so peaceful and so unknown. On our way back up the massive hill, we came across a troop of blue monkeys!

The canopy walk

For our second day in the forest, we trekked the largest troop of Black and White Colobus Monkeys in the world—a group of monkeys numbering more than 450 individuals! We bounced along on a dirt path in our truck for almost half an hour until the ranger who was with us told our driver to stop. I put on my binos and whipped out my little blue field journal. When I stepped out of the car, everyone was quiet. Someone nudged me and I looked straight up into the eucalyptus tree canopy. Balls of black and white fur stared down at us from every direction. We didn’t even have to chop through the jungle to reach the monkeys! It was surreal—hundreds of monkeys leaping through the trees with little regard to the group of us humans below. I was so excited seeing the monkeys it was hard to concentrate. I had never seen that many primates in one place and one time… They are kind of silly looking with white tufts of hair surrounding their black faces and they have no thumbs so they can swing swiftly through the trees. The babies of the Colobus were so cute with bright white natal coats. We spent two hours with the monkeys collecting data and observing behaviors.

Colobus monkey

After a day of lecture and visiting a cultural village to see how ancient Rwandans lived in the time of kings, we trekked into the jungle to see Grey-Cheeked Mangabeys. It was a six-hour excursion in some of the densest forest I have ever been in. I think we were on a path, although with the jungle encroaching all around us, it didn’t look like one. We tumbled down the steep hills, slipping on the leaf litter layer. It was so steep, you would be walking down and someone 50 meters in front of you would be just 2 meters below you. You had to duck down through the twigs and branches of the forest shrubs and walk sideways down the hill to avoid slipping all the way down. We were all clinging onto roots and trees to steady ourselves. I kept bursting out laughing it was so comical. When we stopped for lunch, it was so steep I couldn’t even sit down, so I ate standing up, bracing myself against a lichen-covered tree. After 3 hours of hiking, we finally found the Mangabeys. They were far up in the tree canopies and we watched the weird little monkeys for some time before marching back through the forest.
The steep hiking slopes of Nyungwe
Gray-cheaked Mangabey

The next day, I SAW WILD CHIMPS!!!!!!! Five of us woke up at 4:00, and you could still see the stars glistening in the dark night sky. After 3 hours of driving to the trailhead, our guide took us out of the car and we tucked our socks into our pants and began to climb. The path was steep. After less than a half hour we saw the chimp trackers. I looked into the trees to the left and saw A CHIMPANZEE. Stunned. Shocked. So excited. An exhilarating rush of adrenaline pulsed through me. The chimp was far off, but you could see his black body ambling through the branches of the tree. The way he moved was oddly human. Farther up the hill, three chimps were in the branches of the tree, feeding on the fig fruits. Not only were there chimps, but there were several Blue Monkeys and L’hoest’s monkeys and a large hornbill partaking in the fig feast. You could hear the loud chimp vocalizations from the rest of the group off in the jungle below. The trackers led us back down the hill, across the base of the hill, and back up the slope. I felt like Jane Goodall, tracking Chimpanzees in Africa and listening to their loud calls. We came to a large fig tree rising 70 meters above the ground. At least 16 chimps were high in the tree canopy. They kept making loud calls, which we were told were calls of excitement telling other chimps about the abundance of figs in the tree. Looking at those chimps was so different than the gorillas. They seemed so intelligent and so cunning it was almost eerie. A couple mothers with their little ones remained in the trees eating the figs while the rest of the family bolted off into the jungle. I wish I could see them again. I really love chimpanzees.  
L'Hoest's Monkey

King, Queen and Guard

Chimp eating figs

A blue monkey

The last two days in the Nyungwe forest were rest days consisting mostly of laundry, catching up on journal entries, and watching movies. Right now, I am in Ruhengeri again at the base of the Virungas. This week will be focused on studying the mountain gorillas and golden monkeys! Additionally, we get to hike to the original Karisoke Research camp on Mount Bisoke where Dian Fossey is buried. What an adventure this is turning out to be!

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Akagera National Park

An African sunset

This last week I have spent in the national park Akagera. I don’t think I have the capability to describe everything that happened and how incredible it all was. I was able to be a primatologist in the wild for the first time! What a spectacular feeling. I loved watching the monkeys, I don’t think I could ever get bored of it.

All 11 of us (eight students, two professors, and their son) spent six days camping in the wilderness on top of an escarpment overlooking a lake on the Tanzanian border. Akagera is similar to what you would think of as a “safari” land: acacia woodlands and savanna grasslands. It is a beautiful place. However, when the war hit the park went virtually unmanaged and poached killed many of the animals to local extinction. Currently, park managers are trying to rebuild the park’s ecosystem and tourism industry.
Baboon family

For the majority of the days we were there, we spent hours observing baboons and vervet monkeys. We would wake up early in the morning to a lovely breakfast including an omelet station prepared by the five-star chef we had hired. Then, we would go off to find the primates, seeing buffalo, waterbuck, and bushbuck grazing in the savanna along the way. Sometimes it took us quite some time to find a suitable troop of monkeys to follow and observe without them running away. The easiest groups were those closest to the villages within the park, as they have been habituated to humans. Observing primates in the wild for the first time was perfect. Within the first ten minutes of collecting data on baboons, I knew this is exactly what I want to do with my life. I couldn’t be happier. Both professors taught us so much in Akagera: how to collect demographics, GPS, individual identification, and various methods of data collection. My research theme for the trip is social systems with my partner, Maya. Maya and I decided to study how differing primate socioecology affects male and female relationships. We came up with a data collection system that involved three different methods and we were able to get some good observation time in to start the procedures. I am intrigued to see what results we will get at the end of the 30 days.
A couple of the nights once it was dark out, we would go galago hunting. We would drive slowly through the trees, shining our flashlights on the branches searching for pairs of golden eyes. A couple times we even got out of the vehicle to creep along the road (maybe not the most safe thing to do, but we survived!).

Our last morning in Akagera, we went on a boat ride around the lake. We saw blue monkeys for the first time through the papyrus stand on the lake shore, monitor lizards, and copious bird species. When our boat ride was up, we went to the park headquarters and I touched a little monkey for the first time: a young vervet named Jess! This adventure has been magical so far, and I know there is more to come!

The students

An African sunrise

Topi and Zebra

We spent one afternoon at the lodge pool


Primatologist in training!

Baby vervets playing

On the boat
Petting the vervet!