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