Rwanda: searching for gorillas in the mist

As one of only two countries in the world where it’s safe to go gorilla tracking, Rwanda is leading the way as a conservation powerhouse and ploughing the revenue from its permit fees back into its national parks.

This article was adapted from National Geographic Traveller (UK).

Ben is having a bad hair day. He’s the only mountain gorilla I’ve seen with a bald patch in the jet-black mop on his crown. It makes him look rather pitiful, like a Shakespearean anti-hero in a bad wig.

“He’s had that since he was really young”, says Edward Bahazi, our national park guide. “The Gorilla Doctors checked him out, and he’s fine. It doesn’t seem to bother him.” 

That’s not the reason he’s looking disheartened, then. The reason seems to be that the appealing young female Ben’s been canoodling with in a cosy bower of nettles and native bamboo has suddenly had a change of heart. She’s giving him the cold shoulder. And he’s piqued.

What does a gorilla do when he’s been humiliated in front of his companions? He takes it out on the nearest individual a rung or two down the social ladder. On this occasion, the obvious target is Paul. Only Paul isn’t a gorilla. He’s a member of our group.

Before I know it, 150kg of furry fury is barrelling past me, straight at Paul, who, startled out of his wits, tumbles backwards into a clump of nettles. Ego suitably boosted, Ben stalks off. Paul smiles gamely. No harm done, apart from a few stings and a bruised sense of composure. But I suspect he’s jelly inside.

We’re in Volcanoes National Park in Rwanda, where mountain gorillas are the top attraction. Every trek begins with a detailed briefing, in which you’re told that in the animals’ presence you must keep seven metres away, and that if a gorilla approaches, to calmly back off. There are several reasons for this, not least that the spread of infectious disease is among the biggest threats to the survival of Africa’s great apes. But gorillas don’t always follow the rules.

The Sabyinyo group — the family I’m visiting — are the Kardashians of the park. All those photos you’ve seen of Rwandan gorillas on social media? Chances are, most of them are Sabyinyos. Their territory, in the foothills of Mount Sabyinyo, is relatively easy to reach on foot, so they receive daily visits from tourists. What’s more, their leader, Guhonda, is every inch a megastar. Born in 1971, five years after primatologist Dian Fossey commenced her famous research project in these forests, he’s Rwanda’s oldest and largest silverback.

The national park has 10 habituated gorilla families; they’ve been taught by rangers, scouts and researchers to suppress their natural fear of humans and to allow people to approach. But the Sabyinyos are more fearless than most and when, as now, food is plentiful, they show off just how confident they are.

Guhonda leads his family over to a grassy clearing. By the time we catch up, playtime is in full swing. Small black bundles are rolling and wrestling, and one older youngster is running amok. “Ah-ah-ah-ah!” shouts Edward, his face like thunder, when the youngster dashes up to us with a crazed look in his eyes. “Somebody’s been eating too many bamboo shoots today!” The best way to deal with a teenage gorilla on a sugar high, it seems, is to show it who’s boss.

Thanks to their character and charisma, mountain gorillas have friends in high places. Every September, celebrities and philanthropists are invited to Volcanoes National Park for Kwita Izina, a naming ceremony for the previous year’s newborns. Now in its 14th year, the week-long celebration has a strong focus on conservation and community development programmes — and the whole thing is quite a party. Power couple Ellen DeGeneres and Portia de Rossi have taken things a step further by funding a new research base for the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund, one of Rwanda’s most powerful engines of wildlife protection and research.

The fees paid by ordinary tourists help, too — ordinary, here, being a relative term. To maximise revenue while limiting the impact of tourism, the fee charged for a gorilla trek is an eye-watering US$1,500 (£1,150) per person. That’s enough to pay for multiple Champagne balloon safaris in Kenya or for a fistful of top-price tickets to New York’s Metropolitan Opera. Buy yourself an Arsenal season ticket instead and you’d have change for a couple of pints after every match.

“It’s best not to think about the cost too literally,” says Edward. “It’s a contribution to the future of the park. By way of thanks, you get a special experience. I’ve taken thousands of people to see our gorillas and time after time they say it changed their life.”

Conservation enthusiasts

Small, hilly and densely populated, Rwanda faces competition in the wildlife tourism stakes from the safari heartlands of Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda. But as one of only two countries in the world (along with Uganda) where it’s safe to go on a mountain gorilla tracking excursion, it has enormous cachet — and as a conservation powerhouse, it has a few surprises up its sleeve.

I visit some of the sumptuous eco-lodges that cater for well-heeled, heli-hopping gorilla-watchers. Almost all are owned or managed by the well-respected big-name operators on the safari circuit, and all attract the kind of tourist dollars that breed more dollars in the form of donations and bequests.

Bisate Lodge stands out for its tree-planting programme and its pod-like rooms inspired by Rwanda’s traditional royal palaces. With thatched roofs and curved walls, they remind me of weaverbird nests. Virunga Lodge has fabulous, far-reaching views and an inspiring new meeting space, the Dian Fossey Map Room, featuring shelves of books and portraits of explorers. Amakoro Songa Lodge, meanwhile, has a country house feel. Three more luxury pads — Singita Kwitonda Lodge, Singita Kataza House and One&Only Gorilla’s Nest — are set to open this year.

They’re aiming high, following the example set by Sabyinyo Silverback Lodge, which is owned by the Sabyinyo Community Livelihood Association (SACOLA) and backed by the African Wildlife Foundation. Unlike many community-owned lodges, it succeeds in making a healthy profit. “It’s extraordinary,” says Kenya-born general manager Philip Mason. “Thanks to the gorillas, this lodge has generated $3.25m (£2.48m) in 10 years for social housing, healthcare and schools. We’re constantly booked up. Ellen DeGeneres and Leo Di Caprio have asked to stay here. We had to say no — we were full.”

“In fact, Rwanda is extraordinary, full stop. I’m astounded at this country’s ability to resolve deep-seated, complex problems through discussion and face-to-face reconciliation. I’ve never come across anything quite like it.”

He’s alluding, in part, to the healing process that followed the 1994 genocide, a national tragedy that still casts a long shadow. Rwanda, a country with little history of erecting public monuments and no native word for genocide — the term simply doesn’t exist in the Kinyarwanda language — now has around a dozen major genocide memorials, which act as focal points for the 100-day period of mourning that’s observed each year. But he’s also referring to the country’s success in rescuing mountain gorillas from the brink of extinction.

Rwanda’s knack for attracting and harnessing big-spending conservation enthusiasts is definitely paying off. In Dian Fossey’s time, fewer than 300 mountain gorillas remained, but thanks to her stubborn determination and lasting legacy, those numbers are recovering. Mountain gorillas are the only great apes in the world whose population is believed to be growing, and in 2018, their official status shifted from critically endangered to endangered.

With numbers up, there’s a new problem to tackle. Over the years, plantations of eucalyptus and pyrethrum daisies, used to make insecticide, have nibbled away at the forests that cloak Rwanda’s quintet of volcanoes, Karisimbi, Muhabura, Bisoke, Gahinga and Sabyinyo. When prime habitat is in limited supply, silverback gorillas sometimes stray into eucalyptus plantations or battle each other for territory, with infants getting killed in the crossfire. “We’ve noticed that gorilla groups are colliding more than they used to,” says Tara Stoinski, Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund’s chief scientific officer. 

Happily, there’s assistance in the pipeline. In one of Africa’s most ambitious and significant reforestation initiatives, Volcanoes National Park is set to expand at a cost of more than $200 million (£154 million).The first steps are already underway: in 2018, the African Wildlife Foundation donated 27 hectares of land to the park. There’s more to come in the form of a 3,740-hectare strip of farmland earmarked for rewilding. To ensure its protection, the land will be fringed by a 6,620-hectare buffer zone, tended to by locals, who will receive compensation including educational opportunities.

Elsewhere in Rwanda, wildlife projects are boosting the country’s credentials as a nature destination. Lions and rhinos have been reintroduced into Akagera National Park, a swathe of grassy savannah and wetlands on the Tanzanian border; it can’t match the Serengeti or the Maasai Mara for teeming herds and powerful prides, but it’s refreshingly uncrowded. Its first truly luxurious safari stay, Magashi Camp, opened earlier this year.

Cathedral groves

In the southwest of the country, Nyungwe Forest National Park is even more alluring. It’s Rwanda’s most important area of biodiversity, home to 75 species of mammal (including 13 species of primates), 120 species of butterfly and 300 species of bird, as well as orchids, tree ferns and a number of endemic tree species. Driving along the smooth, Chinese-built highway that slices through the cathedral-like groves feels faintly sacrilegious, but it’s worth it for the chance to relax at One&Only Nyungwe House, an elegant lodge anchored in a sea of emerald tea plants on the far fringes of the forest.

As we explore, we glimpse monkeys: wide-eyed L’Hoest’s, bold Rwenzori colobus and curious grey-cheeked mangabeys, their fur frizzy with mist. Steep paths wind through mossy, epiphyte-draped trees to a canopy walkway from which, with pounding heart, I drink in the parrot’s-eye view of the lush splendour.

Nyungwe Forest National Park has a small satellite, Cyamudongo Forest, which lies 10 miles southwest of One&Only Nyungwe House as the crow flies. Just 1.5sq miles in size, this scrap of montane rainforest is smaller than both New York’s Central Park and London’s Richmond Park. Despite being separated from the main forest by an undulating expanse of farmland, it’s officially part of Nyungwe Forest National Park and is home to Rwanda’s best chimpanzee trekking trails.

Cyamudongo Forest’s two-dozen chimpanzees aren’t the only ones isolated by human encroachment. Further north, in the highlands east of Lake Kivu, a smaller group has been clinging on for dear life in Gishwati Forest — the remnant of a once-mighty rainforest that connected with both the rainforests of the Congo and Nyungwe Forest. 

In the 1980s, Gishwati Forest began to feel the pinch. As Rwanda’s population expanded, villagers felled trees to make way for crops and livestock. In the 1990s, as civil war raged and waves of refugees resettled in the area, the situation quickly went from bad to worse. Within a decade, the Gishwati region was suffering from poor water quality and chronic soil erosion; landslides had become a regular occurrence, leaving thousands homeless and washing away tons of precious, highly fertile soil.

A radical solution, backed by American primatologists, was introduced in 2008: Gishwati Forest was chosen to be the hub of a 30-mile reforestation zone leading to Nyungwe Forest National Park, with a narrow six-mile corridor set to extend to Cyamudongo Forest. Inevitably, initial progress was slow, but the project’s facilitators remained undaunted. On a previous visit to Rwanda, I’d met Madeleine Nyiratuza of the Forest of Hope Association, an NGO that launched eco-clubs aimed at introducing local schoolchildren to the natural treasures on their doorstep. “I want to see Gishwati looking like it was when I was a little girl”, she’d told me, eagerly.

The Gishwati area is, mercifully, moving one giant step closer to recovery. Together with the smaller forest of Mukura, it was declared a national park in 2015 and, this year, the Gishwati-Mukura National Park is due to begin welcoming tourists; attractions include new hiking trails, mountain biking tracks and birdwatching spots. In time, this could be a great place to see chimps. For now, however, you’re better off in Cyamudongo, where they’re habituated and have a small enough range to make tracking straightforward. 

The night before we go chimp-trekking, I’m determined to get plenty of rest. My huge four-poster bed is beckoning, but there’s the small matter of tree hyraxes to cope with. These nocturnal mammals have a scream that would wake the dead. I close the French windows, hoping to keep out the racket.

Investing in sleep seems vital, as I’ve no idea how strenuous our excursion will be. This won’t be my first visit to Cyamudongo Forest — my last trek here was as tough as an assault course. My companions, a group of ultra-fit 20-somethings from Canada, had been totally unfazed by the altitude; high with excitement, they’d raced like cougars along the steep paths while I, fresh in from a city that languishes at sea level, had puffed along in their wake. The chimps, when we’d finally spotted them, were way above us, in a tree at the top of a tangled bank; the scouts had had to hack through the vegetation with machetes, then haul everyone up for a glimpse.

Miraculously, I sleep through the hyrax chorus and rise, refreshed, to a misty dawn. Drifts of purple and flint-grey clouds hang above the treetops and the air is cool and loamy. It’s a good sign. Driving away from Nyungwe Forest, we cross the Gisakura Tea Estate, where pickers are already plucking leaves and tossing them into the baskets on their backs. Further on, we wind through the scattered villages and fields of beans, eucalyptus and bananas that surround Cyamudongo Forest.

We’re a little late, but our guide, Jean Claude Nyirimbabazi, is all smiles. “Don’t worry”, he says. “We’re here to enjoy this very special forest. We’re going to listen to its music. Like meditation. There’s no need to hurry.” Clearly, this trek is going to be nothing like last time.

After a short, gentle walk along dappled paths, we happen across the chimps. They’re feasting in a fig tree loaded with ripe fruit. No wonder they were easy to find.

Skittering among them, tauntingly, is a troop of mona monkeys. In leaner times, they’d be dicing with danger; chimps occasionally use pack tactics to hunt monkeys, grabbing and devouring any easy-to-grasp youngsters. But these chimps, with their mouths stuffed full of figs and their eyes half-closed in bliss, barely give the monas a second glance.

Unlike the gorillas, they don’t appear interested in us, either. But I’m perfectly OK with that. It’s a privilege just to be in their orbit, occasionally meeting their casual, curious gaze. As we watch, the minutes melt away. And then, at an unheard signal, they scramble to the ground and are gone, their hoots echoing through the glorious trees. 


Getting there & around
RwandAir has three direct flights a week from Gatwick to Kigali. Kenya Airways flies daily between Heathrow and Kigali via Nairobi. Ethiopian Airlines flies daily between Heathrow and Kigali via Addis Ababa. Self-drive journeys are perfectly feasible, but distances are long. Alternatively, hire a driver/guide as part of a package or through a local operator such as Primate Safaris or Thousand Hills.  

Average flight time: 8h40m.

When to go
Rwanda has a temperate climate, with average temperatures ranging between 16C and 27C year-round. In April and May, forest paths can be muddy. 

How to do it
Red Savannah offers six nights visiting Nyungwe Forest, Volcanoes National Park and Lake Kivu, from £7,562 per person, full board, including gorilla and chimp trekking permits, land transport and return flights from London with RwandAir.

Natural World Safaris offers a five-day gorilla conservation safari, including time with the Gorilla Doctors, from £4,745 per person, and an 18-day Rwanda, Tanzania and Botswana trip from £12,520 per person. Both prices exclude international flights and gorilla permits.

Published in the July/August 2019 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)

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