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Simon Musasizi face to face experince with Mountain Gorillas

Bouncing up and down a rocky road towards Rwanda’s Volcanoes national park, we are welcomed by a small farming village called Kanyirarebe.

The twin lakes; Burera and Ruhondo offer a scenic view with that stunning U-shape downstream, while uphill, an inviting cloud and mist cover watch over Mt Muhavura where the park sits.

The exhilarating trek begins here. We are six journalists from Rwanda, Uganda and Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) brought together courtesy of Greater Virunga Trans-boundary Collaboration (GVTC) to understand the importance of collaboration in the Virunga massif.

We are here to track the Nyakagezi family, one of the nine habituated gorilla families that Uganda relies on for tourism. Nyakagezi, the only habituated family in Mgahinga national park has for a year lived in Rwanda, having crossed to Volcanoes national park on May 28, 2011.

The gorillas’ long stay in Rwanda has had some Ugandans alleging that Rwanda could be feeding them on something that keeps them in their park. Joined by an armed ranger who emerged from one of the houses by the roadside, the trekking kicks off with our guide, Augustine Munyaneza.

We gingerly walk through cultivated farmland where people grow mainly Irish potatoes and pyrethrum, and after a tiring long trail, we get to a rock wall built by the community by piling volcanic rocks together.

The wall built alongside acacia trees signifies the boundary between community land and the park, and helps to guard community farmland against animals, mainly buffaloes. Unfortunately, the wall has no opening for tourists and we had to figure out how to climb over it to access the park.

Inside the park, we are welcomed with open grassland, which ushers us into a dense bamboo forested terrain. Moving further inside the park, we finally come across the advance team after close to two hours of trekking.

They are in the part of the park known as Rutonyanga where the gorillas have been camping for the last two weeks. As required, we leave our bags with the advance team to go meet the gorillas which are a few metres away.

Munching on plants, the first member of the family we come across is a giant black back known as Rukundo. He seems to care less about our presence but when he notices that we are advancing towards his family, he changes colour, engaging us in a running battle.

It is the fifth time I am tracking gorillas but I must confess Rukundo scared the hell out of me. I had never seen a ranger face off with a gorilla. Using a machete, the ranger had to physically scare Rukundo, who was charging towards us.

But Rukundo wasn’t about to give up. He went ahead of us and stood right in the middle of the trail we were following. Holding onto a nearby tree, he blocked the trail, sparking off another exchange with the ranger.

This left me begging the ranger to withdraw as Rukundo pushed us onto thick foliage where we were caught between a rock and a hard place. From the end of the foliage, another black mass came rushing in our direction. I couldn’t believe it was the silverback heading straight for me.

Mafia, the family’s second-in-command silverback, got everyone diving to the ground. But upon realizing our submissive behaviour, he signalled to the rest of his family to calm down. In a flash, Rukundo was calm taking a rest on his back while throwing his legs in the air.

For the next hour, the gorillas were free with us. The two young ones chased each other around, knocking each other off a fallen tree. Munyaneza said it is the availability of food and sense of safety that keeps gorillas in a particular area.

“We don’t plant anything because if you plant something strange, gorillas will not eat it. This is a natural forest,” he said.

According to Munyaneza, even though there are over 200 plant species that gorillas feed on, the herbivorous animals are choosy. One of their favourite food is bamboo shoots, which contain some quantity of alcohol.

“For us in conservation, movement of gorillas doesn’t bother us a lot because it is normal for gorillas to move looking for food,” noted Prosper Uwingeli, the park’s Chief Warden.

According to Uwingeli, Rwanda also had its two habituated families (Hirwa and Agashya) temporarily move to DRC and, DRC’s Kwitonda group has lived in Rwanda for close to ten years.

“When they cross, there is nothing you can do. You can’t put a barricade to stop them,” Uwingeli said.

Volcanoes national park is part of the Virunga massif which is shared by Uganda (Mgahinga national park) and DRC (Virunga national park). According to a gorilla census carried out last year, the massif has 480 gorillas, of which Rwanda has 290 habituated gorillas in 17 families.

Of the 17 families, ten are open for tourism according to Uwingeli, which has seen the country attract 26,516 tourists to Volcanoes national park in 2011, far above 22,733 tourists in 2010.

GVTC is pushing for a mechanism to coordinate conservation efforts between the three countries and ensure revenue sharing for habituated gorillas that move to another country.

The Observer Newspaper
5 June 2012

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