Published: October 9th 2007August 6th 2007
Although Zaire was renamed Democratic Republic of Congo in 1997, they haven't got around to changing their signs yet!
A chain of eight volcanoes known as the Virunga Volcanoes forms part of the border between Uganda, Democratic Republic of Congo (formerly Zaire) and Rwanda. These mountains are the last refuges of the 600 or so remaining mountain gorillas.
We travelled to the Virunga National Park in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) to meet one just of these amazing families.
After 3 ½ hours of trekking and tracking gorilla spoor, our guides found the ground-nest our family had slept in the night before. Not long after, we heard a roar from the undergrowth alongside us and the eight of us froze, not sure what to expect and not sure whether to be afraid or not. Gorillas are generally peaceful, gentle and social, but you still don’t want to make a 300kg silverback feel threatened!
Our scout led us on and suddenly we saw a baby gorilla swinging from bamboo only a few feet in front of us!
The rules stipulate that you should not get closer than 7m to a gorilla, but that wasn’t strictly enforced. The gorillas must have been only a foot away from us at times. The youngest one even ran around us,
Our first glimpse of the gorillas, this little baby swinging from the tree in front of us
and his adolescent sibling tugged playfully at my clothes, leaving me shaking with excitement and unable to work my camera for about 5 minutes afterwards!
Gorillas can live in families of up to 30 members, but the group we encountered consisted of only 6; a huge silverback, a female adult, 3 young gorillas, and one mischievous baby. The younger gorillas were extremely inquisitive and the guides had to regularly shoo them away from us; although not always preventable, human contact is not encouraged. You cannot touch the gorillas, though they can of course touch you.
The adults were extremely placid and unthreatened. They observed us quietly from the background while feeding on bamboo. Due to their huge size, the adults must spend about 30% of their day eating - sounds good to me!
All too soon our 50 minutes was up. The time limit is strictly enforced so as to ensure no one family gets too much human company. There was complete silence from us as we slowly trekked back out of the forest, everyone contemplating what an amazing, unforgettable encounter we had just had. I don’t think the grin left my face for about a week
Bit of a show-off
afterwards remembering it. In fact, writing this 2 months later, and I’m still getting watery-eyed thinking about it! If you ever get a chance to go, don’t hesitate, it’s the experience of a life-time!
Since I visited Virunga National Park, the political situation in DRC has severely deteriorated.
It's known that at least 9 mountain gorillas have been killed so far this year, whether caught in cross-fire or executed by militia. The rangers who protect the gorillas were forced to abandon their posts in early September due to increased shelling and gunfire, as rebels gained control of the 'Gorilla Sector'.
The rangers blog can be followed at Wildlife Direct
, and makes pretty harrowing reading. The gorillas are currently unprotected and unmonitored, despite the rangers best attempts to track the remaining gorillas and care for the orphaned young.
I don't know if the family we met in August are still alive today.
There are more photos below