Gorilla encounters in Rwanda
An unusual naming ceremony of infant mountain gorillas puts the spotlight on the work done to preserve the species in Rawanda
"The trackers have just found them," says guide Emanuele as adrenaline rushes through me. I realise my long-time desire of seeing one of the world's most endangered species in their natural wild habitat is going to be fulfilled soon.
Excitement builds up as I wade through the thickly-forested, mountainous and misty terrain of the Volcanoes National Park in Rwanda to see the mountain gorillas, the world's largest living primates. Scenes from the award-winning Hollywood movie Gorillas in the Mist, which tells the true story of the lifelong work of American naturalist late Dian Fossey in Rwanda with these species, keep flashing in my mind. "Because of her of work, we have so many gorillas now in this region," Emanuele tells me.
Spreading across three countries - Rwanda, Uganda and the Democratic Republic of the Congo - the Virunga Massif area, consisting of several volcanic chains, has long been the home for the last remaining lot of mountain gorillas. Three decades back, they were nearing extinction because of disease and poaching. The devoted efforts of Dian Fossey, other animal lovers and government initiatives have saved them. Today, their total population is just above 1,000 with more than a third living in Rwanda.
Trekking through the jungle to see them is a major revenue earner for the Rwandan Government. It costs $1,500 per person for the permit. Part of the earnings is spent on community welfare and conservation initiatives. Though expensive, in my view, every dollar spent is worthy for this once-in-a-lifetime experience.
Reaching an altitude of between 2,500m and 4,000m, the hike can be, at times, physically demanding, but the eagerness of coming across something rare and long-awaited takes the pain away. Porters are available to carry backpacks and cameras, they also offer a helping hand along the route.
As we march ahead through the mysterious intimacy of the bamboo tree-dominated rainforest alive with calls of several colourful and unknown avian species, Emanuele keeps briefing us on the gorillas.
These primates live in big groups, each comprising around 20 members. They tend to stick to their preferred locations and normally don't cross territorial boundaries. They are generally herbivorous, surviving mostly on bamboo barks, shoots, stems and leaves. A male can eat 20kg of vegetation each day. They can grow six-feet tall and weigh 200kg, and some even more. Their life span is around 50 years, though females sometimes live longer. With 98 per cent of DNA matching, their habits are very much like humans, the gestation period is also around nine months. "And like humans, fighting among the groups is not uncommon," jokes Emanuele.
Currently, there are 12 groups, which can be visited. Permits for only eight visitors per group are issued each day and time allowed to be with the gorillas is limited to just one hour after finding them. These restrictions are imposed to minimise the spreading of human infections and limit undue stress on these endangered species. The trek can vary from at least one to up to eight hours, depending on the group's location within the vast sanctuary. At the park's headquarter at Kinigi, located at the foothills of the volcanic mountains in the north-eastern part of the country, the rangers brief pass-holders on the 'dos' and 'don'ts' while trekking, and allocate each to their respective groups. I get assigned to the Sabyinyo group, one of the oldest in the park.
After an hour of labouring, we spot few of them playing hide-and-seek with us, the juveniles jumping from one tree to the other while their elders curiously peep through the green foliage to find who are visiting them.
Following Emanuele through the thick and slippery vegetation, we end up at an open space to find several of them in multiple postures and action modes. It doesn't take much time for us to identify who the head of this group is - a real big silverback lazily sitting on a rock like King Kong and keeping an eye on everything around while another silverback, possibly the second in charge, idly scratching his belly and groin. The younger ones appear to be more playful doing all sorts of things from brushing faces against each other to lolling, jumping, somersaulting and even fighting until mothers rush to rescue.
We appear to be no strangers to them, though Emanuele keeps reminding us to maintain a safe distance as they are still wild animals with unpredictable behaviour. I spend an hour in the company of these gentle and mysterious animals, watching them cruising through their daily routine. When returning back to the base, my mind is filled with joy, admiration and a sense of accomplishment, as though I have climbed the Everest.
Gorillas are part of life in Rwanda and the intensity of their love becomes evident when we later attend the annual baby gorilla naming ceremony called Kwita Izina. I can't think of any other country that hosts such a large-scale gala event to name infant animals. Rwandans have been doing this since 2005 because they esteem gorillas and understand the importance of their conservation. Joined by thousands of locals and international visitors, I watch celebrities like supermodel Naomi Campbell, football legend Louis van Gaal, famous singer Ne-Yo and others pronounce the names for 25 newborns safely resting with their mothers in the jungle. Presence of the nation's charismatic President Paul Kagame throughout the ceremony testifies the importance of the ritual
Gorillas and Rwanda are synonymous, but this East African nation has more to offer.
The first thing that engages the mind is the stunning nature, laden with over thousand thickly forested hills, volcanic mountains ranges, swanky green tea plantations, flowing rivers, sprawling lakes and expansive national parks. Not to be ignored is the clean and green capital city Kigali, which is the international gateway for travellers arriving by air. The modern city, which presents a good combo of old and new, is packed with decent hotels, restaurants, bars, markets and trendy shopping outlets and grants a safe and welcoming environment, much different to most of the other African cities. One third in size of Scotland, the country is compact enough to be discovered in a week.
Alongside the gorilla business, I also explore the Nyungwe National Park where a key attraction is the 160m long and 70m high suspended walkway which provides a spectacular vista of the forest floor and the surrounding mountains, game drive through the Akagera National Park and spot two of the park's resident 'Big Five' - elephants and buffalos plus zebras , giraffes and antelopes ,visit the Gisakura tea plantations, enjoy kayaking on the tranquil waters of Lake Kivu, pass through the nation's Cultural Heritage Corridor - stopping at the King Mutara III Rudahigwa's 1931 Royal Palace and meet 'Inyambos' - a rare kind of cows known for their impressive long horns and browse many typical Rwandan settlements, Rusizi, Karongi, Rubavu and Musanze.
A quarter of a century has passed since the African nation was torn apart by a brutal genocide that witnessed butchering of a million people in 100 days. However to 12 million Rwandans today, it's the 'past'. Other than memorials for the victims at different towns and villages there is nothing apparent to remind the horror. Both the government and the people have embraced a massive makeover to make their tiny settlement one of the most progressive in the continent. Today women hold more than half the seats in the parliament - the largest share of any country, have banned use of plastic bags and in 2016 made headlines when it became the first to deliver essential medical supplies via drone. This magical transformation has placed Rwanda in the international arena as a beacon of evolution. That's why perhaps Rwanda's President was invited to attend the G7 Summit in France this year. This progress inspires annually 12 million tourists to arrive there just not to cherish its treasures but also to get a firsthand feel of the phenomenal changes.
"If a small African nation like Rwanda can do it, why can't other countries follow suit," has been my food for thought since coming back home.