Last week, friends from the U.S. arrived for a long-planned visit. I’ve known one of them, Naomi, for over 20 years. A classmate from vet school at University of California, Davis, she runs a small-animal practice in Aptos (CA), rides dressage, and lives on a small farm with her husband, Steve. Naomi has often traveled to visit me at work, but almost decided against this trip. After seeing the gorillas, she said, “I can’t imagine why I hesitated for even a moment to come here!”
Friends Naomi and Robyn with ORTPN guide Eugene watch Susa Group (RW).
Robyn Kravit from Washington, DC, the mastermind of the trip, brought her sister, Nancy, and two friends, Dave and Dennis. They met Naomi at the Brussels airport and the group of five flew to Kigali. Robyn arranged everything so I could join them when possible. In Rwanda, we toured the Genocide Memorial, trekked to see gorillas and golden monkeys, visited Dian Fossey’s grave site, and then drove to Uganda and hiked up in Mgahinga National Park. Not only was the experience a lot of fun, it also gave me a fresh perspective on eco-tourism.
I first trekked to see mountain gorillas a year ago as part of my initial job orientation, joining a tourist visit to Susa Group. I remember hiking three hours up through the beautiful forest, encountering my first stinging nettles, and wondering if we’d actually see any of my future patients. Then I caught a whiff of silverback, a strong musty smell. Seconds later, an impressive male gorilla crossed the trail in front of me. I watched him in awe for several minutes. Suddenly, I felt like an intruder and wanted to leave. I’d invaded his pristine world.
Juvenile mountain gorilla in Amahoro Group (RW) eating while glancing at tourists.
I felt too close for several other reasons. One undoubtedly had to do with my years as a clinical zoo vet: most Western lowland gorillas I’ve treated for one ailment or another do not remember me fondly. The other had to do with protecting the animals from human-borne illnesses, including the common cold. Though our tourist group was doing its best to keep the recommended 20-foot distance rule—if you cough or sneeze, the aerosolized droplets can’t carry that far—these gorillas walked right past us on the trail.
Juvenile in Amahoro Group (RW) with fresh mud on his lips from playing in a puddle.
Now I appreciate that closeness. If the gorillas weren’t habituated, they wouldn’t have doctors. Nor would we even know we had patients, let alone be able to treat them. The trackers are the eyes and ears of health care because they can get so close. Since the gorillas don’t seem to mind a human presence, we vets can observe an injury closely. On the rare occasions when we need to dart an animal, we can minimize the stress—we don’t have to chase it.
Susa Group (RW) mountain gorillas playing, resting, and foraging (November 2006).
Last week’s visit to Susa Group with my friends reminded of how I’d felt a year ago. After a difficult hike, we caught up to the gorillas moving through a dense bamboo thicket. Several stopped to glance in our direction, others kept foraging, a female with a new baby sat down right next to us. My friends marveled at the experience. Why didn’t the gorillas mind our presence? The situation seems so fragile.
Children tending cows on a farm near the Parc National des Volcans (PNV), Rwanda.
When you stand in the cultivated farmland that dominates the landscape around the Virungas, it’s hard to imagine that an untouched wild animal habitat exists in this part of Africa. Once you’re up there with the gorillas, you realize that it’s possible to strike a balance between animals and people, even though the interface is a delicate one. Tourism brings in money that can benefit both, but it also carries risks in terms of disease transmission.
Genocide Memorial in Kigali, Rwanda
Our visit to the memorial was a sobering experience in every way, except for one positive fact: Rwandans do not hide the horrors of their recent past. The detailed exhibit tells the complete story of the 1994 genocide and its history. It also compares what happened in Rwanda to genocides in other countries. We agreed that the survival of the mountain gorilla was amazing, given the years of turmoil.
Dian Fossey is buried in PNV, Rwanda, as are many of the mountain gorillas she once studied.
At the request of Dian Fossey, MGVP was established a year after her death in 1986. But access to the gorillas over the next decade was limited because of the genocide. Even trackers based at Fossey’s research station had to leave the forest. Ultimately, all of her camp buildings were looted and destroyed. Only her grave site remains. The current fighting in DRC has created a similar unstable situation in the Virungas. These days, no one can monitor the mountain gorillas on the Congolese side of the Rwandan border.
There are other fragile species in the Virungas that need protection, including the golden monkey. These rare and relatively unstudied animals are found only in the range of the mountain gorilla in areas of plentiful bamboo. When my friends and I visited the golden monkeys last week, we saw dozens of them leaping above our heads from branch to branch, foraging for food. We don’t really know what threatens their health, beyond habitat loss. There is still so much to learn.