Finding the Needle in the Haystack- Photographing Mountain Gorillas in Rwanda
“Please Stand Up” Our guide Francois is crouched low in the thick undergrowth and taps Jeff and me on the shoulder motioning for us to move. We are both indignant that after finding our positions, he wants us to move so that someone else can shoot. I continue shooting as I decide to slowly make room for someone else. I am more than startled when I suddenly touch Jeff to move, not to make room for someone to shoot but rather to make room for a 600 pound plus Silverback who is inches behind me waiting to pass. Francois smiled and said be calm and the giant took up resting spot less than a yard in front. My heart was still pounding as the large silverback gorilla with a couple of smaller female gorillas foraged in the dense jungle undergrowth. They were casually picking small branches off the shrubs and pulling them between their teeth to remove the leaves.
Stephen Rimer from Unforgettable Journeys who set up this trip photographs Jeffrey Neu and myself as a large Silverback “asks us to move” from our shooting location so that he and his family can pass.
There were eight of us in our group photographing first in Rwanda and then onto Tanzania. Personally I flew from Miami to Atlanta and then to Amsterdam and finally from Amsterdam to Kingali, We had one addition to our group of seven friends, a wonderful gentleman named Jacques who was my roomie for the trip. We hit it off right from the start when we both discovered that we more than enjoyed the red juice . It is always a blast traveling with my good friends Jeff and Michelle. If you read my blog on Africa from my trip to Botswana last year you know that when we travel we eat well, sleep just a little and most importantly we laugh and take amazing photographs. This trip certainly started out with some good laughs. We arrived at our hotel for the first night and I was get acquainted with the local accent which at times is difficult to understand. There was a buffet set up and I asked one of the chefs what the meat dish was and I honestly thought he said kitten. I responded with no thanks but was relieved and laughed hard when Michelle pointed out that he said Kidney and not kitten. Still I am glad that I passed…..
I am still somewhat in amazement and awe that a little more than a year ago, I had little desire to get a series of shots and come to Africa. I am not really a wildlife photographer and at the time I seriously thought that Africa was going to be pretty similar to going to the Bronx Zoo or one of those wildlife adventure parks that you drive through in the States. It didn’t take me long to fall in love with Africa. I was amazed last year by the light, the colors and the gesture of the animals and at the end of my trip last year I thought Africa ROCKED. I also thought that it simply couldn’t be topped. Once again I was wrong, and coming to Rwanda to see Mountain Gorillas has been an amazing trip.
Finding gorillas in Rwanda is akin to finding a needle in a Haystack. Gorillas share about 95% of our DNA and act very much like humans. Francois has studied the gorillas for over 30 years helping Diane Fossey back in the day. He is a total character who eats, sleeps and behaves much like the gorillas and probably shares more like 98% of the DNA.
We meet up with our guide Francois at about 7AM for an orientation. After orientation, we are back in our vehicles driving bumping dirt and rock roads heading to the trailhead. At the head of the trail we meet up with porters to help carry our hundreds of pounds of camera gear. Most of these porters were poachers years ago, but now the folks on safari to see gorillas supply the income to support the protection of gorillas and at the same time the support of the local community. As we pass through the fields, it becomes obvious that women do most of the hard work in Rwanda while men tend to sit around drinking beer made from bananas and talking.
We are all wearing our gortex pants and jackets as we continue along the trail and we are curious as to how far we have to walk and what the terrain will be like. We start out on a well maintained trail passing by locals working in fields who all come out to greet us. It seems the entire population knows “Good Morning” even if it is late in the day.
We reach the park boundary which is a high stone wall that we cross over. The wall runs for 60 kilometers and it was built to stop the farmers from extending their fields into the park and to keep the buffalo and elephants in the jungle, away from the crops. Once over the wall, all evidence of civilization dissipates. The path we have been following soon disappears, and we walk behind Francois and a group of porters some of who are wielding machetes to slash through the dense undergrowth. One carries a Russian AK-47 which was confiscated from time of the Rwanda genocide. We are told that it is used only to scare away buffalo or other wildlife.
The terrain quickly becomes steep. Francois stops along the way to teach us gorilla behavior. He rips some bark off of a eucalyptus tree with his teeth and strips thorns off of a plant and makes a variety of guttural, grunting sounds teaching us the entire gorilla vocabulary. We continue our trek which changes vegetation from bamboo forest to extremely thick jungle environment as we increase altitude which is now 8600 feet. Trackers spend the entire day from sunrise to sunset following and protecting the gorillas and relay coordinates to Francois. Fortunately, the last poaching in Rwanda was in 2002. Just under 9000 feet we stop and leave packs and everything but cameras for the final push. We scan the thick jungle and we see only thick vegetation but Francois spots one gorilla literally like a needle in a haystack. The incline is extremely steep and it rains on and off which is expected in a rain forest but difficult on photo gear and humans. We still don’t know exactly what lenses we will need or how close we will get and then Francois tells us to be silent. The adrenaline rushes through the body as we hear non human sounds and then right in front of us less than a meter away is a large Silverback Gorilla which takes your breath away with amazement and a little fear. I realize this is not the zoo and these are wild mammals that we are closer to than we would be in a zoo. It is a very exhilarating feeling that is simply indescribable to anyone who isn’t with us. I suppose there is an unconscious connection with these enormous apes who in reality share most of our DNA. They act so much like humans or maybe we act more like gorillas. We are allowed one hour with these giants and we shoot gizigabytes of data.
We do three separate treks over three days each time visiting another family of these incredible animals in Rwanda.
Most folks hear Rwanda, and they naturally think of the horrific genocide that occurred there in 1994. A conflict between the Hutus and Tutsis resulted in the death of more than one million and left two million as refugees across the borders in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), and Uganda.
We started our visit to Rwanda in the city of Kigali making our first stop a visit to the Genocide Memorial which is a very emotional experience and something that everyone should do when they visit Rwanda. Times are very different from 1994. While the Rwandan people are happy hard working folks almost everyone can tell you about a family member or close friend who was killed during the conflict between the Hutus and the Tutsis.
Rwanda today is a very different country from 1994. President Kagame has created an economic revival that includes NGO money, foreign aid, and social stability. Today, Rwanda is peaceful, and Kigali is considered one of the safest and most secure cities in Africa. Rwanda is also spotless. Unlike much of Africa and other third world countries, there is no trash and filth on the streets. In fact when entering Rwanda it is illegal to bring in plastic. So many outsiders would view Rwanda as third world and yet in many ways it is more ecological conscious than places like the US. The last Saturday of each month the entire populous including the President and all the generals pitch in to pick up garbage and debris. It is a national past time. Unlike many tourists we ventured into every possible village that we came across and we were always greeted warmly. Never did I ever feel unsafe walking in alleys even at night. We could all take some major lessons from Rwandan society. The country is still however poor and we got immense satisfaction that when we photographed groups of kids, we would buy them pens. Five US dollars bought and entire box of pens and the kids were beyond thrilled. They wanted to run home and show their parents. They need pens for school and many can’t afford something that we take for granted. We were all impressed that the average person would walk several miles to market and back carrying items like a sack of potatoes which weighed 70 to 80 kilos on their head. Some of the women were carrying almost twice their own body weight.
Post war has been not only good for the people of Rwanda but also for the gorilla population which has flourished since the war. Tourism was just beginning to revive when the genocide in Rwanda blew up in 1994. As tourists disappeared, the income to pay park rangers to protect the gorilla families also vanished. During the genocide, gorillas were killed as Hutus fled Rwanda to the DRC. As refugees retreated into the rain forest, they bought with them various human diseases which also took a heavy toll on the gorillas.
After the genocide tourism slowly started to come back, but in 1999, eight tourists were murdered by Hutu rebels, again tourism came to a standstill. Now with peace for more than a decade it is impressive to see the rebound in tourism and in the entire country of Rwanda.
Mountain gorillas are located in a fairly small volcanic, mountainous region known as the Virunga Range which has eight volcanoes reaching as high as 14,000 feet. The most impressive of these volcano’s has been erupting for 50 years and contains a lava lake. It is in the DRC and it is high on my list of places to visit although because of political unrest travel to the volcano is risky. We went to the border one night to see the volcano erupting but it was foggy and we could see only a small faint red glow.
The gorilla population has enriched Rwanda and as tourism expanded funds to care for the gorillas increased. In 1981 there were 254 mountain gorillas in the Virunga Volcanoes area. in 2011, the population increased to over 450.
Like human fingerprints, a gorilla’s nose has a distinct pattern that allows the rangers to readily identify it. Mountain gorillas are nomadic. They forage in the morning and evening, moving through the jungle which makes finding them tough. Each group of gorillas have one large dominant silverback who charms the ladies and decides every move that the group makes.
Below the silverback in rank are younger males called blackbacks, several females and babies. A silverback will usually have four or five females in his group and they remain bonded for life. Younger males stay with the family until they are about 12 years old, when they begin developing white fur on their backs. At this age, they are ready to leave the family in search of young females to begin forming their own family groups. Occasionally, gorilla families will have more than one silverback. They seem to work out leadership issues among themselves.
Mountain gorillas live to an age of 40-45 years and gestation like humans is 9 months. Generally, gorillas have only one baby but we were very lucky and spent one of our outings watching a mom with twins. As I watch and photograph the gorillas with my good friends we have one amazing encounter after another. At one point I am standing and photographing a gorilla and my friend Steve calls my name. I turn and this time it is not a large Silverback but rather a mother gorilla with her baby who has come up behind me in the dense jungle and is trying to pass. She brushes my leg as I make room for her to pass. This time I have no fear and only admiration for these incredible creatures.
Currently, the rest of the group is out on a final venture before we head to Tanzania. I decided to stay in the vehicle and write the first part of the blog while they are they are hiking through the canopy of the rain forest photographing birds which still doesn’t excite me. I have smirk on my face because it started to pour in biblical proportion about 40 minutes after they left as I type away in Range Rover. One of my camera bodies was soaked on the first day with the gorillas and while I was able to restore it to a semi working state by placing it in a bag of rice, I do not want to risk my other camera body.
I am humored as the rain continues to pour on the vehicle. I can’t wait for them to return so I can mock my soaked friends.
I must admit that I am also a bit afraid, not of gorillas or other wild animals, but I am a bit fearful that I have keyworded quite a few birds. Michele really has me worried because moments before she left the vehicle she was using her iPhone to photograph birds in a African bird book and clutching her binoculars.
In all seriousness, sitting quietly in my dry vehicle, typing and watching the deluge I can reflect on my truly wonderful experience of observing and photographing mountain gorillas in their natural environment as they interacted with each other and occasionally with us. Mountain gorillas are listed as critically endangered, and their survival depends solely upon the future. I am glad that our visit help generates the income to sustain this incredibly species and I hope that our behavior as humans who share most of the DNA can keep this species on earth. Our past behavior is not encouraging but I hope for a brighter future.
I love Africa and can’t wait for the second part of this journey which will bring me into Tanzania and I am also beyond excited that I am leading another workshop In Africa in May which will take us to the Skeleton Coast, the sand dunes in Namibia and then onto Botswana. There are only two spots left on the trip with Journeys Unforgettable so please visit d65 for more info on this trip and others planned for the future.
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