Here we are, primate fans, on the Virunga Massif, which sits astride the borders of Rwanda, the Democratic Republic of Congo, and Uganda. The three national parks create one giant reserve, the non-human residents entirely unaware of the political boundaries they cross at will. Dian Fossey pursued her study of gorillas in Rwanda’s Volcanoes National Park, where descendants of her subjects live today. So, very much in Fossey’s shadow ~likely there would be no gorillas on the Virunga to visit, if not for her work~ we met our guides and were told of our assigned family group, Kwitonda. There are 23 members, but the patriarch, Kwitonda himself, died of undetermined cause 2 years ago at the approximate age of 40. He left many offspring, including 3 silverbacks. You may find their entries by the Gorilla Doctors, who watch over and care for them, here and here.
After a short drive, a stroll through the pyrethrum fields, and an hour or so in the jungle, we met up with the trekkers. It was time to leave our bags and approach the gorillas. As we were just dropping our packs, a rustle in the foliage directly behind us brought forth the head of the clan to check us out. They know the rangers, guides, and trekkers and seem to understand that these trusted men bring a few (8) others every day to stare and take photos and quickly leave. We were approved. He went on his way.
We carried on after him, 1st meeting his 2nd in command, who must be so accustomed to visitors that he gave us an almost male-model series of poses.
Then a female passed by, so we followed her to a larger part of the group with a number of juveniles. We were not to approach too close in order to avoid injury to ourselves and, more importantly, any transmission of disease to the gorillas. But they seem to have forgotten and the youngsters were happily playing until one nearly scampered up my leg, only to have a guide interpose himself between us. I was disappointed, but it was for the best. It would be so easy to love them to death.
In fact, the groups which have been habituated to humans are so much so that the top silverback displayed no uneasiness about getting on with his job of carrying on the species. Yes, perhaps we were privy to the creation of one of next year’s Kwita Izina’s honorees. The lady of his attentions looked bored, resting her head on her hand, quite possibly thinking about shopping.
So, as if watching children play and witnessing hope for the future would not have been enough, in our final moments on the clock, the newest mother ambled through with her month-old baby clinging to her back… then falling off… then rolling around… My heart burst. Best of luck little one. You are going to need it.
So, there you have it. Our pilgrimage to Rwanda to meet the creatures for whom Dian Fossey gave her life. They are worth it. We are worth what it costs to save species other than ourselves. What an awful place it will be when it’s just us and the cockroaches. All the money in the world can’t buy connection to those whom we have driven from it… to our true impoverishment.