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Up close with amazing gorillas in Rwanda's Volcanoes National Park

The arduous journey through Volcanoes National Park leads the group to this amazing sight: more than a dozen gorillas, including a silverback and babies.
Published Aug. 15, 2013

VOLCANOES NATIONAL PARK, Rwanda

It's early morning in the mountains of northwestern Rwanda. There's cool mist and anticipation in the air.

Time to go gorilla trekking.

Nearly 500 live in the mountains straddling Rwanda, Uganda and Congo, 25 percent closely watched by the nearby Karisoke Research Center, a legacy of the late Dian Fossey. It is one of the largest mountain gorilla populations in the world.

We've traveled far to get here. From the United States, through Amsterdam, into the Rwandan capital of Kigali, then a 90-minute drive across this mountainous, land-locked east African nation.

Soon we'll see something few people ever will.

Especially Rwandans.

• • •

Why travel to this faraway place where nearly 1 million people were slaughtered in a 1994 genocide the world took too long to notice?

The steady, focused rebuilding effort led by President Paul Kagame has transformed Rwanda in ways large and small. Education. Business. Health care. Technology. Tourism.

That's where mountain gorillas come in. "Our competitive advantage," one tourism official calls them. Another: an antidote to genocide.

"When we are talking about mountain gorillas, conservation and tourism, we are talking with confidence," said Faustin Karasira, head of product development and planning for the Rwanda Development Board.

During the war, a rebel group occupied part of Volcanoes National Park, but everyone agreed: Let's protect the gorillas.

"They are so important to the country," said Juan Carlos Bonilla, chief operating officer and vice president of Africa Programs for the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund International. "It's really beyond politics at this point."

About 23,000 people visited Rwanda's mountain gorillas in 2012, helping make tourism the country's third-largest source of job creation. The Rwanda Development Board markets gorilla tourism around the world, and in 2005 launched an annual gorilla baby-naming ceremony, known as Kwita Izina, to attract attention, funding and awareness.

The gorillas have "been helping to position Rwanda as a must-see destination," Karasira said.

• • •

Our lodge is not far from the park entrance, where we gather for instructions from veteran guide Eugene Twahirwa and Winnie Eckardt, a research associate at the Karisoke Research Center.

Each group can be no more than eight people and only 10 groups go out each day. This is to protect the mountain gorillas from too much agitation and exposure to disease.

The rules are simple. Stay still. Be quiet. Don't get closer than about 22 feet from a gorilla. If one approaches, back up.

These rare, majestic creatures are gentle, no threat to humans. Guides say you are more likely to get hurt on the hike than be attacked by a gorilla. But they are large, so large, and you don't want to be run over by one.

We drive a short way to where our hike starts. Each group heads to a different area so no gorilla group gets visited more than once a day.

Here we're met by porters, children of ex-poachers who are paid to carry our supplies. Backpacks, jackets, whatever. The porters walk along with us, silent as they go.

We're each offered a walking stick, which feels awkward, but no one turns it down. That mountain is high.

• • •

Dian Fossey came to Rwanda to study gorillas in 1967, after the political climate in Congo became unwelcoming. She set up a campsite for research and named it Karisoke, as the center is called today.

When Fossey was here, the mountain gorilla population was in decline. Most of the great ape species are, Bonilla said.

Through international cooperation and conservation, though, the mountain gorilla population is increasing.

"This is a flagship species and shows it can be done," Bonilla said.

Fossey wasn't big on tourism, Bonilla said, but "it's been huge for conservation. We could not protect gorillas without it." (Fossey was murdered in the national park in 1985; the case remains unsolved.)

Karisoke researchers keep close watch on the gorillas.

"We call it extreme conservation because we track every gorilla every day and know every gorilla by name," Bonilla said. "It's like taking care of your family, the individuals, not the population."

Some 100 Fossey Fund trackers, researchers and scientists follow gorillas in Volcanoes National Park. A GPS location of every gorilla is recorded daily along with other demographic data. The field researchers explore the area using a rotation system to see each gorilla each day.

A massive database started by Fossey logs their work.

"After 45 years, we still want to know more," said Veronica Vecellio, Karisoke's gorilla program coordinator.

Even after death, they study their bones.

"Gorillas are a very charismatic species," said Bonilla, who's from Guatemala but moved to Rwanda a few years ago with his family to manage gorilla protection programs. "They are beautiful to look at and just like us."

• • •

We start hiking through farmland. It is a steep, steady climb for about 45 minutes.

The path is clear, but our breath tightens as we take in the mountain air. Once we reach the park boundary, we scale a stone wall and the real adventure begins. We are in a bamboo rainforest, minutes from the gorillas.

The climb is not so steep now, but it's through a muddy, cluttered forest floor. There are leaves, branches, roots and poo. It's wet and hard to navigate.

The gloves I was told to wear suddenly make sense. I must steady myself to get by. After about 10 minutes, we meet the trackers who got an hour lead on us so they could find the gorillas.

At this point, we have to leave everything with the porters. Goodbye walking stick.

It's just me and the camera, which is bad, because here's the really difficult part.

There is no path, only forest. The lead tracker uses a machete to forge a walkway, but really it's an opening. Without the walking stick, this is tricky.

It's a floor of muck. I am walking on it but unsure what is hard or soft. The mud is thick and envelops me. Twice my boots are nearly sucked away.

Within minutes I smell the gorillas and then I see him — the silverback.

He is planted at an opening in the forest like a guard at a house.

• • •

Rwanda is a densely populated, rural country in the middle of the African continent.

Lush landscape, mountains, hilltops and valleys. The opposite of Florida.

The capital city of Kigali is bustling — people everywhere — and completely trash free. Plastic bags are banned because President Kagame's government doesn't want them flying around.

Beautiful paved roads guide you around the crowded city, where streets are lined day and night with people walking to their destinations. Most are carrying things, on their heads, on their backs, in their hands.

Outside of the cities, most Rwandans are poor. They don't have running water, electricity or much more than a mud floor in their homes.

So going to see the gorillas? A luxury.

• • •

He barely notices us and doesn't move as we slowly walk by, struggling for our footing.

But then I'm looking down at 16 mountain gorillas. Moms, babies and the silverback. He's the alpha male of the group, his fur silver.

They are resting in an open area, maybe 24 feet away, close enough to crush us if they want to, but they don't.

There are so many gorillas all in one place, with the sun shining down on them. It's a lot to take in. We're allowed only 60 minutes.

There's the mom, and the twins! One baby is only 9 months old. They are playful. Nearby is another mom and baby.

We watch as they rest and play. Soon one of the kids gets curious and comes toward us for a closer look. We back up to give him space.

The playing and resting continue. We struggle to stay still. Take tons of photographs. Whisper amongst ourselves about the grandeur before us.

Suddenly, all the gorillas are on the move. It's time to eat. We follow, again forging a path, and watch as the buffet begins.

Each gorilla is getting its own food in this order: Climb bamboo tree, topple tree, start crunching.

After what feels like 10 minutes, our time is up.

My closest wildlife encounter is over.

Amy Hollyfield, the Times' assistant managing editor/politics, reported from Rwanda on a grant from the International Reporting Project (IRP). Contact her at ahollyfield@tampabay.com.

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