Meeting Gorillas in Rwanda

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Since I read “Gorillas in the mist”, by Dian Fossey, those animals always fascinated me. I don’t know if I really wanted to see them, it always seemed like an unreachable dream. Dian Fossey studied Rwanda’s mountain gorillas in Rwanda, she was considered a pioneer.

She approached them and knew them personally, when the thought was that they were aggressive animals. She discovered that in reality, they were very peaceful, 100% vegetarian, and the real problem was human, not them. A poacher killed her in her sleep to stop her from protecting the gorillas and keeping hunters from killing them.

I read her book and watched the movie when I was in secondary school. I never forgot about the story since then. I was a member of her Foundation, received cards and news for years. Just opening her book still makes me emotional until this day.

After much planning and saving, I took the plane for Africa in November 2012, for a journey across several countries, among them Rwanda, land of the gorillas and the country where Dian loved them so much.

The permit to see them was very expensive, a limited number of people per day could go see them, and always accompanied by guides. The excursion could last long hours, but the time spent with the gorillas lasted only an hour. It was the most expensive hour of my hour, equivalent to 50 hours of my salary!

We arrived in Ruhengeri, a town at the base of the mountains and very close to the Volcanoes National Park. We slept in the rooms of a Catholic convent. The guide explained to us that there were two groups we could visit; I chose the biggest with 28 animals, the “Sussa” group, which was found after a long and difficult walk. There was a bigger one, but only researchers were allowed to get close to them.

There were many rules and it was really well monitored, for example, people with a cold or the flu were not allowed on the visit, due to the risk of contamination. I spent the previous week so scared of catching anything!

We went to the base of the mountains the next day; there were local African dances and a lot of comments from the guides, telling us we couldn’t touch the gorillas nor get too close to them. They also showed us the whole genealogy of the group we were about to see.

Finally, we started to climb the mountain. At the beginning, we were only seeing terraces. The climb was a little bit difficult, since were already at relatively high altitude, just being in the city we were 1800 meters above the level (5,905 feet approximately). After a while, we arrived at the limits of the National Park.

The vegetation changed completely: it was the jungle I imagined while reading “Gorillas in The Mist”. Despite wearing large pants, I could feel plants tickling me through them, like nettles. They told to cover our skin well, I understood why at that moment.

A moment of walking later, our guide received communication of the park rangers regarding the location of the gorillas. We were already close. You have to know that the park rangers follow the gorillas from the moment they wake up to the moment they fall asleep. Most of all to protect them from illegal hunters, traps and to help localize them.

The first gorilla we saw was a dominant male of the group, a “silver back” is what he’s called due to the silver color of the hairs covering his back indicating his advanced age.

He was lying down and watching us with curiosity, but with not much reaction. Then we saw other members of the group: two other male adults, several females and youngsters, a mother with twins and another with a three-month old baby. We had to respect the allowed

distance, but the gorillas didn’t respect it! One female passed by so close that she walked slightly on the foot of guy in our group. We had to step aside to let them walked by. It was a jungle in a delimited area, there was not space. We also saw them eat, sleep, play and yawn. There was no stress in the air.

It was so wonderful. The hour went by so fast, but we could enjoy their presence, take pictures, see the big group. Our guide told us we had to leave. We started our descent after talking to the park rangers who worked so hard to preserve those animals.

I was there, thinking about Dian Fossey, maybe I saw the descents of the gorillas she once cared about and those of the University of Córdoba professor, Ricardo Luti, who showed us pictures, when I was a student, of the gorillas he had visited in his youth. He was the only person I knew who had seen them with his own eyes. One of the many reasons I admired him so much.

I also a thought for another younger Helena, many years I dreamed of seeing them and here I was. It’s proof that our dreams can become true. We only have to set goals for ourselves and do our maximum to reach them.

And as for the gorillas, my only wishes are that the 800 remaining ones be able to live safely on the mountains of Rwanda, Uganda and Congo, rise in number and not be part of the list of those that are not anymore.

Author: Helena Aroyo

Amelie Delobel

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