If they charge, don’t run – they’ll run after you. We’re on the fringes of the mist-shrouded Virunga Mountains, when guide Frances pauses to brief our group of trekkers on Rwanda’s most famous resident: the mountain gorilla. We must keep seven metres away from the animals. We should avoid eye contact with the silverback. If a troublemaker kicks us, we shouldn’t kick them back – these mischievous male juveniles like to test boundaries. Finally, if a gorilla appears agitated, we should back away slowly and crouch down, eyes on the ground, making submissive whimpers.
Passing through a gap in Volcano National Park’s dry-stone wall, we clamber up steep, root-threaded paths, following the trail that trackers whisper to Frances through walkie-talkies. As the drizzle seeps through the tree canopy, we cling to thick branches for balance, the path now slippery with dead leaves and moss. The trackers materialise from the bush, pointing to a dense enclave of jungle greenery. We are close.
© Karel Bartik/Shutterstock
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Face to face with gorillas
Hacking through the thickets, the trackers lead us down a sheer slope, and, suddenly, there he is: a troublemaker, crouched among ferns and bamboo shoots – roguish tendencies seemingly quelled by food, or the weather. Even hunched over his leafy feast, his bulk is incredible: broad shoulders too wide to fit through a door without shifting sideways.
We’re close enough to make out the raindrops beading his inky-black fur, the outline of his nose – the “noseprint” that, like a fingerprint, distinguishes each gorilla. Despite their size and portrayal in popular culture as rampaging beasts, gorillas are in fact extremely peaceful creatures. As this hungry chap pauses mid-mouthful and gazes up at me with thoughtful eyes, I feel humbled to have my presence quietly accepted by an animal that could easily break my neck with a careless swipe of his huge hand.
A few steps on, and we’re in the midst of the Agashya (“Special”) group: a 24-strong family that resides high up on the fertile slopes of the dormant Sabyinyo volcano. A young female the size of a sumo wrestler climbs a tree with the ease of a koala. A four-month-old baby clings to the fur of its mother, then tumbles to the ground and looks around for distractions like a bored toddler in a playpen. Two dozing males shelter from the rain in the jungle undergrowth, occasionally waking to throw us grumpy glances before slipping back to sleep.
View of the Virunga mountains, the gorillas' natural habitat © Ayotography/Shutterstock
Conservation efforts for mountain gorillas
Efforts to protect these incredible animals stems from the work of conservationist Dian Fossey, who first highlighted the plight of the creatures and worked relentlessly for their protection. Her work was immortalised in 1988 film Gorillas in the Mist.
Mountain gorillas are only found in two places in the world: the Virunga Massif, a volcano range straddling Rwanda, Uganda and the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), and the cloud forests of Bwindi Impenetrable National Park in southwest Uganda. They were only discovered in 1902 by western explorers and their numbers plummeted soon after from a combination of hunting for sport and poaching for trade. Civil unrest and violence have contributed to a further decline, while increasing human populations have closed in on the gorillas’ forested enclaves.
Over the past decade, the tide has been turning for the better. The mountain gorilla population across the three countries recently nudged past the 1,000 mark (a 25% increase since 2010), taking the species from ‘critically endangered’ to ‘endangered’ – mainly thanks to concerted conservation efforts.
Dedicated researchers continue the work Fossey started, with 'gorilla doctors' trekking into the forest to treat ill or injured animals. Tourism plays a huge part in the protection of gorillas: the income from treks supports the surrounding rural communities, thus creating incentives for preserving the creatures and their habitat. “Many locals, including those whose families were previously involved in poaching, are now employed as porters, guides, trackers and park HQ staff,” Frances tells me.
No mountain gorilla has ever survived in captivity, so habitat preservation is essential for their long-term chances. Very few wild creatures are afforded such protection. But as you look at these powerful beasts – their quiet expressions, their hands, their feet, their mannerisms so similar to our own – you feel an intense empathy for their plight.
Tours by experienced guides help to support conservation efforts © Joanna Reeves
Tourists do also pose risks to the gorillas, mainly through the threat of human diseases. Consequently, humans are kept at a safe distance and visitor numbers kept low with strict time restrictions.
It is just as our time slot is drawing to a close that the tracker hacks down a cluster of bamboo for us to get a better glimpse of the other troublemaker. It turns out he doesn’t fancy a close-up. Rearing up to his full six feet, he charges, scattering our group. We flee – all rules instantly forgotten. “Just a mock charge,” Frances laughs as the troublemaker veers off into the forest, “Showing us who’s boss!”.
Steppes Travel offers seven days in Rwanda from £4,195pp, including RwandAir international flights, one gorilla-trekking permit, kayaking on Lake Kivu, chimp-trekking in Nyungwe, a guide and vehicle throughout, accommodation, meals and drinks. See Visit Rwanda for more information.
Top image: Mountain gorilla baby © LMspencer / Shutterstock