With a loud crack the silverback suddenly stormed forward, clearing a path trough the dense green jungle. A tree trunk as thick as my arm broke with the flick of his wrist. One second before, the silverback mountain gorilla had melancholically dozed on the ground. Then suddenly something had got him into a rage.
The other gorillas of his family crouched in the undergrowth. We kneeled down as well, looking down as instructed by the rangers. Satisfied with the reaction, the silverback chilled out and settled on the damp soil, taking up his earlier thought.
The Rugendo family of mountain gorillas
We were visiting the Rugendo mountain gorilla family in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. The family name goes back to Rugendo, the silverback leader killed during the Second Congo War in 2001. His son Senkwekwe took over the lead until 2007 – the photos of the murdered silverback went around the world. The grave of Senkwekwe lies at the gorilla graveyard in Rumangabo at the Virunga National Park headquarter.
Virunga National Park
The Virunga park is Africa’s oldest national park founded 1925 by King Albert I of Belgium in a small area around Visoke volcano. Mountain gorillas live in three National Parks in Uganda, Rwanda, and the Congo. The estimated number of mountain gorillas living on Earth is around 950. When Diane Fossey worked in the Volcans national park in 1967, there were fewer than three hundred mountain gorillas.
Still, mountain gorillas are an endangered species. Poaching and habitat loss threaten the gorillas. Oil companies explore the Virunga region for oil.
Under the Volcano
The day before, we had crossed the border coming from Rwanda. Goma, the Congolese border town, vibrates with life. The streets are full of people, boda bodas (motorcycle taxis), and Chukudu transport bicycles. Shops offer goods and colourful fabric, vividly painted bars signal welcome, but the background colour of the streets is an ash tone. The 2002 Nyiragongo eruption covered parts of Goma under thick lava.
Taking the potholey road to the North, we left Goma and passed the volcano when suddenly a downpour turned the road into a slippery track. A UN convoy manned with blue helmet peacekeepers crossed our Landrover.
A gravel road winding up the slopes of the Virunga mountains took us to our camp for the night at two thousand metre altitude. Along the way, we passed the huts of the farmer families. Every bit of land is used to plant.
Land is scarce. The demands for charcoal as cooking fuel makes charcoal trade a lucrative source of profit among the armed groups in the region and causes deforestation.
Welcome to the jungle
We spent the night in a tent camp next to the rainforest of the Virunga volcanoes. The darkness of the night was thick as oil. The wind softly shook the tent canvas, crickets chirped, occasionally an animal roared in the hills. On the other side of the valley, the glowing steam rising from Nyiragonogo’s crater illuminated the dark clouds.
The hike to the gorillas started early. A park ranger led our group of three visitors. Greeting farmers working in the fields, the ranger got replies in Lingala, Kinyarwanda, or Swahili – reflecting the diverse ethnicities in the war-torn border region between the Congo and Rwanda. “Jambo – Habari gani? – Nzuri”. The brisk tempo makes us sweat in the morning sun.
The mountain gorillas nest
Crossing a fence on a stone wall, we entered the jungle. Leading the way, one of the guides used a machete beat a path into the impenetrable forest. The air is humid. Thicket and liana made the hike difficult. The ranger hinted to a glade with flattened bushes. The trace of an elephant, he explained.
We slowed down and the ranger signaled to stop. There were movements up in the trees. A mountain gorilla sat on the tree canopy eating leaves. A few steps further, the silverback leader of the group rested on the ground. The baby gorilla cautiously got onto his broad shoulders and repeatedly slid down the silver fur on his back. Watching with sharp eyes, his mother awaited an angry reaction, but the silverback didn’t mind the play. Bored, the baby started to climb a tree, then a branch, finally reaching out his hand to my face. Before the baby gorilla could touch me, his mother sharply recalled him.
The Orphanage for Mountain Gorillas
The Virunga National Park includes an sanctuary for orphaned gorillas. The center is named after Senkwekwe, the late silverback of the Rugendo group. The care facility is situated at park headquarters in Rumangabo. Here a team of park rangers care for mountain gorillas. In fact, the rangers provide a family for the orphans and live with them.