Karisoke got its name (from Fossey) because it is located between Mount Karisimbi and Mount Visoke, two of the volcanoes that make up the (mostly inactive or extinct) Virunga volcanic mountain range. The Virungas are also significant because they help form the border between Rwanda, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and Uganda and, between the three countries, the park is home to approximately 480 mountain gorillas. As we made the trek up to Karisoke, I took in the scenery around me; the forest has hints of the rainforest, like Nyungwe, but is largely unique, with areas of dense thickets of stinging nettles, open meadows, grasses and vegetation taller than me, and even bamboo zones at lower elevations.
Up on the mountain, I felt so far away from the dry, dusty farmland below, and I tried to comprehend the fact that this beautiful place also held such beautiful creatures as the gorillas. At the same time, I knew of the tragedy and conflict this region has seen in its history, from the Democratic Republic of the Congo’s civil war and ongoing turmoil, to Rwanda’s genocide, to a dark history of poaching. It became especially clear when we reached Karisoke, where, of the many buildings that had once stood as part of the research center, none remained intact. It was haunting to me, and I can only imagine what it must have felt like for the Steklises to see the mere fragments that remained of what was such an important site of scientific discovery—as well as their home.
NO ONE LOVED GORILLAS MORE
REST IN PEACE, DEAR FRIEND
IN THIS SACRED GROUND
FOR YOU ARE HOME
WHERE YOU BELONG.
Even as I learned more about the positives of ecotourism, I always like to consider the other side of the issue. For me, what struck me the most was a single statistic: that 73% of the gorillas in the Virungas are habituated. This means that there are plenty of gorillas that can be visited by tourists and studied by researchers, but I couldn’t help but wonder about that other 27%. What is their fate? Although a DFGFI staff member told us that their goal is not to habituate all gorillas in the park, the primary reason he gave was that one of the risks of ecotourism is the transfer of disease from people to gorillas; if one tourist has even a common cold, it could prove deadly to the gorillas and spread through the habituated population. My question is—what about keeping gorillas wild and unhabituated for the gorillas’ sake? Especially given the fact that it is becoming more and more difficult—if not impossible—to keep human-gorilla interaction minimized, is it even possible to keep that remaining 27% unhabituated, or is it already too late? Will there come a time when all mountain gorillas are habituated, whether we want them to be or not?
Finally, after three long hours—much of that time spent following a trail of fresh dung and their nests from the previous night—we found them. We were greeted by two males—a juvenile and an adult silverback. I was so taken aback by their beauty, their glossy back coats and inquisitive, shining brown eyes, that I almost didn’t hear our guide say “Watch out.” Just then, the juvenile male broke a large branch down with his hands and feet, dangerously close to us, and then ran past, his hair puffed up. I was a little bit in shock, but our guide reassured us, telling us that the male was just displaying because he didn’t recognize us, students, and knew we were newcomers to the group.
Soon, though, the males calmed down, and we followed them deeper into the forest. There, we met more members of the group. Another silverback and a couple of females rested off to one side, while a trio of older infants played and made mischief while their parents weren’t watching. A bit separated from that group, a female gorilla nursed her month-old infant, keeping an eye on us but for the most part trusting and merely curious. We collected data for our theme teams and followed the gorillas for a couple hours as they rested and fed and moved to another spot to repeat the process. They were absolutely beautiful to watch, and so peaceful, and even when I got back to the hotel that night and wrote in my journal (adapted from the full version, which can be read in the Primate Studies Field School Journal), I couldn’t get the image of their beautiful eyes out of my mind.
As I reflected later at dinner, when everyone who saw gorillas for the first time today shared their first impressions, I was struck by how cohesive the group was and how connected the gorillas were with one another, even though they were clumped in little groups, resting here and there. They truly seemed like a unified family, needing little vocal communication to express their thoughts to one another. As they were all resting, one male got up and was soon followed by a female and infant, and then a few more individuals, until all the gorillas were moving as one, on to find another resting spot. They didn’t need to say a thing—they just followed one another and moved on.
Before we left the gorillas, we found the dominant male, Cantsbe—one of the last remaining gorillas to have been named by Dian Fossey. Cantsbe was massive and incredibly impressive, but he was resting off on his own. Odd for a dominant male, I thought, and it was as if the trackers read my mind. They told us that there might be a shift in power taking place, since most of the females and other group members seemed to be staying near the second-ranked male instead of Cantsbe lately. I watched the large male for a while, admiring his strength and beauty, but saddened to think that his world was changing and his group seemed to be moving on without him. But then, we heard a distant chestbeat. Cantsbe turned his head and uttered a deep, guttural sound—a comforting vocalization—in the direction that the chestbeat had come from. Even at a distance from his group, he was still connected with them, and that gave me a great deal of comfort.