Category Archives: Patrols

Rangers killed in Virungas

Hi this is Tuver,

I am really sorry to have to bring you some very bad news from the Virungas. Yesterday morning a vehicle belonging to the ICCN (the Congolese wildlife authority) was attacked. During the attack eight people were killed. Three of the victims were park rangers and five were members of the national army who were working with the rangers.

The car was traveling along the road between Mabenga and Rwindi through the middle of the park. It was deploying the men on board to help keep the road safe for local people as in recent weeks this area has been very insecure as a result of the presence of illegal armed groups. The early morning patrol car was attacked with a rocket-propelled grenade, the attackers fled the scene immediately on foot. We are not certain of who the perpetrators are or which rebel group they came from, however we do believe that they are from the FDLR Rwandan militia and the search continues to find the attackers.

This is the worst attack on ranger patrols in over a year. Our thoughts and sympathies go out to the families of these brave men who lost their lives.

GO makes plans for 2011

Hello, this is Tuver. I have just returned to Goma from Kampala.

Last week I joined the entire Gorilla Organization field team, and our director Jillian Miller, for the Gorilla Organization’s annual strategy meeting. Every year in October we get together to discuss the year that has just passed and to make plans for the following year. It is a great opportunity to share experiences with our colleagues from other countries, who are working with different gorilla populations, and we always come away with new ideas!

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Here is a picture of us at the meeting. You can see Jillian, our director, to the right of the photo. Next to her is Aimee, who fundraises in our London office and did an amazing job of taking the minutes. At the end of the table is Emmanuel, our Rwandan Programme Manager,  Sam, our Ugandan Programme Manager and Henry, our Congolese Programme Manager.

We began the meeting by discussing the work that had taken place in 2010. The current economic climate has meant that it has not been the easiest of years but despite this we were all proud of what we have achieved. Our gorilla conservation work has continued, and all our African partners have completed their targets for the year with our support.

There are great plans for our projects for 2011, which will make a huge impact on the protection of the gorilla habitat and the gorillas’ long-term survival projects. 17 project partners hope to receive our support in 2011, as do the wildlife authorities of Rwanda, Uganda and DR Congo. For all these plans to materialise we need to raise over US$800,000 – it is going to be a busy year!!

Please do get in touch if you would like to find out more about the specific plans we have for 2011 or if you are able to support our work during the coming year.

Thank you!

Sad death of Nkuhene

Hi, this is Sam, I am sorry that my first blog post is not good news.

Last week was not a happy week for Uganda Wildlife Authority staff. They mourned the death of Nkuhene – an adult female gorilla belonging to the Mishaya group, led by the silverback Mishaya.Nkuhene Bwindi

Nkuhene’s sad death was the result of a fight between the silverback Mishaya, and his former group Nshongi. Both Mishaya and Nkuhene recently left the Nshongi group but the two groups still share the same range – near Rushaga to the south of Bwindi Impenetrable National Park (BINP) and North of the Gorilla Organization’s office here in Kisoro.

We think that both the dominant Silverbacks were trying to win the affections of Nkuhene but sadly she got caught in the middle.

It was earlier this year that the Nshongi group divided into two. Park rangers say that that since the split they have witnessed a lot of fighting, and until one of the groups leave the home range, they expect the fighting will continue.

Nkuhene was buried by UWA officials last week at Mukajani in Bwindi National park.

May Nkuhene’s soul rest in internal peace.

Hello from the Gorilla Organization

Welcome to the Gorilla Orgaization’s new blog! My name is Abi and I work for the Gorilla Organization, out of its UK office in London. We are really pleased to be looking after this gorilla blog and will be keeping you posted from our gorilla conservation projects in Rwanda, Uganda and DR Congo. Our African field team will be posting regularly on this blog directly from the field so please keep visiting us!!  Before I introduce the team I want to tell you a little bit about the Gorilla Organization and what we do.

The majority of our work is based in the communities living just outside the gorilla habitat. We work with local African NGOs and partners to help communities access all the resources they need outside of the national park. By giving communities access to fresh water, fuel and nutritious food, and helping them to lift themselves out of poverty we are able to relieve the national parks from human pressure and greatly reduce the damage caused to the gorilla habitat – one of the main threats to the gorillas’ long-term survival.

To support this work we run an education scheme that gets the communities involved with conservation and we also work with the wildlife authorities and a number of specialist teams of gorilla rangers. There is loads of information on our website www.gorillas.org so do have a look if you would like to find out more.

Introducing the GO team!

Henry Cirhuza

Henry Cirhuza

Henry is our Congolese programme manager and is based in Goma. He looks after projects over a large area in Eastern DR Congo spanning from Rutshuru on the edge of Virungas National Park to the communities in and around Kahuzi Biega National Park – home to one of the largest eastern lowland gorilla populations.

Emmanuel

Emmanuel Bugingo

Emmanuel manages our Rwandan programme and runs our lively resource centre in Ruhengeri, on the edge of the Volcanoes National Park and Rwanda’s mountain gorilla habitat. The projects here range from water cisterns and organic farming to wildlife clubs in schools so there is always a lot going on!

Sam Nsingwire

Sam Nsingwire

Sam heads up the Ugandan programme and is based in Kisoro on the edge of Mgahinga National Park which is part of the Virungas Massive. The projects here are all tailored to this unique area and I am sure Sam will tell you more!

Tuver Wundi

Tuver Wundi

Last but certainly not least is Tuver, who you will have met before on this blog. Tuver is the Gorilla Organization’s field communication manager and while he is based in Goma he travels throughout the region regularly, keeping on top of everything that is going on and collecting news for his weekly radio broadcast.

Right I will hand you over to the team, but do keep in touch, we would love to hear your comments!

Ian Redmond’s State of the Gorilla journey is over – but there is still plenty more

Ian is back in the UK, catching up with himself and preparing for his next journey, this time to the concrete jungles of LA, San Diego etc. to fundraise for YoG through a lecture tour.

As the regular reader of this blog will remember, Ian did numerous video interviews and collected other video material. Unfortunately, the files were too large to upload as he went, but we are now receiving them.

One of Ian’s first visits in the Dem. Rep. of Congo was to the Kahuzi Biega National Park, where he interviewed Head Ranger Radar Nishuli on the ever-volatile situation there and on what he thinks of the YoG. Enjoy!

[kml_flashembed movie="http://www.youtube.com/v/-bwnqWvBH_Y" width="425" height="350" wmode="transparent" /]

Ian Redmond – Snipping through the trees with the greatest of ease

Sunday 6th September

Lopé Park entrance. Photo Karin von Loebenstein.

Up early to climb Mt Brazza, with stunning views of the River Ogoue and the mosaic of savannah and forest that makes Lopé such a distinctive environment. 

Sunrise at Lopé. Photo Fiona Maisels.

On the way, we came across a pretty little viper soaking up the morning sun with ribs flattened to the path.   Michael adeptly caught his dog, Ben, by the collar and led him past while I filmed the snake’s fascinating threat display, expanding and contracting with air. 

After breakfast, we drove down to Mikongo where the Zoological Society of London has been supporting a forest eco-tourism project for some years.  Comfortable cabins on stilts provide accommodation with a difference, and although earlier attempts to habituate gorillas have been dropped, the guides told me that a few days earlier, a group of tourists had met a group of gorillas and had nice views of the silverback.  I wasn’t so lucky this time (though it was in Lopé that I saw my first wild Western Lowland Gorilla with one of the first groups of tourists to track gorillas here in 1997).

Lopé River. Photo Fiona Maisels.

A short walk in the forest yielded some lovely examples of seedlings sprouting out of elephant dung, but although we found some old gorilla droppings, they happened to be without sprouting seeds.  

Irvingia (bush mango) in elephant dung. Photo Fiona Maisels.

Nevertheless, Justin did a nice explanation of different aspects of forest ecology, and also explained why Lopé guides all snip their way delicately through the undergrowth with secateurs whereas almost everywhere else in the world people use a machete (snipping is quieter and less damaging to the forest).

Prosper Motsaba shows correct use of secateurs instead of a noisy machete. Photo Fiona Maisels.

There was one more treat on the way back to camp;  the guides have been monitoring the behaviour of Rhinoceros Vipers around the camp, and knew where a gravid female liked to rest.  Justin explained that he had seen her there in the same spot daily for eight months, then she gave birth to live young (vipers are ovo-viviparous, where the eggs hatch inside the mother and the young emerge fully formed).

As we were about to leave, a team of men with backpacks, dripping with sweat, filed into camp and dropped their loads.   They had been in the bush for five days collecting faecal samples of gorillas and chimpanzees and agreed to do a joint YoG Blog interview. 

Nice juicy gorilla dung. Photo Fiona Maisels.

We’d finished when one of them added, “Oh yes, and we spent last night just 30m from a group of gorillas!”   I once did the same with a group of Mountain Gorillas in Rwanda, and was surprised to hear the silverback hooting and chest-beating in the midnight moonlight.   These men also reported some late night vocalisations, and I suspect that eventually – when someone finds a way to study gorilla behaviour at night – the current idea that they just build a nest and stay in it from dusk to dawn will prove to be a vast over-simplification.

Grove of Cola lizae trees, dispersed only by gorillas. Photo Fiona Maisels.

The drive back to Libreville took until midnight again, with music keeping the unstoppable Omar singing at the wheel all the way (still accompanied on air guitar and vocals by Joel – who seemed to know the lyrics to every number from rock and roll to hip-hop via soul, blues and syrupy French ballads).   I joined in occasionally from the back seat – especially with the Most-played Record, the Stray Cats’ Rock this town tonight – and wondered what the denizens of the forest made of the passing party…

Read Ian’s previous post here!

August 18 – Role models and a sexy Mountain Gorilla encounter

Posted on behalf of Ian Redmond.

Up at 4.45am! Yahaya was on time too and after hurtling along the winding road in the dawn light, we arrived at Kinigi to find the car park bustling.  The Chief Warden, Prosper, was expecting me and I was assigned to Group 13, along with an American honeymoon couple, an English couple and two blokes from Barcelona.  The throng of people began to form clusters around signs, eight to each group, and the briefings began.  Our guide, Edward, gave a bit of background to the park, the gorilla researchers over the years and began the basics of gorilla etiquette.

Ian Redmond with gorilla watchers, Volcanoes NP, Rwanda. Picture Ian Redmond.

We drove a short way to the park boundary, had another briefing on how to behave in the forest, then squeezed between a gap in the buffalo wall only to meet a couple of buffaloes!  They quickly moved off, but Edward thought it expedient for us to squeeze out of the park again and walk along the outside of the wall a ways. We passed a team of villagers repairing the wall (for free) where an elephant had recently damaged it. When we entered, I was excited to see huge washing-up-bowl-sized footprints in the mud where the elephant’s feet had sunk in deep.  

The path we followed first was familiar to me as an old coffee-smuggling route (bags would be carried across the border in whichever direction led to the highest coffee price at the time) but we soon climbed over a ridge and dropped steeply down into a crater called Kibumba.  

The gorillas were high on the opposite crater wall, and were still feeding when we reached them.  I suggested we wait a while before beginning the allotted hour because trying to watch them while they were travel-feeding on a steep slope would have made for a very difficult time for all.  Everyone was desperate to see their first gorilla, but understood why it was better to wait. When we eventually did climb up towards them, they were still feeding but not moving much, and a couple of infants delighted everyone by posing for the camera then wrestling gently.  

We then witnessed what might be called the ‘bottom line’ of gorilla conservation, and I realised that some of my videos might need a PG rating, because Agashya, the silverback began mating with one of his females.  I can tell you it was an unusual copulation, but I will save the more detailed account of this fascinating behaviour for an exclusive article in BBC Wildlife Magazine at the end of the year.

Mountain Gorillas slide down slope during copulation, Infant watches fascinated - Photo Ian Redmond.

Briefly, they started above the tourist group, then slipped and slithered down the slope, with barely a break in his rhythm, ending up against a thicket 10 metres below, watched closely by the female’s two-year old infant.   It certainly was the climax of our observations… groan… In fact, I thought we might get a few more hits than usual if we include the phrase ‘slithering sex’ in the key words for this blog!

All three eat celery after the mating is over! - Photo Ian Redmond.

We left them enjoying a post-copulatory snack of celery and slithered down the slope ourselves to the crater bottom where everyone recorded their impressions for the YoG Blog. It was a grand day out indeed, but there was one more pleasant surprise in store. 

Gorilla guide Edward is a role model for local kids, Kinigi, Rwanda - Photo Ian Redmond.

Edward had mentioned that some of the boys living around the park HQ were really interested in his work and would often ask him questions. I asked if he could round up a few for a YoG interview and he called over four delightful young lads who clearly saw him as a role model. On camera, two said they wanted to be gorilla guides and two said gorilla vets, and I couldn’t help but rejoice that in Edward, they had a better role model to follow than some…

Read Ian’s previous post here.

August 15th – Crossing Lake Kivu

Posted on behalf of Ian Redmond, Year of the Gorilla Ambassador. 

These past few days since my last blog have been an extraordinary journey, not just geographically but between the extremes of human nature – great joy and inspiration contrasting with harrowing stories of our species’ ability to inflict great suffering.  Email access has been intermittent and time short, but let me bring you up to date day by day:

15th – Lake Kivu is a beautiful lake, dotted with islands and dug-out canoes.  Crossing it on the deck of a high-speed ferry is a delightful experience on a fine day.   Inside, the passenger cabin has rows of comfortable seats on either side of a central aisle and a wide-screen TV which usually shows videos.  Unfortunately the DVD player had malfunctioned so we had to make our own entertainment (reviewing rushes with the Australian Network 7 crew).  This was a particular disappointment to me because the videos most often shown nowadays are documentaries provided by the Great Apes Film Initiative (http://www.gafi4apes.org) in association with the Gorilla Organization (GO).  

Lake Kivu ferry, DRC. Picture by Mick O’Donnell.

GAFI aims to rectify the iniquitous fact that films made about wildlife by TV companies in UK, Europe, America and Japan are unaffordable to most TV stations in the developing world where so many of those documentaries are made.  Thus, the average man, woman or child in the street in UK or USA knows more about gorillas than their counterparts in Africa.  GAFI has begun to rectify that by negotiating broadcast rights for films about great apes on TV stations in great ape range states.  And with the help of partner NGOs, also organises public screenings and provides a library of such films to education centres.  

The screenings on the Lake Kivu ferries have been a great success, educating all those able to afford the $50 fare (politicians, aid workers, businessmen and -women) about the importance of conserving Congo’s forest eco-systems.  As the steward served drinks and sandwiches, I asked if he had the GAFI films and he immediately opened the cupboard under the screen to show me the BBC’s award-winning three-part series on the Congo basin.  Shame the DVD player was broken today…

Lake Kivu crossing. Pic. by Mick O’Donnell.

As we pulled up to the Goma jetty, I was met by Tuver Wundi, a journalist who works with GO;  we did a quick YoG interview with Captain Amisi about the GAFI films (sorry, video uploading not yet sorted, so plan B is to send DVDs to colleagues at the Convention on Migratory Species – thank you, Gentle Reader, for  your patience.  If that fails, I guess I’ll try tying them to the leg of a pigeon!!).   Tuver bounced me to the border on the back of his trail bike, negotiating volcanic rocks and the famous lava flow through the middle of the town, to meet Jillian Miller, GO CEO. She was waiting in line at the DRC border-post, crossing into Rwanda, after showing a BBC World team a GO project that had been nominated for an award (see http://www.gorillas.org/worldchallenge09 ). 

Ian interviews local villagers, Kivu region, DRC. Picture by Mick O’donnell

Before I crossed, however, I wanted to visit the GO Resource Centre and interview some Goma conservationists about the Year of the Gorilla.  I rang Pierre Peron, a former Ape Alliance volunteer now working for ICCN, the Congolese Wildlife Dept, and received some shocking news.  The previous day, a patrol of Virunga Park rangers had come across some hippo poachers near Lake Edward.   The poachers had opened fire and in the ensuing fire-fight, one ranger had been killed.  Without doubt, the rangers patrolling DRC parks are among the most courageous protectors of Nature on the planet.  Senior staff were understandably busy dealing with the aftermath and unavailable for a YoG interview, so I talked to my old friend Vital Katembo and the GO team instead, before crossing into Rwanda to meet up with the Australians again.

Read Ian’s previous post here.

13th August 2009: Security and sanctuary in South Kivu

Posted (with regrettable delay) on behalf of Ian Redmond.

Today didn’t quite work out as planned.  Early in the morning I bumped into the vice-governor of South Kivu province, Jean Claude Kibala, who I’d met at the Frankfurt Gorilla Conference and who was busy making arrangements for President Kabila, who was visiting Bukavu.  I asked him whether he thought the President would give a message for the Year of the Gorilla.  He thought it quite likely, given the economic importance of gorilla tourism in the region, and said he’d call this evening if it could be arranged.

Ian Redmond.

The Australian Network 7 film crew, minus the producer and me, had already set off early to Kahuzi-Biega National Park HQ to film the morning deployment of rangers and gorilla monitoring teams.  Eleven groups of gorillas are monitored daily in the 600 square kilometre highland sector of the park, despite the dangers of ‘negative forces’ (militias) they may encounter in the forest.  As yet it is too dangerous to have this level of conservation activity in the 10 times bigger lowland sector.  Rebel militias (which effectively means armed bandits) living in the forest need the same equipment as park guards, so attacks on guard posts are all too common.   The producer, Mick O’Donnell, and I intended to visit the Bukavu base of MONUC, the UN Mission in DRC, to check the security situation for Kalehe (where we wanted to film at a mine the next day) then planned to join the crew to film community conservation projects of the Pole Pole Foundation (PoPoF) around the park.  

MONUC is a large, multi-national military operation, and to cut a long story short, we were directed here, there and everywhere by people from Poland, Niger, Pakistan and Egypt without finding the person with whom Mick had been corresponding.   By early afternoon we were out at the airport base talking to a friendly Indonesian officer (who had studied at Monash University in Melbourne so spoke Australian, and came from Sumatra where he had visited orangutans).  Bizarrely, we then found ourselves listening to a conversation in Bahasa as he called his Indonesian colleague in the area of the mine we hoped to film.   Fortunately, all was calm in that area and we got the go-ahead to drive there without the need of a UN escort.  For the first time ever in Africa, I found my self saying ‘terimah kasi’, rather than ‘asante sana’ as we thanked him for his time and called the crew to meet up.

Australian TV presenter Grant Denyer watches Andrea Edwards feeding orphan chimpanzees, Lwiro, DRC. -  Photo Ian Redmond

Frustratingly, the crew by then had finished filming the PoPoF projects and were heading for Lwiro, where a small sanctuary for confiscated primates has been created in recent years.  Although sad to have missed the tree-planting and school children singing, I was delighted to visit Lwiro because it was two years since my last visit and I have both human and non-human friends there.  The Centre for Research in Natural Science in Lwiro is a fascinating place – a large and beautifully constructed complex that now sadly looks rather dilapidated.  It was built during the Belgian colonial period with labs and offices linked by covered walkways with arches, giving a cloister-like feel, as if it was a remote monastery for science.  In recent years CO-OPERA, a Spanish NGO, has formed a partnership with ICCN and PoPoF to co-manage the sanctuary.   ICCN is responsible for all wild animals in DRC and needed somewhere to keep animals confiscated from illegal traders or pet owners.   Lwiro had some old cages and was used as a convenient stop-gap until a proper sanctuary and rehabilitation centre can be built with the aim of eventual return to the wild for any animals fit enough.

Bertin MURHABALE and Jean Jaques BAGALWA, CRSN, Lwiro, DRC - Photo Ian Redmond.

The Oz crew were keen to interview Andrea Edwards, an Australian primate keeper on secondment to Lwiro from Melbourne Zoo. I was equally keen to catch up with Carmen Vidal, a Spanish vet I’d met on my last visit soon after she had arrived to take over running the sanctuary.   I was impressed by the new, bigger cages for the chimpanzees and monkeys (though suggested that weaving some visual barriers out of branches might help the inmates deal with the inevitable ‘cabin fever’ of being locked up together in such a small space).   Carmen had a surprise in store.   A short walk from the building where the new and old cages were, she showed me a new dormitory nearing completion to better house the growing number of chimpanzees – some of whom are now adult.   Excitedly, she explained the plan to enclose two hectares of forest and two hectares of grassy scrub with an electric fence.   “The chimpanzees will be out of their cages by the end of the year!” she said. 

“And is all the funding in place?” I asked.  

Carmen Vidal of the Lwiro Sanctuary, DRC. Photo by Ian Redmond.

“Not quite,” she replied, “we are not yet approved by PASA, and some supporters will not send funds to sanctuaries that are not up to PASA standards, but of course without funds it is hard to make the improvements that are needed to achieve that standard!”

Quickly I grabbed my video camera and asked her to summarise, thinking I’d post her appeal on the Ape Alliance website (there being no confiscated gorillas at Lwiro;  sadly infant gorillas are illegally traded but when confiscated they are kept at a separate facility in the region under the care of specialist gorilla vets).  You can find out more about Lwiro at http://lwiro.blogspot.com/

While the film crew were finishing their interviews, John Kahekwa introduced me to Bertin Murhabale, a primate researcher and Jean Jaques Bagalwa, head of the Biology Department at CRSN,   I had collected a segment of gorilla tapeworm yesterday, and needed to fix it in Formalin.  They took me to see their labs where, on the bench, were piles of bags of gorilla and chimpanzee faecal samples.  Unfortunately, the primatology lab has no microscope or centrifuge, and Jean Jaques admitted that the whole research centre has only one old monocular microscope.  I invited them to give a YoG-Blog interview, which you’ll see once I find a way to upload it (but if you are reading this in a lab with old scientific equipment unused in a cupboard, do get in touch!).

Filming over, we rushed back to Bukavu (well, as fast as one can rush on atrocious roads in the dark), passing in and out of telephone network coverage, still waiting for that important ‘phone call that might add the first Head of State to the YoG Blog interviewees.  But as you might have guessed, the call never came;  maybe another opportunity will arise when I pass through Kinshasa….

Cheers, Ian

Read Ian’s previous post here.

12th August: Arboreal Gorillas and Philosophical Guardians

Posted for YoG Ambassador Ian Redmond.

The excitement was palpable on the drive up to Kahuzi-Biega National Park HQ.  For several of the Australian Network 7 TV crew, this was to be their first gorilla encounter and they had been planning for months and travelling for days to get here. The chief warden had agreed to give an interview, and I wanted to ask him to give the first of my YoG Blog interviews.   Only then would we head into the forest in search of gorillas.

The warden, Mr Radar Nishuli, was ready for us and I guess we expected a typical warden’s interview about the problems of running a World Heritage Site over-run by militias and rebels.  Standing in front of a pile of elephant and gorilla skulls, evidence of bushmeat poaching from the vicinity of the HQ during the war, the camera started rolling.  Radar didn’t disappoint, but it was pretty standard fare until he was asked why he did what he did;  he thought for a moment (English being his fourth language) and explained that he had been working in the park for 25 years and had come to know and admire the gorillas; it would be difficult to express to someone who had not experienced a gorilla encounter but – and he searched for the words – there is something about the way they behave with each other and how they use the forest, “God gave us intelligence and what do we do?  We destroy things.   Gorillas don’t have the intelligence to make cars and guns and things, but they have their families and live in harmony with nature…”   I’m paraphrasing here, but the meaning was so clear and so profound, we were all taken aback by his eloquence.   Afterwards I asked him to summarise what he thought of the UN Year of the Gorilla in the light of what he had said… as soon as I have worked out how to compress a massive HD video file down to a size that can be up-loaded to the internet you’ll see what he said.

Afterwards, I was delighted to greet one of the unsung heroes of gorilla conservation, the venerable old pygmy tracker Pili-Pili.  He began working with the Park’s founder, the late Adrian Deschryver, in the 1960s and although long retired and now showing his age, he still seemed fit – indeed after our chat he began picking weeds off the stone steps to the park visitor centre.   When I asked about his health, he told me he is usually hungry (there being no such thing as a pension scheme) but the weeds he was picking had medicinal value;  I paid him something for his weeding and asked a friend to take my photo with him – I hope someone sits down with him and takes down his oral history, for he has lived an extraordinary life.
Ian Redmond with retired gorilla tracker Pili-Pili, Kahuzi Biega, DRC. Picture by Mick O’Donnell
It was then just a short drive along the road through the park to a trail leading to where the advance party of trackers had already located Chimanuka’s Group.   Perhaps it was because we were so late starting, but the trek was long and it was mid-afternoon before we reached the gorillas.   For the producer’s and presenter’s first gorilla sighting it was pretty impressive – Chimanuka the silverback and several females and young were high up in a Myrianthus tree feeding on fruit.   As we peered upwards and dodged falling fruit, Chimanuka clambered to the main fork and carefully embraced the trunk for a controlled slither down to the ground.   At a leisurely pace the females followed, some finding more acrobatic routes down, and one reaching to a neighbouring tree with a long slender branchless trunk and sliding down like a fireman’s pole (video to follow).   So much for the wildlife books that still talk about gorillas being too heavy to climb trees – they are excellent if careful climbers and do so whenever there is fruit or other food to be had in the canopy.   The group continued travel-feeding on the ground for a while as we struggled behind untangling tripods and buckles from vines and thickets.

The vines are very thick nowadays, it is thought, because of the absence of elephants. As John Kahekwa of the Pole-Pole Foundation explained in my second YoG interview, the vines are now over-running fruit trees, bamboo and other favourite gorilla food-plants.  A few elephants were recently spotted for the first time in a decade, but before the war this part of the park was home to about 350 and it will likely be a long time before numbers recover to the point where the ecological balance is restored.  We can only wait and see how the gorillas cope with this degraded habitat.
Chimanuka, Eastern Lowland Gorilla silverback, Kahuzi Biega National Park. Picture by Ian Redmond.
Eventually the group settled down and the cameraman got some beautiful shots of Chumanuka grooming an infant (silverbacks often babysit with the kids while the females have a quiet nap – very ‘new-man’ in their approach to family life!). John explained that the infant has been named Pili-Pili after the retired tracker.

Soon after the group moved off, searching for food plants, we came across an old antelope trap just where they had passed.   Fortunately, the trigger mechanism had rotted and the pole had no noose on the end, but I cut it with my trusty panga to prevent anyone re-setting it – many young gorillas and chimpanzees have lost hands or even died from gangrene after being caught in these indiscriminate snares.  It highlighted the dangers gorillas still face, even in patrolled areas.  And as Dominique Bikaba, coordinator of PoPoF pointed out, it is also why surrounding communities need to be engaged in the protection of their park – patrols can never cut every trap if there is a constant setting of new ones – we need potential poachers to understand how the rain that waters their crops comes from the forest, and that by protecting it they will get more benefits in the long run.  As we left the park, however, we saw the dangers the local communities face too.   Right where we had left our vehicles we found broken glass and empty brass cartridge cases where only two months ago, a band of ‘negative forces’ (as militias are referred to here) ambushed a lorry.   Ten people died and many others were injured and traumatised.   It is not easy living in such insecurity, but some of my oldest friends continue to protect the gorillas and the forest despite the danger.   Their dedication is an inspiration to me – surely they need our support now more than ever?

Read Ian’s previous post here.