Category Archives: Press

Great Gorilla Run

Hello this is Emmanuel, I am the Gorilla Organization’s Rwandan Programme Manager.

This coming Saturday is the annual Great Gorilla Run in London, UK. Hundreds of people dress up as gorillas and run around the city to raise money for our projects out here in Africa – it is an amazing event.

Three years ago I was given the fantastic opportunity to travel to London and take part in the Great Gorilla Run – it was one of the best days of my life!

When I was told that I was going to London It was difficult to imagine what it would be like. And when I was told that I would be running 7kms around London dressed in gorilla suit … well, that was another point. I think my neighbours still remember seeing me running through the streets of Gisenyi, my town in Rwanda, as I trained for the Great Gorilla Run.

September arrived and I travelled more than 6000km to reach London. I was really excited to see what this town, which I have heard so much about, was really like!

The D-day arrived, and I met all the other gorilla runners at Minster Court and started putting on my gorilla suit. I was happy to wear number 700, the number of Mountain gorillas living in the world at the time.

Great Gorilla Run get ready to go

Until then, I was confident with my training, my thoughts were to win it. However, I realised that this was not going to be an easy run. As I waited at the start it was so strange seeing many different people excited about dressing as gorillas and trying to imitate their behaviours by either eating a banana, roaring or charging!

Each time, I was wondering what would happen if they saw real gorillas. Or, if those gorilla statues at Minster court were real gorillas seeing them!?!  Surely they would be delighted to see a human struggling to become a gorilla!!

Once the kick off was given, I started running following others and holding a collection bucket, which I was using to collect money from viewers enjoying the Sunday sun! I can remember being stopped by a couple, probably, they wanted to check if I was a real gorilla and to prove this I charged!!! They ran away but immediately came back and put some coins into the bucket before wishing me success!

Although I had studied the map of the run, I couldn’t locate myself between the high buildings. It was difficulty to see the sky and the sun which is how we traditionally find our way in Rwanda. I was simply following others!!

I can not remember how many bridges I crossed, I could not even remember how long it took me, what I remember is that I did it, it was amazing and raised I collected £75 in my bucket during the run!!

Can you spot me in the photo!

Making waves in DR Congo

Hi this is Tuver,

Every Monday evening at 19:30h (Goma time) I broadcast the Gorilla Organization’s radio show – Cosmos, Our World. Today I am preparing for tonight’s programme, which will discuss climate change in Eastern DRC. I am interviewing one of or partners, Dominique Bikaba, who works with the Pole Pole Foundation on our tree- planting project.
P3 making waves in DR CongoP3 making waves 3

(Here is a photo of me interviewing a ranger and one of me in the studi0)
The first Gorilla Organization broadcast was 11 years ago and they have become really popular – we now have a very dedicated following. I really think it is great way to communicate with people living in the area and it is important to me to hear what people have to say about conservation and the environment. I invite as many people from the local communities to talk about the issues as I can and we listen carefully to what they have to say.

Every week there is a different topic so if you are based in Eastern DRC please listen in. Cosmos, Our World 19h30 to 2000h, on 90FM RTNC Goma.

YoG Epilogue, thoughts on Copenhagen, and more

This article was provided to us by YoG Ambassador Ian Redmond. Thank you Ian for your outstanding and exemplary efforts throughout the YoG!!


“A belated Happy New Year to all readers – in fact Happy New International Year of Biodiversity! (see http://www.cbd.int/2010/welcome/).

This year the UN has broadened its scope to raise awareness of all biodiversity – the millions of species of animals, plants, fungi and microorganisms with whom we share the planet. This is partly because the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) set targets for 2010 to reduce the loss of biodiversity. These 2010 targets (and how badly we have missed them) will be on the agenda at the 10th Conference of the Parties to the CBD in Japan this September (http://www.cbd.int/cop10/).

Sliding smoothly from YoG to IYB (for some reason it was decided the Year of Biodiversity acronym wouldn’t follow the pattern of YoG…) is quite fitting, given that gorilla habitat is among the most bio-diverse on earth, and directly or indirectly many of the species therein are ecologically linked to gorillas.
I’ll return to this theme later, but first I must report on my visit to the Climate Conference in Copenhagen.

I was there for a week (10th – 16th December), but left before it was due to finish. Then the drama continued into Saturday 19th, the deal wasn’t sealed, and the Copenhagen Accord fell short of the world’s hopes and expectations. This was such an anti-climax and only now are assessments of the way forward beginning to appear (see http://unfccc.int/2860.php and http://climate-l.org/guest-articles/ga32.html for the official view, and for independent comment, see for example http://www.globalcanopy.org/main.php?m=120&sm=169&bloid=49, http://www.stakeholderforum.org/fileadmin/files/Outreach_issues_2009/OutreachFinalWrapUp.pdf and http://www.climaticoanalysis.org/wp-content/uploads/2010/01/post-cop15-report52.pdf).

Copenhagen was closely followed by Christmas and New Year, and for me a chance to spend some time with my family (in India, where we saw some amazing cultural as well as biological diversity – but those experiences will appear elsewhere. There was one unexpected YoG outcome from India, which was bumping into Dave and Debs, a couple of Canadian bloggers, who wrote a nice piece about the encounter at: http://theplanetd.com/ian-redmond-talks-about-gorillas#comments – thank you PlanetD).

Let me now take you back to mid-December and how it felt to be in the melée of Copenhagen:
The main event was the 15th Conference of the Parties to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change in the Bella Centre, but Copenhagen was filled with (according to some reports) more than 100,000 visitors attending film festivals, climate camps, demonstrations, business meetings and scientific seminars.

I escaped from the Conference on Saturday 12th to join some 40,000+ people on the Climate March, which for the most part had a carnival atmosphere, with floats, banners, kids and grannies. It was a great experience – civil society making a point peacefully (I missed the violence and arrests that grabbed the headlines – e.g. http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/news/environment/copenhagen/article6954510.ece).

Amongst all the people dressed as penguins and polar bears I did find one person in a gorilla costume – a German student who had come up on the train with friends – but until we met he didn’t know it was the Year of the Gorilla nor the role of gorillas in climate change mitigation (he does now!).”

15th December 2009: “It is snowing here in Copenhagen. A freezing cold wind cuts through the long queue of people trying to enter the Bella Conference Centre, where it is warm and until now welcoming (security concerns surrounding the arrival of 100 heads of state and their entourages has led to increasingly severe restrictions on the number of civil society participants allowed into the building, causing frustration and long queues). Our Danish hosts have gone to great lengths to give space for conservation NGOs, governments and UN agencies to display their reports and present their data. Every day is filled with dozens of side events inside the Bella Centre, and dozens more at parallel events taking place at several locations around Copenhagen.

The amount of passion and creative energy, the amazing expression of science and art, is simply staggering – all to inform and to influence the negotiators who are working day and night to come up with text to which all 190 or signatories to the UN Climate Convention can agree. It is an historic moment (note: at this point we were still hopeful), and fitting that it should be in the closing month of the UN Year of the Gorilla.

All year we have been stressing that YoG is not just about gorillas. It is true they are an iconic animal for the Congo Basin forests, and that they symbolise efforts to protect the planet’s second green lung, but there is more to it than that – they are also keystone species in their habitat. This means that just as the removal of a keystone in a bridge or stone arch would cause it to collapse, so the removal of a keystone species will cause a cascade of other species extinctions. In the forests of the ten countries that have gorilla populations, the health of those forests is linked to the balance between thousands of inter-dependent species of animals, plants, fungi and micro-organisms – all part of the forest ecosystem.

Unfortunately, most people (and probably most climate negotiators) hear the word ‘forest’ and think of trees. In the context of climate change, where about a fifth of global, human-caused greenhouse gas emissions are caused by deforestation and forest degradation, the word forest is associated with carbon – hence the idea of REDD+ in the new climate treaty (Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Degradation – with the plus signifying the additional ‘co-benefits’ that would arise from saving forests, such as rainfall, poverty reduction in forest-dwelling communities and halting biodiversity loss).

With colleagues from the CMS (www.cms.int ), CBD, CI and the Global Canopy Programme, I have been spreading the word here in Copenhagen too, on the importance of gorillas and other seed dispersal agents.

On 13th December, at Forest Day 3, in a panel discussion with scientists working out methods to estimate accurately the losses and gains in forest carbon, one commented that their job was to focus solely on how much carbon was in a forest one year, and whether it had gone up or down the next time it was measured. I pointed out that if you weigh a car, and then remove the cogs from the gearbox and weigh it again, the difference in weight will be tiny but the car will no longer function. Similarly, if we think of animals as the cogs of the forest, uncontrolled commercial hunting may not alter the amount of carbon by much in the short term, but in the medium to long term, instead of a functioning natural forest we are left with a collection of trees whose chances of leaving descendants is greatly reduced.

About 80 per cent of tropical tree species produce seeds that are dispersed by animals. Germination trials in many research sites have shown that more of these seeds germinate and have a higher seedling survival rate if they have passed through an animal’s digestive system and been deposited in a nice package of manure (dung) far from the parent plant. Small seeds may be eaten by birds and small mammals as well as apes and elephants, but the larger the seed, the larger the animal needed to swallow it whole.

Botanists have long noted that tree species with large seeds tend to have denser wood (which means more carbon per cubic metre) than those with small seeds. This is an important argument for protecting large animals. One of the big issues in the debate about forest carbon is the permanence (or not) of the carbon stored in forests. How long will the forest be there? When a tree falls naturally, it decomposes and its carbon returns to the atmosphere unless there are new trees growing in its place. A healthy forest has been found to continue sequestering and storing carbon.

Next time you visit a natural forest, ask yourself, “Who planted the trees?” In the tropics, the chances are high it was an elephant (in Africa and south Asia), a primate or a fruit-eating bird or bat. Think of each tree as the result of an ecological event – an animal once ate a seed – maybe centuries ago – and a few weeks later, a seedling grew from a pile of poo.

It follows then that to ensure permanence in forest carbon, we must ensure these ecological events keep happening. In my view, uncontrolled commercial hunting is just as important a form of forest degradation as any removal of wood or vegetation – it is the removal of an essential component of the forest ecosystem. Ergo, hunting must be controlled just as logging, charcoal making and clearance for agriculture must be controlled if a healthy forest is to endure.

Whilst the outcome from Copenhagen was disappointing, it is surely better to delay and get it right than force it and get a treaty full of flaws. The negotiations continue and a legally binding agreement seems possible this year – this gives every interested person (and I hope that means you, Gentle Reader) more time to make their views known to their governments. It is a long and complex process, but in the end we must ensure the ecosystem services provided by primates and their forest habitats are protected for the future of all life on Earth.”

Ian Redmond

The people of Goma vote for Jiko Stoves

Every day, the residents of Goma come to the Gorilla Organization Resource Centre to cast their online vote for the local Jiko Stoves project, which has been chosen as one of only twelve finalists in The World Challenge 2009.

Local people are backing the UN Year of the Gorilla fuel-efficient stoves project, which is funded by GO in partnership with Aide-Kivu.

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Residents have heard about the project from word-of-mouth, and also from Radio Congolese National television (RTNC), which partners the Gorilla Organization for the weekly edition of the programme ‘Cosmos, Our World’.

Many people have been coming to the Resource Centre in Goma to make use of the internet and vote, and lots more people have been voting elsewhere at other internet points. This is a positive demonstration of how this project is very much appreciated by local people, and how they support the fight to save the gorillas from habitat destruction caused by deforestation of the natural habitat of this close cousin.

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People are voting for JIKO Stoves here: www.theworldchallenge.co.uk/2009-finalists-project04.php

Every voice counts.

Ian Redmond concludes US lecture tour for YoG

Ian Redmond, Year of the Gorilla Ambassador, has concluded his US lecture and fundraising tour. He started out on the West Coast, speaking in San Francisco, San Diego and the LA area and finished with a press event at the German Embassy in Washington DC.Ian's LA Zoo talk, Photo by Laurel Colton

Redmond’s talk is built around the fact that large mammals like gorillas and elephants are keystone species in habitats that provide ecosystem services like fresh water and clean air for the whole planet. Gorillas fertilize and disperse seeds through their dung, which regenerates the forests. Saving the gorillas will help preserve these ecosystems that directly determine human survival.

He also talked about his own experiences working with gorillas in Africa, showing videos of gorillas in the wild and describing his recent fact-finding mission to the gorilla range states.

YoG Cake, LA Zoo. Photo by Tad Motoyama.

According to Redmond, by 2030, only 10 percent of gorilla habitat will remain free of human impacts. Gorilla populations have had some recovery successes, but their numbers continue to drastically decrease. As YoG Ambassador, Redmond travels the world, talking to politicians, NGOs and addressing the public to promote the conservation of gorillas and to gather funds for projects.

We thank all organisations and individuals who helped to make this tour happen, in LA (see below) and elsewhere!!

Los Angeles Zoo event planning committee. Photo by Tad Motoyama.

YoG Ambassador speaks at Cal State University Fullerton – VIDEO

Ian Redmond, a tropical field biologist and conservationist, spoke about the dangers of decreasing ape populations at a presentation hosted by the Department of Anthropology on Thursday. Several hundred students attended to hear Redmond speak about the importance of ape conservation and their impact on the world. Redmond’s presentation was titled, “Save the Gorillas to Save the World.”

Redmond detailed the impact of gorillas, both currently and if they become extinct, on the world. According to Redmond, by 2030, only 10 percent of great ape habitats will remain free of the impacts of human development in Africa. Only 1 percent of orangutans will avoid the same impacts in Southeast Asia. Gorilla populations have had some recovery successes, but their numbers continue to decrease.

Redmond explained that gorillas are essential to the survival of ecosystems in their home countries, as they fertilize and disperse seeds through their dung, which regenerates the forests. [kml_flashembed movie="http://www.youtube.com/v/hGhSQbqKSMo" width="425" height="350" wmode="transparent" /]Protecting gorilla habitats preserves forests, which in turn decreases the amount of carbon dioxide that enters the atmosphere from a reduced number of trees and the harvesting process. Redmond concluded his talk by stating primates are keystone species in habitats that provide ecosystem services for the whole planet. Saving the gorillas will preserve ecosystems that directly determine human survival.

Read the full article here.

For more information on YoG and the projects you can support through it, go to www.yog2009.org.

Ian Redmond – San Francisco Zoo, WCN and a paddle in the Pacific

Sharp-eyed followers of the YoG Blog  will have noticed that there are a few gaps in the record of my State of the Gorilla Safari across Africa… My apologies for keeping you in suspense but I promise they will be filled a.s.a.p.  In the meantime, after a week packed with UK activities – a succesful YoG lecture at Bristol Zoo, writing some articles and email interviews, thanking all who  sponsored my Great Gorilla Run knuckle-walk, a Born Free Conservation Team meeting and some extreme lawn-mowing (our garden is on a steep hill!) – I got up at 3:00am on Friday to get to Heathrow for a 6.35 Lufthansa flight to SF via Frankfurt (an odd route I know, but Lufthansa kindly donated the flights that made the YoG US lecture tour possible).

San Francisco is on the coast, with only a couple of sand dunes to break the wind that sweeps in from the Pacific. Looking West, there’s nothing but waves all the way to Japan!  The SF zoo staff made me feel very welcome and showed me round the gorilla facility,  where they had recently successfully hand-reared a baby – Hasani, rejected by his inexperienced mother  –  for his first few months, then adopted him out to an un-related female with better mothering skills than his own mother, who now seems quite happy with the arrangement and occasionally plays with him. Sitting by the prison-like steel cages of their indoor quarters, I admitted how hard I find it seeing gorillas (and other animals) in captivity.  We discussed whether wild gorillas ever rejected their young — it has never been observed, but not only do wild infants benefit from their own mother’s undivided attention for the first four years or so of their childhood, they then get to watch their mother and other females with their babies and to practice their parenting skills by borrowing babies once they are old enough to venture out of their mother’s protective embrace.

San Francisco Zoo

It was amazing to see how Hasani’s adopted mother cared for him, and kept him clear of the silverback’s displays – he was stressed by my presence so we adjourned to the public viewing area outside, but he knew we were there and strutted across the grass and rocks blowing raspberries, which was his habit when tense I gathered.  The question of the ethics of keeping such intelligent animals in captivity will be debated passionately for many years to come, but the one thing that both sides of this debate recognise is that we don’t have the luxury of that many years to halt the decline in most wild gorilla populations. 

Silverback Western Lowland Gorilla at San Francisco Zoo - Photo Ian Redmond

This is why the YoG focuses on conservation of gorillas in their natural habitat, and why more than 100 zoos around the world are through WAZA holding YoG events to raise funds for priority projects. These projects all aid in the implementation of an  Action Plan under the CMS Gorilla Agreement, a new legally binding treaty between the governments of countries with natural gorilla populations.

The SF Zoo event was a lecture and about 50 gorilla enthusiasts ignored the glorious Autumn sunshine to gather in the education centre to hear about the SoG Safari and how trees that grew from seeds dispersed in gorilla poo (the kids always love this bit!) pump water into the atmosphere and create weather systems that travel round the globe and water the crops here in California

Across town at exactly the same time, YoG Patron Jane Goodall was telling two packed halls (one video-linked to the other) of the importance of chimpanzees as well as gorillas and environmental stewardship in general, at the annual Wildlife Conservation Network.  I caught up with her later that afternoon, perched on a stool in the sunshine with a long queue of fans clutching copies of her new book  and graciously chatting to each in turn while a photographer recorded each encounter, providing an inspirational momento that will likely become a family heirloom for every recipient.  Jane asked about last Saturday’s Great Gorilla Run and  I thanked her for sponsoring me and showed her my healing knuckle-blisters (she hadn’t realised I did most of the 7km on all fours).  

YoG Patron Jane Goodall and YoG ambassador Ian Redmond share a laugh. Picture by Tyler Shaw.

We compared schedules (I am always awed by Jane’s energy in the face of an itinerary that would exhaust someone half her age) and found that our paths are next likely to cross at the UN Climate Convention in Copenhagen, where we will both be speaking up for the Gardeners of the Forest and hoping that the next climate treaty that will follow the Kyoto Protocol (which runs out in 2012) will include the carbon in tropical forests.
 
The WCN also brought many other leading conservationists to SF, including Iain Douglas-Hamilton, fighting to Save the Elephants, Claudio Sillero, fighting to save the Ethiopian wolf, John Hare, fighting to save the Bactrian camel, Isobel Lackman fighting for the orangutans of Borneo, and Gladys Kalema, flying the YoG  flag and seeking support for Conservation through Public Health.  Mingling with this stellar display of heroes of the planet were hundreds of generous donors ranging from those contributing by buying crafts made by communities in conservation hotspots to major donors – all brought together by a determination to engage with the problem rather than hope that someone else will do something.

This was my first experience of WCN but I was beginning to see why so many consider it one of the most inspiring and important events in the conservation calendar.

Today I was surprised to find I had a few hours to  myself, so enjoyed a walk along the dark sands of SF beach paddling in the bracing Pacific surf (in the English sense of wading up to your knees, not in the canoe sense) and watching an assortment of avian waders racing the waves and probing for food with their long beaks.  A friend then took me to Hardly Strictly Bluegrass,  the free festival in Golden Gate Park, where the Chieftons had the crowd dancing to Celtic rhythmns, Earl Scruggs the father of Bluegrass celebrated his 85th birthday on stage in a stomping set, and Marianne Faithful sang to an adoring crowd as the sun sank behind the trees. 

Bluegrass festival, San Francisco

Tens of thousands of people politely crammed into the park – we really are the most gregarious primate on the planet – and a great time was had by all.  I wished that some of these musical icons had known about YoG and told the crowd about it, but maybe next year we can persuade the organisers to incorporate the theme of wildlife for the 2010 UN Year of Biodiversity – afterall, bluegrass stems from communities living close to nature, and what better way to celebrate Nature than a free folk festival in the park?   Watch this space…

Ian Redmond – READY, STEADY, GO – RILLA! The YoG-Jog-Blog

26th September
Knuckle-walking over London’s Tower Bridge in a gorilla suit is quite a novelty, I found today. How to describe it?  Imagine almost as many people in gorilla suits as there are mountain gorillas on the planet (more than twice as many as there are Cross River Gorillas) – no, wait a minute, no need to imagine it – just look up the photos and videos of London’s annual Great Gorilla Run.

Described as the most entertaining charity event on the planet, there was a carnival atmosphere in the City when I arrived towing my gorilla suit in a wheeled bag (yes, I know I should have been collecting donations on the Tube dressed in it en route, but my biggest concern over doing this event was thermo-regulation – whenever I’ve used ape-suits I emerge bright red and drenched with sweat after only a short time, and so I aimed to spend the minimum time possible in faux-fur!  Also, I have a policy of acting only in a species appropriate fashion when dressed as an ape, which is why I felt the need to knuckle-walk rather than run the 7km). 

Ian the gorilla supports YoG

I slipped through the dancing fancy-dress gorillas and quickly attached a Year of the Gorilla banner onto the railings over-looking the crowd, then looked for somewhere to change. No handy telephone box beckoned a la Superman, so behind a marble pillar had to do – it was only minutes to go to the advertised start time.  The inspiration for my outfit was the famous Victorian cartoon of Darwin’s head on an ape’s body, so in addition to the gorilla suit (provided when you sign up to the GGR), I’d acquired a pirate’s beard and a rubber ‘bald head’ like an old-style swimming cap. 

Darwin Ape Cartoon

I’d only tried out the costume the night before, and was disappointed to find that not only did it have an anatomically bizarre rubber chest-piece with breasts and no fur down to the groin, it had no feet.  Everyone else was wearing running shoes, but that didn’t seem right so I opted for bare feet and had brought a bottle of black food-colouring from the cake decoration box in our kitchen to colour my toes. While some of the GO volunteers patted flour on my back (the suit is all black fur, but I fancied being a silverback), I made a mess all over the plaza blacking my feet (it is water soluble, so will soon wash away, honest!) and then I was off, knuckle-walking through the bipedal throng, barely able to see a thing through the tiny eye-slits in the mask.

Jillian Miller, CEO of the Gorilla Organisation, was making a speech with TV presenter Helen Skelton, so I knuckled onto the podium and gave a hug and a chest beat, then the rubber hit the tarmac and we were off.

Quadrupedalism is difficult for humans because of our inter-membral index (the ratio of arm-length to leg length) – other apes have longer arms than legs, but our long legs, so good for striding and running, just make our bum stick up in the air when on all fours. Conscious of this, I was trying to keep my legs crouched, taking my weight on the knuckles and swinging myself to one side or the other in a slightly side-ways gait. This worked OK for a few paces at a time, alternating with straightforward quadrupedal walking, but the limited vision was a problem.  Mostly I was seeing bits of pavement, or looking up sideways to check for traffic.

Ian in costume with other runners

Then out of the corner of the gorilla-mask’s eye, I noticed some impossibly long legs with no fur at all… two shapely models in hot-pants and high-heels were being photographed (for the Sunday Sport, I later found out – a paper with an unending fascination for the female form).  Just as I took one by the hand and dragged her tri-pedally, my rubber bald-hat popped off and the photographer snapped away as these lovely leggy ladies struggled to stretch the rubber over a bearded gorillas head… I wonder if it made it into the paper?

Behaving like a gorilla can be a lot of fun on a sunny Saturday in London.  It wasn’t too long before the other six hundred and twenty or so gorillas had overtaken me, and so for most of the course I had the street to myself.  Hence, many tourists, passersby and one policewoman had their day enlivened by a Darwin-bearded gorilla.  You have to be careful with kids – some can be reduced to tears if you approach (which rather defeats the object), but others you can hoist onto your back for a ride.   Swinging from trees and railings, climbing into ice-cream vans, squeezing between courting couples, joining drinkers at out-door tables – the opportunities for fun are endless, and my only rules are that it must be within the gorilla’s behavioural repertoire and shouldn’t cause offense!

Being the last gorilla meant that as I made my way round the course, I rounded up the stewards as I went.  One witnessed me head-butting a pillar on the embankment and kindly walked with me to warn of obstacles and make sure I didn’t take a wrong turning.  I must confess I didn’t do the whole 7km on all fours, but I did do it all in character, so when I evolved a bipedal stance, it was with the kind of arm-swinging swagger I’ve seen gorillas do.  The most painful part was knuckle-walking back over the Thames on the Millennium Bridge (which has a serrated steel surface like a cheese-grater). It was just over two hours when I crossed the finishing line – I’d missed the prize-giving for the best dressed gorilla, etc.,  but there was still someone there to hang a medal around my neck and hand me a banana, a bottle of water and a ‘Grumpy Gorilla’ bar (a fruity cereal snack by one of the sponsors www.grumpygorilla.co.uk).

I got a friend to photograph me hanging under the YoG banner, then removed the mask and emptied the sweat that had pooled in the rubber gorilla-hand gloves…  apart from the not-so-bald pate,  that was probably the point when I most resembled the Victorian cartoon. Usually I don’t like to be photographed half in a gorilla suit, but I noticed Sam of the Gorilla Organization being interviewed and he invited me to join him.  I explained about the YoG and how the gorilla’s fate is tied to Africa’s tropical forests which are of global importance, and only then found that the film crew were also making a series for BBC World on climate change leading up to the Climate Convention in Copenhagen in December.  They had not yet heard anyone speak of the role of tropical forests, so once again serendipity helped get this important message to a wider audience.

Dedication

What are my lasting impressions?  Well, aching muscles and blisters on my knuckles aside, I have to agree with Bill Oddie (who sadly was unwell and missed this year’s event) that the Great Gorilla Run is the most fun fund-raising event in the calendar.  Regular readers of the YoG Blog may recall that I mentioned my intended participation a few weeks ago, hoping that curious browsers would find their way to my sponsorship page (http://my.artezglobal.com/personalPage.aspx?registrationID=281732&LangPref=en-CA ) where they’d be invited to pledge a ‘Darwin’ (the £10 note bears a portrait of Charles Darwin) but alarmingly, right up until last Monday only one person had done so. Once back in the office after the ‘State of the Gorilla’ Safari, I began firing off emails to all and sundry and to my immense relief, by Saturday the total pledged was £1,100 – just behind the top five fund-raisers.  If you had intended to sponsor me, it is not too late – and one of the projects to benefit will be the fuel-efficient stoves that are listed in the YoG projects list.  Over to you!!   And many thanks in anticipation…

Ian Redmond – The journalists are revolting

Monday 7th September – still in Gabon
I was still holding out some hope for an Equatorial Guinea visa. Omar said he had good contacts with the Ambassador, but all day we were unable to reach Omar to arrange a time to go to the embassy; perhaps he was partied out?

Calling a press conference at short notice can often lead to an empty room.  Thanks to the combined efforts of Michael Adande, the Secretary General, and WCS, we managed two TV channels and a reporter from the Gabon Press Agency, plus the information officer from the Ministry.  We were rather late in starting, it is true, but we wanted Michael Adande to be there from the beginning. We gave a bit of background to the Year of the Gorilla but some of the journalists were clearly unhappy at being kept waiting.  

Once the three speakers were ready, I was introduced and explained why I had originally hoped to hold this press conference at the Baraka Mission in Libreville.  It was there, in 1847, that an American missionary named Thomas Savage visited the resident missionary, Rev. Wilson.  He collected the type specimen of the gorilla which he co-described with Jeffries Wyman, a Harvard anatomist, in the December 1847 edition of the Boston Journal of Natural History. 

Gorilla and elephant skulls. Poaching is the most urgent manmade threat to gorillas in West and Central Africa. Picture Ian Redmond.

I stressed Gabon’s important historic role in this regard, as well as outlining what efforts are being made now to ensure that the home of the first gorilla to be described by science continues as a range state for the species…The Secretary General gave the Government’s strong support and ended with what might become a catch-phrase, “2009 is the International Year of the Gorilla, but in Gabon, every year is the Year of the Gorilla!”

I’d been advised that journalists attending a press event are accustomed to receiving something towards their expenses, and Anne-Marie had picked up some ECOFAC Year of the Gorilla T-shirts, so after the cameras had been packed away we handed each person an envelope with a modest contribution plus a T-shirt.  

A few minutes after we thought they had left to file their stories, the one who had been most put out by being kept waiting came back. The journalists’ revolt involved returning all the envelopes and T-shirts and complaining a lot about being given pocket money like children. Clearly this did not bode well for getting our message out to the people of Gabon, so I asked what the normal rate was.  The answer was about five times what I’d given them, but after some discussion they settled for 3 times the original amount per channel rather than per person. Honour was satisfied and although I felt like I’d just been mugged, the press conference should be broadcast the next day.

That evening I was contacted by a local NGO named PROGRAM.  We agreed to meet over supper and I learned of their project to develop a community-friendly eco-tourism project in Moukalaba Doudou National Park.

Find out more about the YoG-supported conservation projects and other YoG fundraising activities here!

Read Ian’s previous blog here!

Ian Redmond – Mgahinga National Park office and GO Kisoro

August 26th – The 5.30am bus to Kisoro was again more Matatu than Express, so it was mid-morning when we pulled into Kisoro, the nearest town to the DRC border. A throng of motorcycle taxis vied for my custom, and I squeezed past them and chose one on the edge of the pack. Mounting it with my rucksack on my back and placing my camera-bag on the petrol tank, we lurched off to the Mgahinga National Park office.

The man behind the desk seemed a bit bemused when I pulled out a video camera (but there was a YoG poster behind him, so I had to get the shot). He called for a colleague from the back office whose face split into a broad grin when he saw me. We had met eight years before, when I brought the first Discovery Initiatives (a partner of the UNEP Great Apes Survival Partnership (GRASP) ) gorilla safari, and left a copy of Eyewitness Gorilla at the park education centre. He gave a smiling YoG interview and I said goodbye, apologising for the brevity of my visit, and crossed the road to the Kisoro Gorilla Organization Resource Centre.

Wooden scooters are an important means of transportation, Picture Melanie Virtue

The staff couldn’t have been more helpful, letting me send some urgent emails and offering much-needed tea and biscuits. They told me (and the YoG video) of their respective activities and I was pleased to pass on a copy of the BBC Natural World documentary ‘Titus the Gorilla King’ kindly provided by Tigress Films for such purposes. As a final favour, they told me to pay off my motor-cycle taxi and drove me to the Bunagana border in the elderly but much more comfortable GO vehicle.

Charcoal superstore beside road in Uganda. Picture Ian Redmond.

Entering the DRC is often a lengthy procedure, and the border officials couldn’t quite understand why, given my interest in gorillas, I was not going to see the gorillas in the Virunga NP (now that tourism has resumed, that is what most white people cross here for on day trips). I explained about the YoG and my mission, and one officer invited me into his office. Here we go, I thought, I wonder how much this is going to cost me… but once he had me seated, he explained he was concerned about the smuggling of endangered species across the border around here, and was there someone who could help him stop it? Wow! “Mais oui, bien sur!” I said, and promised to pass on his name to various colleagues.

Not so Easy Rider

Outside, the driver of the only four-wheeled vehicle in sight said he’d take me to Goma for $200, but a young motorcyclist with wrap-around shades agreed to do it for $20 plus my last few Uganda shillings and Rwandan Francs. “D’accord” I said, and climbed aboard, again with my rucksack on my back but with my camera-bag wedged between us, there being not enough room on the tank. I immediately noticed an important difference between Ugandan and Congolese motorbike taxis. In Uganda, there is usually a large rack or padded seat behind the pillion passenger – very practical. The Congolese love of style, however, means that every bike I saw between Bunagana and Goma (and Goma is now Motorbike City!) had the same swish design with all lines sweeping up to a small curved handle for the pillion passenger to hold.

Goma is a bustling city in a fertile and densely populated region. Picture Melanie Virtue.

Never mind that everyone in Africa wants to carry more than a vehicle can cope with – looking cool is more important. I struggled to perch the base of my rucksack on the handle and hang on every time my driver accelerated, but had to shift positions every few minutes as muscles complained at the ridiculous workload they were being asked to do – whilst looking cool and waving at incredulous pedestrians, of course, as we zoomed downhill.

YoG Ambassador en route to Goma via motorbike taxi, DRC. Picture Ian Redmond.

The road was end-stage degraded tarmac – bumpy, with loose gravel, pot-holes and – every time we passed another vehicle or (rarely) were overtaken by one – clouds of dust. To save fuel my driver, Jean-de Dieu, would switch off the engine on the downhill stretches and so sometimes we were almost silently coasting downhill – zero carbon motorcycling – which felt fantastic until jolted by the next pot-hole or lump of volcanic rock! I’d forgotten just how far it is from Bunagana to Goma, and after two hours or so, I felt as if I’d had a serious workout.

Goma airport was partly covered under lava in 2002, the plane on the bottom is stuck. Picture Melanie Virtue.

Never mind, I thought, it is good cross-training for the Great Gorilla Run I have signed up to do on 26th September. I’d learned about cross-training during my somewhat inept preparations for my one and only marathon five years ago . The GGR is only 7km, but involved hundreds of people running through London in gorilla suits! Please be among the first to sponsor me a ‘Darwin’ or two (note: a £10 note has a portrait of Charles Darwin on it, and in honour of his bicentenary I propose to run inspired by the Victorian cartoon which showed Darwin’s head on an ape body). I plan to knuckle-walk/run for as long as possible, but if that is too much of a Slog4YoG and my back protests, I’ll evolve a bi-pedal stance and Jog4YoG like the other runners – maybe you can place bets on how many km I manage quadrupedally?

The road took us across the now empty green plains of Kibumba.  In the mid-1990s there had been a refugee city of several hundred thousand people here and I could hardly believe how it had changed since my last visit during that time.   The exodus of so many families fleeing the Rwandan civil war and genocide made this spot an epicentre of human misery in 1994.   I was there a few days later with Dieter Steklis of DFGFI and a BBC film crew, looking for friends and colleagues to help them return home; none of us will ever forget the sight of thousands of blue UNHCR canvas shelters in pouring rain, each one housing a family. 

Kibumba, Rwandan refugee camp (population c.250,000), 15km north of Goma, DRCongo (then Zaire), near Parc National des Virungas, August 1994. Picture Ian Redmond.

On two subsequent visits to bring clothing bundles from kind donors, I was amazed by how industrious people had used jagged volcanic rocks to build semi-permanent homes, weddings were taking place, babies being born – communities making the best of a terrible situation until their repatriation.   Now, the land has been reclaimed by ICCN for the Virunga World Heritage Site, and there is little sign of the refugee city – but there is hardly a tree standing either!   It will take decades for the forest to re-grow, but it is already green; vegetation here is quick to colonise newly cooled lava flows, so there are lots of pioneer plant species to take root in the cleared ground.

Kibumba refugee camp locality in 2005, being reclaimed by the forest. Photo Melanie Virtue.

Clinging on with my left hand, I fumbled my video camera out of my jacket pocket and tried to grab a few images to compare with my 1994 photos; unfortunately the jarring was so extreme at this point the camera kept turning itself off to protect the hard-drive (where’s my trusty OM1 when I need it?).

No MOP, no flight

We finally pulled up at the entrance to Goma Airport, guarded by men in blue helmets behind sandbags. Easing my wobbly legs off the bike I paid Jean de Dieu, picked up my kit and tried to walk normally into the busy MONUC departure area. There was a flight to Kinshasa scheduled for 1500 hours and it seemed as though my timing was perfect, except I soon learned I couldn’t board without a MOP, whatever that stands for, and none of the military check-in staff with clip-boards had my name on their list. People were complaining about the flight being over-booked, and I saw army top brass being turned away, so I realised I wasn’t going to Kinshasa that day.

Eventually I was directed to an office behind rolls of razor-wire where a delightful young lady called, appropriately, Santa, found the email from UNEP-CMS, who together with UNEP/GRASP and WAZA is behind the whole Year of the Gorilla campaign, with my flight request, called up someone on high and smiled saying, “You are on the flight first thing tomorrow morning.” Who says that Santa only gives gifts at Christmas?

Goma airport, airplane trapped by lava, Picture Melanie Virtue.

She printed out my MOP (effectively a MONUC ticket) and I registered it in another office at the airport. I called Tuver (from Gorilla Org.) and he kindly agreed to drive out to the airport and bring me into town (another motorbike ride – aagh!). It was frustrating to lose half a day but pleasant, while waiting for Tuver, to sit quietly on a lump of volcanic rock by the side of the road watching other people bouncing along on motorbikes.

Several people helpfully told me how filthy my face was from the dusty ride and two separate immigration officials just had to come over to check my papers – it being almost unheard of for a lone mzungu to sit on a rock beside the road. The second was more curious than officious, and it turned out he knew many of the conservationists in town, which is how I ended up having supper with Urbain Ngobobo, who works for the Frankfurt Zoological Society project, assisting ICCN in training park guards and trying to control the illegal charcoal trade.

Mount Nyiragongo towers over Goma, Picture Melanie Virtue.

All the way to Goma I’d been passing vehicles – from the ingenious, home-made wooden scooters pushed by boys to huge trucks piled with sacks and topped by passengers – all bringing fuel for the city’s cooking fires. Some of it may be legal, but much of it is illegal and destroying the forests of the Virunga National Park. The trade is estimated to be worth $30 million per year, and unsurprisingly, the organised crime ring behind it is resisting with lethal force attempts to enforce the law– even killing several gorillas in 2007 . To find out more about a project aiming to tackle the threats of charcoal trade and deforestation, click here.

Read Ian’s previous post here!