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Wednesday, 1 February 2012

Encounters with Mountain Gorillas in Rwanda

Rwanda is a country in central and eastern Africa with a population of approximately 11.4 million (2011). Rwanda is located a few degrees south of the Equator, and is bordered by Uganda, Tanzania, Burundi and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. All of Rwanda is at high elevation, with a geography dominated by mountains in the west, hence being called The Land of a Thousand Hills, savanna in the east, and numerous lakes throughout the country. The climate is temperate, with two rainy seasons and two dry seasons every year.

The population is young and predominantly rural, with a density among the highest in Africa. Rwandans form three groups: the Hutu, Tutsi, and Twa. These groups share a common culture and language and are classified as social groups rather than tribes. Christianity is the largest religion in the country, and the principal language is Kinyarwanda, spoken by most Rwandans. Rwanda follows a presidential
system of government. The President is Paul Kagame of the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF).

This small and beautiful country makes one really think of its population efforts to move forward just 17 years after the Genocide, which took place in 1994. Upon arrival in Kigali, the country´s capital, when driving through the streets, one has the impression that “Rwanda works”: clean streets and conversations of a corruption-free country where the population is well informed about the benefits of tourism and everyone seems to push for common well-being goals.

We would like to feature the different tourist attractions of Rwanda along this year, starting with the best known one: the moving visit to the awesome Mountain Gorillas, that concentrate in the Parc National des Volcans. Because when visiting the Land of a Thousand Hills, one should not miss out on the magnificent opportunity to visit Rwanda's Parc National des Volcans (PNV) / Volcanoes National Park, consisting of 125 Km2 of mountain forest and home to the six Virunga Volcanoes and the world famous mountain gorillas. Nothing can prepare one for the impact of encountering a fully-grown silverback gorilla, up to three times the size of an average man, yet remarkably peaceable and tolerant of human visitors.

Parc National des Volcans is managed and protected by the Rwandan Office for Tourism and National Parks (ORTPN). Access begins in the lively town of Musanze, situated at the base of the entrance of the park. Musanze has long been the base point for gorilla visits and entertains a stunning backdrop of Karisimbi, Bisoke, Mikeno, Sabyinyo, Mgahinga and Muhabura volcanoes. Ranging from 2,400 - 4,507 metres in altitude, Parc National des Volcans consists of 6 extinct volcanic peaks including Muhavura, Mt Gahinga, Karisimbi, Visoke, Mikeno Aand Sabyinyo; these dramatic peaks form the backdrop to your gorillas tracking safaris as you track some of the last remaining mountain gorillas in the verdant foothills.

The Volcanoes National Park (PNV) is renowned for historically being the home to the renowned scientist, Dian Fossey. This is where pioneering studies were undertaken to evaluate and study the behavior of mountain gorillas in their natural habitat; prior to this people had literally thought that they were angry and aggressive wild beasts but it was through Fossey's work that we now understand the peace and tranquility that envelopes mountain gorillas lives. It is largely thanks to Fossey that we still have gorillas in our world today and for this reason, and many others, we should continue to protect them. The tracking starts very early morning, leaving the lodge where clients spent the night and driving to the Park´s Head Quarters to be grouped with other clients and be assigned a family to visit after receiving a comprehensive briefing from the Park wardens and guides. After the briefing, the visitors are transferred by their driver/guide again to the start of the trail that shall lead to the family they have been assigned to visit, where they will hike though the lushly forested slopes of the mountains form an appropriately dramatic natural setting for what is arguably world: gorilla tracking. The exhilarating climb to the gorilla’s natural habitat of shady bamboo forest offers fantastic views in all directions, before the trackers are immersed in the mysterious intimacy of the rainforest, alive with the calls of colourful birds and the chattering of rare golden monkey.

Rwanda's famed mountain gorillas, trapped for ten years in a war zone, have managed to survive, taking a small step back from the brink of extinction: over the past two decades, Rwanda's gorilla population has increased by a remarkable 10% despite a horrific human genocide, incursions into the park by armed rebels, human-spread disease, occasional poaching, government upheaval and constant pressure from land-starved peasants, who hoe their potatoes less than an hour's easy walk from the gorillas' sanctuary. Today, the world's most endangered gorillas slip through the misty rainforest below Rwanda's towering Virunga volcanoes and prospects for their survival are looking up as the war-torn region moves toward a fragile peace. "Protecting them is still a big challenge. It's a delicate situation," said Anecto Kyitare, a Rwandan naturalist who monitors the apes several times a week for the Nairobi based International Gorilla Conservation Program. "But after everything that's happened, the park and the gorillas are still here. I think the situation has improved a lot." The Government has made an awesome education work to the communities not only by directly assigning % of the tourism income to the well-being of the rural communities (water wells and health dispensaries) but by explaining the same and how tourism may be vital for the economic development of Rwanda and the Rwandans.

Altogether about 800 of the woolly black gorillas, first described by a German explorer a century ago and made famous by their murdered protector, American primatologist Dian Fossey, survive in two small areas of cool mountain forest in Uganda and on the Rwanda-Congo border. On a continent where great apes are disappearing with dismaying speed to hunting and habitat loss, they are the rarest cousins in the family. The mountain gorilla (Gorilla beringei beringei) is one of the two most endangered apes in the world (with the Cross River Gorilla, Gorilla gorilla diehli). There are only approximately 800 mountain gorillas alive today, and all of them are found in the wild. They only exist in two small, protected afromontane forest patches in northwest Rwanda, southwest Uganda and eastern Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC).

The two forest patches in which mountain gorillas are found effectively divide the roughly 800 into two distinct populations. One population, in Uganda, is found in the Bwindi Impenetrable National Park (BINP), covering about 330 km2. The other population inhabits the Virunga Volcano Region, which sits across the international borders of Rwanda, Uganda and DRC. The Virunga Volcano Region (VVR) is ecologically homogenous, but separated into three national parks, in three countries: Mgahinga Gorilla National Park in Uganda, Volcano National Park in Rwanda and Virunga National Park in the Democratic Republic of Congo, covering an approximate total area of 300 km2 The mountain gorillas live in stable family groups with a dominant silverback male, his harem of females, and their offspring. The silverback male is usually the father of the offspring, although the younger males will take an opportunity to mate with a female if the silverback is not looking. They are not ferocious creatures but are, on the contrary, very peaceful. They only become aggressive if one of their group is perceived to be threatened.

Aside from tracking mountain gorillas there are also a variety of other activities possible in Parc National des Volcans including tracking the golden monkeys, climbing one of the Virunga Volcanoes or visiting the remains of the Dian Fossey Research Centre, her grave and the graves of the gorillas with which she worked with.

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