I crawled like a leopard after the still clenched fist ahead of me and received the signal to rise slowly to my knees. As I began to lift myself up, a copper collared snake slithered across my splayed hands. I stifled a scream by sinking my teeth into the quilted collar of my jacket.
At the prospect of being educated by African game rangers in a tropical rain forest, with the added promise of an experience I would find hard to forget, I embarked on a gorilla trek to the Democratic Republic of Congo.
Armed with a camera and several packs of cigarettes, with which to ease over any road block issues, I headed north out of Goma (east DRC), towards one of the last remaining mountain gorilla sanctuaries in the world.
Nearing the Virunga National Park, the road narrowed and twisted through forests punctuated with bougainvillea flowers, adding dashes of pink, orange and fuchsia.
Twenty minutes later I arrived at what I perceived to be the entrance to Virunga National Park. A guide promptly frog marched me to the administration hut. Here I produced my pass and paid the US$250 fee for the gorilla hike before joining a small excited party of people who had already been processed. We received a briefing about where we were going and the procedures we needed to follow. A short while later a Goliath, ebony skinned ranger, aptly named Maximus, appeared. His silent grinning sidekick, Rambo, shepparded us into single file and then fell to the back of the line. Maximus led the way, marching us for several hours, at a frightening pace, up the mist enveloped mountain.
Gorilla numbers have drastically diminished as a result of war and lawlessness in game parks in the
eastern DRC. It is only in recent years that forest rangers have been allowed to resume work in parts of the reserve and begin the odious task of assessing the state of the animal population.
The World Wildlife Fund estimates that approximately 700 mountain gorillas live in central Africa, of which Virunga National Park holds 380. The Virunga gorillas' entire world consists of 285 square miles of mountainous rain forest, which straddles the border between the Democratic Republic of Congo, Uganda and Rwanda.
Mountain gorillas are gentle, affectionate giants that are one of the most endangered animals in the world and are nearing extinction through loss of habitat and poaching.
In our assent, I quizzed Maximus about his experiences.
"No one who has ever looked a gorilla in the eyes can come away unmoved," he said.
Maximus spoke of his work and told that ranger patrols had to caution off refugees as the national parks and forest reserves were good places to retreat from opposition forces and also made for good poaching grounds.
"But these are the least of our problems," he scowled in reflection. "We also need to guard against militia-men, the other kind of guerrillas. Even though the war is over, they still come."
Park rangers perform a difficult, dangerous and thankless task for which they rarely receive remuneration or recognition; and those rangers who stumble upon guerrillas while doing their job have, historically, paid with their lives.
Excluding those killed during the civil war, around 80 game rangers have been murdered in the DRC whilst on patrol.
"Six of my colleagues were killed here in Virunga in 1997." Maximus concluded, waving a hand in the general direction of east Africa, to emphasize the point. He felt certain the risk of meeting up with guerrillas was likely to continue for some time still.
The scenery was spectacular "“ after the initial grassland we headed into the dense jungle with Maximus constantly hacking clear a path with his machete. The deeper we ventured, the darker and muddier the jungle became.
During a short break the rangers explained that they were tracking the gorillas by way of their dung which, they claimed, was not too arduous a task, bearing in mind an average adult gorilla consumes around 30kg of vegetation daily. Rambo declared these good-natured vegetarians lived in small cohesive family groups and did not travel more than two or three miles in a day.
A few hours later, much further up the mountain, I became aware of unfamiliar animal sounds filtering through the blackness of the surrounding jungle. All at once, the jungle fell silent. Maximus raised his muscular forearm and made a fist resembling a rugby ball, signaling us to halt. He crouched and we followed suit. He began walking on his haunches towards a thicket, and we did likewise. He signalled for us to drop flat, which we did, me into ankle deep mud the colour of dark chocolate.
A few moments later his still clenched fist signalled for us to rise. Scraping the mud off my face I raised myself to my elbows and into a cloud of stinging insects. They burrowed into my ears, nostrils and eyes and when I blinked I could feel their legs squirming and tearing down my cheeks. Vermin or bug shrieking was forbidden, so under the circumstances, I did the best I could and wedged a tissue up each nostril and did the same to my ears. It later dawned on me that this was in fact, an ingenious idea as the lightly aloe-oiled tissue paper warded off the insects.
The ground mist was thick and the jungle's density allowed only a few shafts of light to filter through the canopy above, but it was enough to make out the gleaming white teeth of Maximus grinning at me, a few feet away. He stifled a chuckle with difficulty and whispered hoarsely. "Missy, you cannot see my gorillas looking like this. You will frighten the children. They will flee when they spy a wide-eyed, muddy, wild-haired female form rising up out of the undergrowth, with wads of tissue paper coming out of her nose and ears."
We moved forward slowly and soon we were again signalled to stop and fan out. Maximus looked back at our party and indicated to a bush ahead which was being violently shaken.
Ten hours of air travel, a four hour hike up one of the highest mountains in Africa and a brief encounter with a snake, afforded me my first glimpse of the legendary mountain gorillas of central Africa.
In this group there were perhaps ten gorillas, with one dominant, unfeasibly large silver back male.
I sat on a tree trunk near a female gorilla that was nursing an infant. Beside her sat another gorilla grooming a youngster. She used her fingers and teeth to comb through junior's hair. Junior was entranced.
Rambo appeared beside me and quietly explained how a gorilla builds itself a nest for sleeping. A young gorilla shares its mother’s nest until it reaches the age of about three. Nest-building only takes a few minutes as the gorilla just sits on a main branch and bends smaller branches to form a small platform.
I had been warned not to approach the gorillas but instead wait and see if they come to me, which a few of the younger ones did when they brushed by me. One put her hand on my forearm, lifting it to inspect a scar on my arm. Whilst I was being inspected, a male gorilla, unfamiliar to the group, appeared. We witnessed a frightening territorial display when the resident male became excited. He stood to his full height and began beating his chest and hooting. He inched toward the stranger, growling and gnashing his teeth. Soon the stranger disappeared into the jungle.
The hour we were permitted with the giant apes passed in what felt like minutes. Rambo rounded us up and led the way out. I trailed behind with Maximus and stole a few final glimpses, the last of which was of an infant clambering up the chest of a silver back, who patiently indulged the young one without protest.
Maximus followed my gaze. "Every tourist dollar buys our gorillas another day," he said. Then added "… but this is not enough. We need more than what money can buy. To be effective, our game rangers need motivation, equipment, training, and discipline. At this time, our government has commitments elsewhere and soon, the conservation effort will collapse. We find ourselves up against well-equipped and well-trained bandits and unless we solve these issues now mankind will wipe the gorillas out, in less than a hundred years after they were first discovered."
The underrated and all too often misconstrued contribution of the African game ranger is pivotal in the struggle to save the continent's remaining wildlife. This was made all the more evident when I was privileged to witness a female gorilla nursing her infant.
The rangers who patrol the Virunga National Park, ensuring the safety of the world’s few remaining mountain gorilla, are dedicated conservationists who understand the forest and the gorillas better than most. They prize their jobs as guardians of such a rare world heritage and regularly risk their lives to protect it.
Congo's Conservation Crisis:
Mountain gorillas are found in the highest reaches of the Virunga National Park, who also once boasted a population of some 35,000 hippos and now number less than 900. The lowland gorilla have depleted too from an estimated 8,000 to around 1,000 in under than three years.
World Wildlife Fund, September 2005 – Hippos are being killed by soldiers and local militia, as well as local poachers. They can be bought for around US$50 dollars, and hippo canine teeth often end up as part of the illegal ivory trade. This latest survey and exhaustive count of hippos in Virunga, carried out last month by the Congolese Institute for the Conservation of Nature (ICCN), the EU, and WWF, shows that only 887 individuals remain, down from 1,309 two years ago.
These statistics grounded all the romantic notions I had conjured up of dark Africa and replaced them with the stark reality I faced when sitting across from Jobogo Mirindi, the Chief Warden for the Virunga National Park.
There is little romance in the challenges his Rangers face daily. Armed militia-men stealthily poach the game on this World Heritage site and should a Ranger patrol happen upon the poachers, it turns into armed conflict which the rangers seldom win, due to lack of munitions.
The Democratic Republic of Congo, located in equatorial central Africa was called Zaire until 1997 and formerly known as the Belgian Congo, is the continent’s third-largest country, three times the size of Texas. It shares borders with nine other countries.
In the past 40 years it has been overrun by various dictators, armies and militias. A civil war was sparked off in 1994 by a massive inflow of refugees following political unrest in neighbouring Rwanda and Burundi.
The Congolese government of former president Mobutu Sese Seko was toppled by rebel leader Laurent Kabila in 1997, who was subsequently assassinated and replaced by his son, Joseph Kabila in 2001. At the height of the civil war, nine African countries and at least three rebel groups were part of a latter day scramble for the Congo's rich resources. During which time (the UN estimates) four million plus people died from massacre, famine and disease "“ this is equivalent to a Tsunami every six months.
"Rebels don't consider Park Rangers as neutral. They think that as we work for the Government we must support everything the Government stands for. Therefore Bang! You're dead," he said, blowing at the end of two extended fingers and then holstering them in his belt.
When recollecting events from the past, Mirindi's broad shoulders stiffened. Through a clenched jaw he managed, "In the past ten years 65% of my Rangers have been killed by militia-men".
His chiseled features hardened, "… but to commemorate my men", Mirindi continued, "… we do things the African way. Each man that was lost in the line of duty is remembered every day because we give a fallen comrade's name to a mountain gorilla. That way, they live on in memory and their spirits live on to care for our animals."
Land invasions and intense poaching has challenged the Park authorities to the limit.
"Large settlements have established themselves within this Park, which is largely responsible for the de-forestation happening all around us," said Mirindi, shaking his head in disbelief. "They cut down trees for fuel and create grazing land for their large herbs of cattle." The resultant effect being vast numbers of displaced game; and those animals not ousted are caught in poaching snares.
NASA satellite imagery helps scientists in providing information on changes in the Virunga Conservation Area which covers the Virunga National Park in the DRC. The Virunga conservation area offers habitat to 380 of the world’s 700 remaining mountain gorillas. (The other 320 gorillas reside in the nearby Bwindi Impenetrable National Park in Uganda).
Satellite imagery allows park managers to update park property boundaries, map forest habitat, and look at encroachment of the park by comparing images from two different dates. The monitoring system that combines NASA satellite imagery with aerial flight and field surveys is relayed to and coordinated with local park Rangers on the ground.
"Go see Lake Edward!" Mirindi demanded, gesticulating wildly in the general direction of east Africa. "Until recently we protected the breeding sites of the fish on Lake Edward. The fishermen were over-harvesting the lake, using illegal nets. Then the military validated the fisherman's actions, leaving us without power to protect our heritage."
Mirindi's granite eyes smoldered when we spoke of nature conservation during the war.
"Conservation under political crisis is very difficult. One politician's election campaign actively encouraged the Park's destruction. This was purely to gain the voters confidence. The laws pertaining to wildlife paled into insignificance during the war. Now that the war is over they are still mostly ignored."
"Our success, during one of the bloodiest civil wars in history is fully attributable to them men that serve and protect Virunga. My men are fearless and passionate about their work. They accept there are risks involved but have little time to dwell on its dangers as we have more than 3,000 square miles of Virunga to tend to," Mirindi concluded.
Virunga Rangers monitor far-flung areas in need of protection but poverty, remoteness, lack of government involvement and uncertainty over the best ways to focus limited resources hinder their efforts.
The most important remaining asset that conservation in the DRC has is the existing reservoir of knowledge and expertise in wildlife management possessed by many Rangers throughout the continent. The question is how to best use this expertise to the greatest advantage in conserving a World Heritage.
"¢ Virunga National Park, of Diane Fossey fame, designated a World Heritage in 1979, covers an area of some 809,000 ha, and comprises of diverse habitats, ranging from swamps and steppes to snowfields, from lava plains to savannahs on the slopes of volcanoes.
"¢ It is one of the oldest nature reserves in the world and includes part of Lake Edward, the Semliki River valley, parts of the Rwindi, Ishasha and Rutshuru valleys south of the lake, the Virunga area within the DR Congo, and part of the Ruwenzori range.
"¢ Lake Edward belongs to the Nile river system and Lake Kivu to the Congo Basin river system.
"¢ Features include hot springs in the Rwindi plains and the Virunga Massif volcanoes, some such as Nyamulagira and Nyiragongo are still active.
"¢ The areas of lowest and highest rainfall in the DR Congo are in Virunga National Park – under 75km apart and ranging from 500mm at Lake Edward to over 3,000mm on the west slopes of Mt Ruwenzori, the summit of which is permanently snow covered.
"¢ The considerable altitudinal range results in marked climatic variations which affect the overall biological and geographical diversity of habitats.
"¢ Habitat types include: lakes at various altitudes, marshy deltas and peat bogs, savannas and lava plains, low altitude equatorial forest, high altitude glaciers, and snow fields.
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Tour operator: www.gocongo.com
Geographic's: The DR Congo is the third-largest country in Africa and is bordered to the north by the Central African Republic and Sudan, to the east by Uganda, Rwanda, Burundi and Tanzania, to the south by Zambia and Angola, and to the west by the Republic of Congo and the Angolan enclave, Cabinda. The country has a 17 mile coastline, at the outlet of the Congo River, which flows into the Atlantic. The country straddles the Equator and has widely differing geographical features, including mountain ranges in the north and west, a vast central plain through which the Congo River flows, and the volcanoes and lakes of the Kivu region. The river has given rise to extensive tropical rainforests on the western border with the Republic of Congo.
Recent History: Though DR Congo is slowly recovering after civil war, outside of Kinshasa, travel is hazardous and difficult and many regions are highly insecure, particularly in the east and north of the country. According to the UN more than 5-million people have died either through diseases, malnutrition or amidst clashes between government troops, armed militia and tribal groups.
Visas: All visitors, except transit passengers continuing their journey on the next connecting flight, need a visa, a passport with three months validity left on it and a return ticket. If flying into Kinshasa it is essential to have a visa before departure.
Vaccinations: A yellow fever vaccination certificate is required by everyone. Immunization against typhoid is recommended as is a vaccination against poliomyelitis. Malaria is also a risk. Be sure to carry proof of your vaccinations on your person as airport officials could refuse you entry.
Air: Numerous international airlines, mainly African and European, serve the DR Congo.
International airports: Kinshasa (N'Djili) is 15 miles east of the city. Buses run to and from the city (few are roadworthy). Taxis are available. Airport facilities include 24-hour bank/bureau de change, post office, restaurant and car hire (Avis, Budget, Europcar, Hertz and Inter-Rent), but these services may well be erratic and unreliable.