Tracking Gorillas

About the Author

Paul Thomson worked with African Wildlife Foundation in Nairobi for a year before moving to Washington D.C. Paul has worked at the Madrid Aquarium and at the Marine Mammal Center in the Marin Headlands outside San Francisco. He was born in New Zealand but grew up in the San Francisco Bay Area. Paul… More

In my next life I'm going to be a gorilla tracker.

Yesterday, I joined a group of trackers as they entered Volcanoes National Park in Rwanda to locate and monitor a group of mountain gorillas. The trip began at sunrise. I picked up Damascene Hakizimana, a monitoring assistant with ORTPN, and drove from park headquarters through farmland to the edge of the forest. And when I say edge, I mean edge. The forest comes to an abrupt halt at a stone wall meant to keep buffalo in the park and out of peoples' crops.

Volcanoes National Park edge with Sabyinyo in the distance

The line between the park's forest and farmland is striking, marked by the buffalo wall. Beyond, Sabyinyo disappears into the mist.

At 7:10 am we crossed the wall and met three more trackers, the team leader Gabriel Safari, and four armed guards (for unruly buffaloes I was told). Short introductions were made and then we headed up a steep, slippery slope through bamboo, thistles, wild celery, and nettles.

By 7:30 Gabriel stopped and whispered "they are here." We had reached the gorillas. So much for the anticipated two-hour, grueling climb.

Dian Fossey was right; we heard and smelled the gorillas before we saw them. A musty odor was strong in the air, and bamboo cracked loudly as the gorillas climbed down from their nests, feeding along the way.

I've always had a hard time wrapping my head around the notion of gorillas sitting in nests up in bamboo (an adult female can weigh 215 lbs). But they climb through the bamboo with ease. Bamboo grows so tightly that it forms platforms that can easily support an adult gorilla - or three humans. We climbed up to inspect one of the nests. The shallow bowl of bamboo and leaves had tiny turds in it, and Damascene was excited to tell me that these meant the nest hosted a mother and an infant.

An adult female, Akago, feeds in the early morning sun.

After feeding for fifteen minutes, the silverback, Agashya, got up and wandered off into the vegetation, his group members falling in line behind him. We took off after them, winding through tunnels in the growth, sometimes crawling under fallen logs on hands and knees.

We caught up with them in a space where the forest floor was clear and the bamboo formed a canopy overhead. Soon we were surrounded by gorillas. Gorillas above us in the bamboo, little ones rolling around on the ground, others happily watching us watch them.

An adult female dropped in like a paratrooper from somewhere above, causing a torrential rain of leaves and debris. Although there was plenty of room where we were, she brushed right by me, making it clear that I was in her way. “This is Rugendo,” Damascene tells me. "When Agashya [the silverback] is away from the group, she’s in charge. She’s a tough one,” he grins. She then posed proudly in the middle of the space in front of us.

Rugendo, the "tough one," posed for us.

The munching sound made when eating bamboo stalks is both loud and surprisingly pleasing to hear. It’s like a kid eating celery but on a, well, gorilla scale. My chef brother would say “I bet that bamboo has good mouth-feel.” A gorilla snaps a stalk of bamboo off, shucks the outer husk to reveal the bright green, wet inner stalk. Snap, shuck, munch. Repeat.

There are seven groups of mountain gorillas that have been habituated for tourism in Rwanda. We were with Group 13, named after the number of gorillas in the group when it was first habituated. Currently there are 23 gorillas in the group: 11 females, 9 infants, 1 juvenile, 1 subadult, and 1 silverback. I loved how the trackers referred to him as “the chief”.

Two infants from this group will be named at Kwita Izina, the Gorilla Naming Ceremony next week. Damascene told me that the trackers have picked three possible names for each infant (he wouldn’t reveal the names). At the ceremony, one of the special guests will pick one of the names, and Group 13 will have two newly named infants added to its family tree.

I'll discuss some of the monitoring techniques the trackers use to collect data in another post. After Gabriel and Damascene accounted for all 23 gorillas, we left them to their antics, hiked back down the slope, over the wall, and out of the woods.

I couldn't believe how lucky I am to have this opportunity. We sat on some rocks for a rest - each of us unable to stop smiling after such an encounter. It was evident that these men who see gorillas every day are still affected by them.

Even the guy with the gun said, "I love my job."

With the gorilla trackers

Pascal, Alfonse, Damascene, me, Jean-Pierre.