Spend Time with the Mountain Gorillas
Watch these rare creatures eat, play and interact
on treks in Rwanda and Uganda
By Alexis Loyd
The Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund International
The journey is worth it, according to Tara Stoinski, vice president and chief scientific officer of the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund International, headquartered in Atlanta. Established by famed primatologist Dian Fossey, who spent 18 years living among the mountain gorillas, the nonprofit organization works to protect the subspecies and their habitat, a region straddling segments of Uganda, Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC).
Gorilla treks provide a rare, up-close view of the primates' familial interactions, Stoinski says. Of the four kinds of great apes (gorillas, orangutans, chimpanzees and bonobos), gorillas are the only ones that live in cohesive social groups. Mountain gorilla troops -- which commonly consist of adult males (called silverbacks due to the pearly gray fur across their backs), adult females, juveniles and infants -- depend on and look out for each other.
"The family is so important in our society, and it's the same way with the gorillas," says Stoinski.
Based at the Karisoke Research Center in Rwanda, the Fossey field staff, comprised of nearly 70 individuals, tracks more than 120 mountain gorillas living amid the peaks of Volcanoes National Park, along the Rwanda-DRC border. Year-round, scientists at the center collect data about the location, movements and daily behavior of the mountain gorillas.
Human poverty is the primary threat to the survival of the gorillas, which live in population-dense countries where residents have limited access to basic necessities including food, clean water and health care. Land surrounding gorilla territory is converted to farming pastures, encroaching on the animals' living space. When hunting for food, locals set traps intended for smaller game, such as antelope, and unintentionally snare primates, which often are maimed or die of infected wounds.
Political unrest and traders smuggling baby gorillas out of the country pose yet other dangers for both mountain gorillas and the Grauer's gorilla, a subspecies that the Fossey fund protects in the DRC.
"Just as we're learning more and more about our evolutionary history and what we share with our closest relatives, they're disappearing off the planet," says Stoinski, who has a doctorate in psychology. An expert in primate cognition, social behavior and reproductive strategies, she says that we are discovering that long-lived, intelligent primates like the mountain gorilla have diverse cultures, as humans do. Much in the same way that people participate in distinct traditions depending on where they live or how they were raised, apes also display a variety of socially transmitted behaviors.
Wayfarers who make the trip to Rwanda can observe how the gorillas' family lives are reminiscent of our own, says Stoinski. Parallels are particularly clear when watching mountain gorilla mothers with their offspring; patient and caring gorilla moms comfort their young when they are scared and coach them through temper tantrums, much like human mothers.
"When I had both of my children, I actually took pictures of gorilla moms to the hospital with me," she says. "Because I said to myself, If I can be half the mom that a gorilla is, I will be a great mom.'"
Stoinski has participated in a variety of safaris but says that mountain gorilla excursions are much more intimate experiences. Rather than riding in open-air vehicles, sometimes in larger groups, to spy creatures from afar, travelers hike to spots within mere feet of mountain gorillas for prime views. Unlike western populations of primates that constantly face the threat of hunting, some groups of eastern gorillas are less afraid of people due to decades of being observed. The trackers and staff at Karisoke work to gradually acclimate a family before tourists are taken to visit them.
"You know that you're there because they've accepted you," Stoinski says. "It's just a very different way to experience wildlife than what most people who go on safari are used to."
Travelers on a trek might spot gorillas resting or grooming each other, though Stoinski says there is one behavior onlookers will almost certainly witness: eating. Mountain gorillas are the world's largest primates -- with males weighing in at about 400 pounds and females around 200 -- and they are vegetarians. "When you just think about how much salad you would need to eat to be a 400-pound male ... you can imagine," Stoinski says.
Or you might catch some primate playtime. A favorite game for young gorillas is to shimmy to the top of a thin tree or bamboo shaft and let it bend over until they drop down to the ground. "They have what's called a play face,'" she says of the juveniles, "where they open their mouths and they actually laugh."
On rare occasions, trekkers view separate groups interacting with each other. A high density of gorillas living in the park lends itself to intergroup encounters, which often are accompanied by physical displays. When two gorilla groups come in contact, individuals in each troop -- particularly males -- often use behaviors such as chest-beating, hooting, hitting the ground and charging to intimidate other males and show off for the females, both those in their group and in the opposing troop. During these interactions, females choose which dominant male they want to be with, though scientists still are studying what factors influence the decision-making process.
The male's primary focus is to protect the family and to attract females, though silverbacks pitch in with other duties, too.
"Males will often do what we call baby-sitting," says Stoinski. On occasion, a female will deposit her baby near a male so that she can feed. The male will keep an eye out and even play with the children while mom is busy. "They are extremely tolerant," says Stoinski.
With the help of decades of preservation efforts by the Fossey fund and park authorities, mountain gorillas are the only great ape population that has increased in recent years. The last census in the Virunga Mountains shows their numbers have grown from about 260 in Dian Fossey's time to roughly 480 individuals in 2010. A survey of the neighboring population of gorillas in Bwindi Impenetrable National Park in Uganda showed an increase from 302 in 2006 to 400 in 2011.
And the subspecies continues to grow: This year, 16 infants were celebrated at the 10th annual Kwita Izina naming ceremony in Rwanda. At the festival, designed to promote conservation, monikers chosen by trackers and park staff are revealed for gorillas born in Volcanoes National Park during the past year.
Tourism is a major income generator for the country of Rwanda and vital to the protection and survival of its mountain gorillas. Funds from the sale of gorilla-viewing permits and park entrance fees are an essential support for conservation programs. While emphasizing that visitors must adhere to strict guidelines designed to minimize negative impact from humans, Stoinski encourages travelers to venture to Africa to see the mountain gorillas in person.
And, while there, "spend some time not looking at them through a lens," she advises. The visitors' time with the gorillas is limited, typically to about an hour, and most participants are so intent on capturing the majestic creatures in photos that they miss the bigger picture occurring within the family group.
"I always try and recommend that, for at least a little part of the time, people put their cameras down and just really watch them and watch what they do," says Stoinski.
Other inspiring activities in Rwanda include visiting the golden monkeys, the only other primates to share the habitat. Groups of these beautiful animals are large and easy to spot, says Stoinski, as they tend to live on the edge of the forest.
Or pay homage to the foundation's beginnings and its dedicated creator, Dian Fossey, at her grave site. "It's a beautiful hike through the forest, and it's through prime gorilla habitat," says Stoinski. "A lot of times you can hear chest-beating off in the distance from groups, or you can see knuckle prints as you walk up the path."
Learn more about the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund International and ways to help protect mountain gorillas at www.GorillaFund.org.
Visiting the Gorillas
Vacations To Go is a corporate sponsor of the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund International. The Houston-based, full-service travel agency is the world's largest seller of oceangoing cruises and river cruises. It also offers tropical resort stays, escorted tours and safaris in eastern and southern Africa, including trips to see the endangered mountain gorillas of Rwanda and Uganda.
Expert guides lead small parties of travelers through thick forests to family groups of gorillas, where participants spend about one hour observing the creatures. Certain rules and restrictions are in place to protect the primates. Guests are asked to maintain a calm demeanor and stay a minimum of 7 meters (23 feet) away from the animals. Children under the age of 15 and those who have colds or other contagious illnesses cannot participate.
For more information about escorted trips to the gorilla territories of Rwanda and Uganda, visit Vacations To Go's safari site or call the experts at (800) 291-3346.
The information in this story was accurate at the time it was published in July/August 2014. Please visit Vacations To Go or call (800) 680-2858 for current rates and details.