October 31, 2014

Journey to Uganda and Rwanda: Part 2

Travelers explore the legacy of a dedicated conservationist and a devastating war while on safari in central Africa

By Alan Fox

Vacations Magazine: Journey to Uganda and Rwanda: Part 2
Karen Fox
Trip Post No. 3: Tracking Gorillas in Rwanda

Dian Fossey arrived in Africa in 1966 to study critically endangered mountain gorillas. She found the several hundred that remained were under assault from every direction.

Poachers were maiming and killing the animals in traps set for antelope and buffalo. Locals were hunting them down to sell their hands and feet as ashtrays and their heads to be mounted on walls. Farmers were burning their habitat to make room for crops. Cash-strapped governments were selling baby gorillas to be shipped off to zoos in other countries.

The vast majority of these baby gorillas died before ever reaching a zoo. Worse still, because gorillas are so much like people, they will not give up their young without a fight. When a baby gorilla was found with a trafficker, there were always dead gorillas in the forest.

In Fossey's early encounters, the gentle and intelligent animals fled deeper into the jungle at first sight, a natural reaction considering their treatment at the hands of other humans.

But over time, Fossey learned to imitate common activities like scratching and feeding and to mimic the gorilla's own "contentment vocalizations," which made her less threatening. Eventually, she gained acceptance and was allowed to get closer to the families she studied. A National Geographic cover photo of Fossey among gorillas made her an instant celebrity and changed the world's false impression of gorillas as fierce beasts.

In 1977, poachers killed a gorilla named Digit, with which Fossey had established a special bond and trust over more than 10 years. Digit was a silverback that died protecting a pregnant female, which managed to escape. Digit was stabbed repeatedly, and his head and hands were removed.

Heartbroken but undeterred, Fossey had Digit's remains carried back to her cabin and buried. She publicized his gruesome death and established the Digit Fund (now the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund International) to raise money for anti-poaching patrols and conservation.

Despite her celebrity and growing public sympathy for the plight of the mountain gorilla, Fossey frequently fought alone, an American woman living in a primitive cabin on the slopes of a volcano, half a world from home.

Against a rising tide, she held her ground, burning snares she found in the jungle, painting cattle that strayed into the forest so their owners would keep them out, attempting to convince poachers that she was a witch to frighten them away and demanding that local governments stop the trafficking in baby gorillas and gorilla parts.

Some said her methods and personal confrontations, which Fossey called "active conservation," were excessive. Her list of enemies grew.

* * * * * * * * * *

Through a wall of bamboo, something large and dark was moving parallel to our group, but in the dim and dappled light, I could not make out what it was. The tracker in front of me whacked vines and bamboo with his panga (machete), and the rest of us ducked and wiggled through the narrow opening he was creating in the nearly impenetrable forest.

We were trekking at 10,000 feet elevation on the Rwandan side of the Virunga Conservation Area, a mountainous jungle dominated by eight volcanoes and shared by the DR Congo.

Ahead and above us, another dark mass appeared on top of the leafy canopy, and the bamboo shuddered and creaked under its weight. Suddenly, amorphous black creatures seemed to be moving through the foliage all around us. Our tracker uttered a low, grunting sound to reassure whatever was out there that we were not a threat.

With a few more swings of the panga, we burst into a small clearing, but it felt more like landing in another world. I froze in my tracks at the sight of a massive silverback gorilla calmly sitting on the ground, glancing directly at me.

Silverbacks are adult males more than 12 years of age with a wide band of silver hair across their backs. They are the largest primates on the planet and can grow to 6 feet in height and weigh more than 500 pounds. Every gorilla family is headed by a silverback, and some families have more than one.

As I fumbled with my camera and rattled off a dozen shots, I realized we were not alone. There were other gorillas moving into the clearing, mothers and babies, and still more in the shadows of the surrounding woods.

Each gorilla family has numerous adult females that mate exclusively with the dominant silverback, and we had learned in the pre-trek briefing that this family had one silverback and five females, each with a baby.

For 60 minutes (the maximum visitation allowed per gorilla family, per day), our group of eight tourists and two trackers watched the gorillas eat, play, communicate, climb and politely go about their business, always on the move. We were keenly aware of their intelligence, and I felt a bit like we were intruding on their solitude, but a steady flow of tourists is an essential part of the formula that keeps gorillas alive. The park fee of $500 per person, per day, to track the gorillas pays for the game wardens who protect the animals and their habitat.

More than 90 percent of gorilla DNA is identical to human DNA, and they are susceptible to human diseases. We were required to stay at least 22 feet away so we would not transfer any germs. This was easier said than done as the gorillas had not read the rules. They frequently walked up to us from behind or squeezed by us on narrow trails where all we could do was lean back on the bamboo curtain.

Baby gorillas play constantly and are amazingly cute little animals. We watched one tap another on the head and run, starting a frenzied game of tag. Later, a baby gorilla was holding a stalk of bamboo as if it was his own when his playmate came by and tried to climb it. They erupted into a mock fight, a tangle of rolling hands and feet and bared teeth, over and forgotten in an instant.

Baby gorillas love to mimic the big silverbacks, and twice today a little fur ball walked up to me and beat its tiny chest in mock fury before skipping away.

Our hour with these magnificent creatures passed all too quickly.

For 19 years, Dian Fossey studied the habits and characteristics of these gentle giants, protected them, communicated with them and endeavored to tell the world of their precarious state. She founded the Karisoke Research Center, which has played a pivotal role in mountain gorilla research, conservation and protection for more than 40 years.

The work she began has resulted in stabilization and slight growth in the number of mountain gorillas, but still there are only 700 beating hearts left to the species. Surrounded by volcanoes, poachers, gorilla traffickers and habitat-destroying farmers, can they be saved?

It's a test of how far we humans have come in our evolution.

Not far from here, on a fateful night in 1985, Dian Fossey was killed with a panga, in her cabin. She was alone, and her murderer was never found. She left this chilling entry in her diary: "The man who kills the animals today is the man who kills the people who get in his way tomorrow."

Fossey is buried where she died, high on the misty slopes of these volcanoes and beside her cherished Digit. Their modest graves mark heroic lives given willingly in defense of what they loved.

Perhaps one day we'll know these graves mark something even more important -- the turning point in a battle that was nearly lost.

To view photos or a slideshow from this leg of my journey, please click here.



Vacations Magazine: Journey to Uganda and Rwanda: Part 2
Karen Fox

Trip Post No. 4: Rwanda Renaissance

So far, I've covered the exciting game drives and chimpanzee trekking in Uganda and a wondrous and poignant visit with mountain gorillas in Rwanda. We have enjoyed every day of our SITA safari and every place we have been, and I can certainly recommend it all to the truly adventurous.

But I resolved before I arrived in Rwanda that I was not going to overlook the troubled history of this country, for that would not be fair to you or to the people here who have suffered so greatly. Many of us remember the shocking headlines regarding Rwanda's genocide in 1994, and others have seen the movie on that subject, "Hotel Rwanda."

I came to Rwanda not knowing what to expect, and now I will tell you what I have found. This part was not easy to write, and I should warn you that it may not be easy to read.

* * * * * * * * * *

We crossed the border with Uganda on foot, in the rain, and I approached a tall, distinguished-looking man in a dark suit and asked him to point us in the direction of the immigration office.

"Welcome to Rwanda," he said, with a warm smile. He took my hand in his, as is the custom here, and led me to a nearby building and presented me at the immigrations office, where our group was again welcomed and quickly processed.

A short drive later, we checked in at the Sabyinyo Silverback Lodge, elevation 8,200 feet, on the slopes of the towering Sabyinyo Volcano and near the border with the DR Congo.

The front desk manager, Merarry Kanyesigye, was waiting with a friendly smile, wet towels for our hands and a cool fruit drink. He took us on an orientation tour as our bags were delivered to our cottages.

The main lodge was spotless and beautifully appointed, the rolling grounds were covered in wildflowers and the spacious guest cottages were scattered on the hillside in a way that ensured complete privacy.

In the evening, we arrived at the dining room where the charming head waiter, Flavia, softly sang her thanks to us for visiting before presenting the dinner menu and the sumptuous meal that followed.

Sabyinyo Silverback Lodge is owned by a community trust that has conservation and local economic development as primary objectives, and a large share of its revenues are plowed directly into the local community.

The weather was cool throughout our visit, and we enjoyed the wood-burning fires in the lodge and cottages and the hot-water bottles that warmed our beds. In the mornings, we were awakened by a soft knock at the door, announcing the delivery of coffee and biscuits. In the afternoons, after gorilla tracking, we were met on the patio and helped into slippers while our mud-covered boots were taken away to be cleaned. These fine touches from our Rwandan hosts were much appreciated.

On consecutive mornings, we took the short drive to the mountain gorilla tracking center, where we were assigned trackers and briefed about the gorilla families we would visit. We met game wardens, guides and porters and were sincerely thanked for coming.

After unforgettable experiences with two mountain gorilla families, we traveled to Kigali, Rwanda's capital city, for one last night in the country, and checked in at the Kigali Serena Hotel, where we enjoyed the "Africa Night" buffet of local delicacies.

There are a few places in the world where tourists are merely tolerated, but everyone we have met in Rwanda has seemed genuinely glad to see us and eager to help us enjoy our stay.

I wish I could say that the sun always shines on the people here, but there is darkness in the world and one day darkness came to Rwanda.

In the spring of 1994, long-simmering tensions between the majority Hutu tribe and the minority Tutsis boiled over. A murderous Hutu militia, the Interahamwe, trained and sponsored by extremists in the Hutu government, sought to hunt the Tutsis to extinction.

For 100 days, the streams ran red with the blood of innocent children, women and men hacked to death by panga or shot. The Interahamwe forced pro-peace Hutus to participate and killed many who refused. They turned neighbor against neighbor and friend against friend. An estimated 800,000 people were massacred.

Eventually the radical Hutu government was overthrown by a Tutsi militia, and the worst of the murderers fled across the border to northeastern DR Congo, where they band together to this day, the so-called FDLR.

More than 250,000 genocide victims are buried in mass graves at the Kigali Memorial Centre, which opened on the 10th anniversary of the genocide and is the focal point of the country's public healing.

We visited the center this morning and found that the dead still speak.

They whisper not to look away as they float by, face down, in the river. They call to us from burned-out houses where they hid and were found. They scream at us from bulldozed churches, from ditches beside the road, from the bottom of latrines.

Horrific images tell their stories to anyone who will listen.

The last room of the center is dedicated to the thousands of children who were killed. There is a sign on the wall: "In memory of our beloved children, who should have been our future."

There are 14 windows in the room, each detailing the life and violent death of a single child. There is a photo of the child (in some cases the only one in existence), along with his or her favorite food, best friend's name and favorite thing to do. The last entry is cause of death. It is without doubt the most heart-wrenching thing I have ever seen in my life.

From the ashes of war and against all odds, the current government of Rwanda has created a stable, secure and peaceful new country. Sixteen years removed from the madness, there is a renaissance under way, and on the streets of Kigali, one can see the purposeful pace of a nation on the rebound.

In all aspects of daily life, the government has de-emphasized tribal differences in favor of a focus on what all Rwandans share, their common dreams and aspirations. I've been told several times on our short visit that there are no longer Hutus and Tutsis, just Rwandans.

The government attempted to bring the leaders of the genocide to justice, but they have broken the cycle of retribution that marks so many ethnic conflicts around the globe by instituting a forward-looking amnesty program for many thousands of others. Confessed murderers who felt forced to kill were pardoned and entered a "solidarity camp" for reorientation and sensitization. In a short time, they were released to return to their villages, where they went to the surviving relatives of people they had killed and apologized face-to-face, asking for forgiveness.

Not everyone could forgive, of course, but once again the Hutus and the Tutsis live peacefully together.

Dian Fossey was murdered before the genocide swept across Rwanda, but one line in her book, "Gorillas in the Mist," would seem to sum up the attitude of Rwanda's leaders today as it did her own thoughts: "When you realize the value of all life, you dwell less on what is past and concentrate on the preservation of the future."

As we wait in the Kigali airport to begin our journey home, I want to thank the many kind people we met in Rwanda and Uganda, our splendid driver/guides (Jean-Marie and Steffie), and the folks at SITA who make sure their customers are well looked after on every safari.

I would not have missed a moment of this trip, even the painful ones.

Rwanda has come back not from the edge of the abyss but from its depths, and her return is a powerful testament to the resilience of the human spirit.

To view photos or a slideshow from this leg of my journey, please click here.

Visiting Uganda and Rwanda

SITA Worldwide Tours offers several escorted safaris that include visits with the endangered mountain gorillas of Uganda and Rwanda. They include the four-day "Rwanda Gorilla Trek" from $3,530 per person; the six-day "Uganda Gorilla Trek" from $3,270 per person; the eight-day "Primates and People" trip, from $5,720 per person; and the nine-day "Uganda and Rwanda in Depth" adventure, from $5,545 per person. Rates are for the land portion only and do not include airfare to Africa.

For more information about escorted trips to Uganda and Rwanda, contact
the safari department of Vacations To Go, (800) 291-3346.

Journey to Uganda and Rwanda: Part 1

The information in this story was accurate at the time it was published in May/June 2010.


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