"Bald gorilla?" - I thought that the guide of the Volcanoes National Park in Rwanda was just playing a joke on me, I was too worried about which group of mountain gorillas we were going to visit. There are 10 gorillas communities in the forest of the park with are accustomed to the daily visits of people. Another wild group is being observed by scientists. Each family has a different number of members and alpha males with a silver color that have reached maturity, here they are called silverbacks. “Wards” are distributed every morning at the park office, families for a group visit are selected according to the principle of the physical preparation of tourists and remoteness in the mountains. You can express preferences, but not the fact that they will be taken into account. We got the Sabiyno group, known for its males - the world's only bald one named Big Ben and leader Guhonda, born in 1971, that is, the oldest and largest silverback in Rwanda. In total, there were 19 individuals in the Sabiyno family.
We sat in the visitor center of the Volcanoes National Park, where the guide Frederick brought us up to date in the early morning, the briefing was simple. Do not touch anything prickly, strange, do not try to eat it, speak only in a whisper, stick to the group, which will be accompanied by armed AK-47 trekkers. Porters will carry all the luggage and help climb mountains, move down from muddy hills, bypass swampy areas. Seeing a gorilla, it was recommended to say hello and then observe their life from a distance of at least 7 meters. It is forbidden to approach closer, but the prohibition is often violated by the primates themselves.
If the gorillas climbed up to hug, and this is rare, but it happens, it was prescribed to act according to the circumstances. Despite their impressive torso and strong arms, mountain gorillas are completely non-aggressive. But they protect their territory and do not let strangers into their forest circle of trust. If a silverback starts beating his chest with his hands, you can’t look into his eyes and continue to shoot. With a high probability, you can get a crack and at the same time a set of clearly obscene "gorilla" curses.
It was unknown, how long we had to look for gorillas in the forest. “We might we meet the the group in the meadow in half an hour, but there is a possibility that after three hours we will still be wandering through the rain forest,” Frederick continued. And although the trekkers who watch the gorillas and know their approximate location by dawn tell the guides information with coordinates, after a few hours the gorillas can easily change their location.
There were six of us in the group who came to Rwanda and wanted to see the endangered species of mountain gorillas with their own eyes, out of 80 tourists who receive official permission every day. We processed ours in six months, and who would have known that I would receive such a funny bonus - a bald ape. Having shipped all the baggage to the porter we shook hands for only $10, we set off through the chamomile field into the jungle of the rainforest. For convenience, each of the members of our hiking team was given a beautiful carved cane with gorilla heads on the handle.
We walked pretty briskly. We either made our way through the forests, then we crossed some marshy areas and fields with grass in human growth. Heavy clouds hung over the Virunga rainforest. I secretly turned to the Universe to make it rain later, after we saw the gorillas.
The forest was already so wet and dirty. I was worried that the technique would not withstand, the lenses would fog up, and I would lose the opportunity to change lenses. «Why did Big Ben get bald?» — I couldn't resist and asked Frederic, at the same time dodging a branch flying in the face. We have been walking for half an hour now, through a mist-shrouded forest growing on the slopes of Mount Virunga, full of amazing aromas of plants and mushrooms. Despite the overcast weather, the rain forest was stuffy and humid. The ranger said that Ben lost his hair at a very young age, the doctors did not establish the cause, and in general, he is absolutely healthy.
We saw Big Ben first, he was sitting in a thicket of bamboo and thoughtfully chewing fresh sprouts. Its powerful body, large, muscular, was covered by shiny black hair, the skin on its chest and stomach, quite a beer, shimmered with silver. From time to time, Big Ben rose, turned to us with a strong backside, demonstrating strong pumped up buttocks and hips, and deftly, literally with one paw, broke another tree.
The bald head clearly reduced the degree of brutality, silverback Ben looked good-natured. It is quite possible that it was like that, the huge male did not pay any attention to us, although we were standing quite close. All cinematic analogies about a huge gorilla crushing buildings and throwing people with one left were instantly forgotten.
Its family was nearby. In the impassable thickets, the young growth rushed around, deftly leaning on the knuckles of the fingers. Their trekkers are called troublemakers, they are the ones who can get very close to people. In order not to interfere with the races, we sat down for several minutes until the young gorillas sped away. The teenagers did not pay any attention to us, except for one case, playing catch-up, one of the youths quite noticeably shoved my neighbour with his paw, running past.
The main group of primates was resting in a small trampled meadow, among ferns and giant lobelias. A huge silverback lay in the very center, its females sat around him, mothers pressed curly-haired babies to their chests, whose funny faces, small hands and heels caused the same tenderness as at the sight of human cubs.
Some of the young females calmly basked on the fresh grass, some feasted on thistle leaves. The habits of primates, unconscious scratching in different places, picking their nose and even letting off gases were too similar to ours, in those moments when no one is watching us.
Gorillas are capable of making 26 sounds and with their help, it turns out, you can establish the first communication. "Good morning" in their language is very similar to a slight cough, like clearing your throat - heh, heh. Gorillas react instantly, the response khe-khe causes a storm of emotions - from incredible joy to a sense of kinship. Yet our DNA matches almost 98 percent. I wonder at what turn of the evolutionary road did we go our own way, leaving our genome brethren in the cloud forests?
More recently, in the territory of the three countries of Rwanda, Uganda and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, there were only 680 individuals. At the time when Dian Fossey took up the rescue of gorillas, there were 250 of them at all.
Diane did a lot to save the species, but she paid with her life because of her irreconcilable nature, not only desperately and by all means fought against poachers, but also clashed with the local population and the authorities of the country. One night, her throat was cut with a machete in her cabin in the mountains. The killers were never found.
Together we managed to raise the population. There are now more than a thousand mountain gorillas, but it is still very few. The female brings only one cub every two years. In 2019, a record number of babies were born - 25. In September, a special Kwita Izina ceremony is held in Rwanda, during which all newborns are given names. The honor of naming a gorilla falls to few it is trusted by celebrities visiting the country or prominent citizens. For example, this year a Rwandan boy, Emmanuel, who single-handedly paved a 7-km road in his village, was entrusted with choosing a name.
Population growth pleases everyone, but scientists have begun to notice alarming bells. Groups of gorillas, which are becoming more and more, do not have enough habitat - the area of the National Park of Volcanoes is only 160 square kilometres. Fighting for the range, animals often conflict with each other. In addition, gorillas began to get out of the forest into the villages more often to feast on eucalyptus bark, fruits or beans. Locals simply drive away a pack of mountain gorillas with sticks — animals break trees and fences.
And the researchers are worried, because the monkeys during such shoots can pick up some kind of human infection. That is why you cannot go trekking to mountain gorillas even with the slightest runny nose, cough or virus. Great apes are very vulnerable to diseases. There have been cases when monkeys died from a simple rhinovirus, from which gorillas have no immunity. This was also advocated by Dian Fossey, believing that tourism would accelerate the extinction of the species. But while all is going well for mountain gorillas, few endangered species are so well cared for.
The hour allotted by the regulations passed after about a thousand frames and a good hundred videos. Dirty, in one wet boot - a hummock treacherously went into the swamp from behind my leg, with a torn pocket on my raincoat, with an itchy hand - I still accidentally touched the local nettle, but full of impressions, I returned to Bisate Lodge a couple of hours later. Sitting on the balcony, flipping through portraits of black gorillas on my phone, I could not believe that all this was real.I would love to repeat this incomparable experience, right tomorrow. But, alas, it was impossible. I promised myself to come back again.
The easiest way is to contact Wilderness Safaris and pay for the permit along with the accommodation reservation.
Another option is to contact the Rwanda Development Board (RDB) at firstname.lastname@example.org. The permit costs $1,500 per person and entitles you to watch one group of gorillas in the Volcanoes National Park for one hour.
A 30% discount is given to those who plan to visit two national parks in the country in one trip. Permits are issued only to persons of age over 15. If at the time of the trip to the forest the ranger notices a cold, the permit will be canceled, only 50% of the amount will be returned.
Trekking is carried out in any weather. The equatorial climate is very unpredictable, but it will definitely be hot, cool, and most likely humid. The most comfortable set of clothing should include trekking waterproof boots, trekking pants, a long-sleeved T-shirt or T-shirt and a light waterproof windbreaker, cap and gloves. Protective leggings that cover the pants from mud and raincoats are given at any camp before the trip. I prefer clothing from the Norwegian brand Bergans of Norway. The backpack that the porter carries can contain a sandwich, a couple of bottles of water, binoculars and a copy of the passport for registration in the national park.
Due to the high humidity, you need to take care of a sealed bag and waterproof protection for the camera. Gorillas can be observed from a relatively close distance, so you don't need a powerful telephoto lens. A 70-200 mm lens with aperture ratio of 2.8 and a wide-angle lens of 17-40 mm were enough for me. There is little light in the forest, the shooting is highly dependent on the place where you see the gorillas. My group spent time in the forest more often, I had to set a minimum of ISO 640, most of the shots were taken with ISO 1600. You will have to shoot hand-held, the optimal shutter speed is from 1/500.
Mountain gorillas, a special subspecies of the eastern gorilla, live only in three African countries - the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), Rwanda and Uganda. The most convenient and safest option, but also the most expensive, will be a trip to Rwanda. The cheapest trekking is offered in the Congo, however, no one gives a 100% guarantee that you will see gorillas. The country has little to no infrastructure, security problems due to civil unrest, and Ebola outbreaks. Things are much better in Uganda. Tourists are treated in the same way as in Rwanda, the minor disadvantages include longer and more physically difficult tracks and a large abundance of insects in Bwindi Park.