In 1967, Dian Fossey began work in what is now Volcanoes National Park, Rwanda to study, document, and protect critically endangered Mountain Gorillas. Sent on a mission by Louis Leakey, and funded by the National Geographic Society* Fossey, an American zoologist, began what would become a daily commitment to the conservation of gorillas until her murder in 1986.
Almost 50 years later, in December of 2016, I was fortunate enough to climb those same foothills of Mount Karisimbi to encounter mountain gorillas for myself. Descendants of the gorillas Fossey loved and documented, played and slept feet away from me and it was one of the most powerful wildlife encounters I’ve ever had as photographer.
It was my first time in Africa, and I was in Rwanda for a Sciencetelling™ Bootcamp for Nat Geo grantees and a Photo Camp for students living at the edge of Volcanoes National Park. After two inspirational weeks with the scientists and students, the morning of our scheduled gorilla trek finally arrived. Sitting at the entrance of the park, I was elated, but anxious. All the conditions looked good for our trek, but I knew the day would be physically demanding as we ascended the forested foothills of Mount Karisimbi in search of the Isabukuru group.
We hiked through farmland that cut right up to the buffalo wall marking the entrance to the protected park lands. This is a country in recovery. The Rwandan Civil War devastated the people of this nation just 23 years ago. However, the economy has been growing and 70% of the labor force works in agriculture, according to USAID. The population is growing too, especially in Musanze – the district at the edge of the park – and space for farming potatoes, tea, and pyrethrum is limited.
After officially crossing the buffalo wall into the park with gracious help from my porter, Innocent, the real trekking started. I crawled up steep slopes, and fumbled on vine-choked footholds, desperately trying to protect my camera and lens with each face plant. Our small group rushed to meet up with the trackers who had spotted the gorilla group. We cut back down a slope into a clearing where I heard the guides began to whisper, as I looked around a corner to see a mother and baby gorilla foraging. Awestruck, I lifted my camera – our hour with the gorillas had begun.
I had never been so close to a wild ape. I had immediate respect for these animals. They are incredibly strong and weigh up to 500 pounds. They also follow complex social rules, and I didn’t want to challenge or threaten them in any way. Our guides asked us to crouch and not make eye contact. We froze as the dominant silverback gorilla, Isabukuru, closely passed us to find a spot in the clearing behind us to nap, where infants snuggled up to him.
The gorillas piled up in a group around Isabukuru in a little clearing with beautiful light. The babies played tirelessly, as many of the adults slept, and one mother watched our group intently. It was humbling to interact with a species so evolutionarily close to our own. It made me think of my own family.
After an hour with the gorillas, we left the group and headed back out of the forest, giddy from the experience and covered in mud. I had so much respect for the trackers, rangers, and scientists that work to protect and understand these animals. I also left with a better understanding of the complex issues of protecting this wild and working with local communities to balancing the needs of humans and the endangered gorillas, golden monkeys, and elephants that call this park home.
Since my visit, the silverback Isabukuru fell ill and died in March of 2017. There were several territorial clashes between his group and other gorilla groups led to the death of some of the infants I watched and photographed in December. In April of 2017, the orphan Fasha, from this group, was caught in a snare, but survived after Gorilla Doctors rescued him. The nature and social behaviors of these groups will result in more gorilla deaths in the future, but there are greater threats to their survival – snares, disease, human-wildlife conflict and especially the threat of a warming planet.
This year marks the 50th anniversary of the beginning of Dian Fossey’s work. Though her conservation methods were controversial, after seeing the mountain gorillas, it is easy for me to see why she was so devoted to protecting them. She describes some of the challenges of studying and saving gorillas in the first article she wrote for the National Geographic Magazine. When Fossey started, mountain gorillas were viewed by the world as savage beasts, valued primarily for trophies or as luxury pets, and they were very seriously in decline.
“Unless a better-planned and more-determined effort is made to save the mountain gorilla, it is doomed to extinction within the next two or three decades,” Fossey wrote in her 1970 article.
Thanks to the efforts of the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund and the park staff protecting the mountains these gorillas call home, that effort has changed the fate of gorillas. Although they are still considered critically endangered, their numbers are on the rise. Tourism brings funds to the park to continue this work and people, including myself, pay daily to witness these incredible animals living in their native habitat.
Photographing these gorillas made the protection of this species personal, for me. My hope is that these images make it personal for you, too. If you’re interested in helping protect mountain gorillas, consider donating to gorilla conservation efforts. You can also read more about the gorillas and see stunning images by Ronan Donovan in this month’s National Geographic Magazine.
*I work for the National Geographic Society. This is not a sponsored post and the views expressed here are my own and don’t necessarily represent the organizations or individuals mentioned in this post.