This month, Rwanda celebrated its eleventh Kwita Izina — an annual ceremony in which mountain gorillas born in the previous year receive names. The ceremony brings international attention to the endangered gorillas of the Virunga Mountains.
Twenty-four babies received names in this year’s ceremony. You can see the full list with photos of each baby at the official Kwita Izina website.
In June, I had the chance to talk to El Nault about her amazing safari to Rwanda and Tanzania with Ujuzi Travel and Jodi Carrigan of Zoo Atlanta. She was a delight to speak to, and had lots of wonderful insights about wildlife, culture and having a truly memorable safari. I posted most of the interview a couple weeks ago, but there wasn’t room to include all her travel tips.
At Ujuzi, I work hard to make sure that your safari is as awe-inspiring and worry-free as possible. But little decisions you make before and on your trip can also affect your experience. So this week, I’m going to share some of El’s ideas for making the most of a gorilla trek. In a future post, I’d like to share other safari tips, so please comment with your own below or on Ujuzi’s Facebook page.
El Nault of South Carolina had never considered going to see mountain gorillas in the wild until 2010, when two friends showed her photos from a trip they’d been on with Jodi Carrigan, gorilla specialist at Zoo Atlanta.
Nault laughs when she retells the conversation. “I said, ‘I want to go.’ They said, ‘But we’re not going again for five years.’ I said, ‘I still want to go!’”
She got her wish in February when she went on a trip to Rwanda and Tanzania organized by Ujuzi Travel and led by Carrigan.
During four days at Volcanoes National Park in Rwanda, Nault went on three gorilla treks with Carrigan and others in the group.
The first day was the most strenuous trek. Because of rain and hail, the gorilla family Nault’s group was trying to visit kept moving in search of better shelter. After several hours of walking, the humans finally caught up with their gorilla cousins.
“When we saw them … grooming and eating and just walking around us – it was almost as if my mind could not comprehend the depth of the experience,” she recalls. “‘Moving’ is not even the word. It was a profound spiritual engagement with God’s world and his creatures. It was unbelievable.”
Several gorillas approached for a closer look at their human visitors, including one curious youngster who peered over Nault’s shoulder as a friend took a photo (above). “We felt really integrated into the [gorilla] community, and we abided by their rules and customs of courtesy with no loud noises, no flash, and getting out of the way if they were trying to get through. … There was a sense of being at peace together.”
Spanning the steep ridges of the Albertine Rift Valley, Bwindi is one of the few rainforests in Africa to have flourished throughout the last Ice Age. It is now regarded as one of the most biologically diverse forests in Africa, with at least 90 mammal species, including 11 primates, and is ranked as one of the best parks in Uganda for forest birding, with 23 highly localized Albertine Rift endemics.
Bwindi Impenetrable National Park is renowned for its mountain gorilla population. An estimated 340 individuals live in 15 groups, making up about half the world’s mountain gorilla population. Looking deep into the expressive brown eyes of these gentle giants is an unparalleled encounter.
Endangered Species Day is this Friday, May 15. Sub-Saharan Africa is home to many endangered species that are beloved the world over. It is a privilege to be able to introduce people to this amazing creatures through Ujuzi Travel. I hope these safari photos of endangered animals inspire you to protect them for future generations!
(A list of organization dedicated to protecting vulnerable animals is included below.)
For the first time, scientists have seen a mountain gorilla use a tool to get and eat food in the wild.
A clever young female named Lisanga watched a silverback from her group get stung by the ants he wanted to snack on when he reached into an ant hole. He ran off hungry. But Lisanga came up with a solution, grabbing a stick from the ground and placing it into the hole. When she lifted it out, ants covered the stick and she licked them off without getting stung. It was the first time a wild mountain gorilla has been observed using a tool.
Yesterday was the 58th birthday of Colo, the first western lowland gorilla to be born in captivity. She was born at the Columbus (Ohio) Zoo and Aquarium in 1956 and has spent her life with the other lowland gorillas there.
“Every birthday Colo has is a momentous occasion,” said Tom Stalf, president and CEO of the Columbus Zoo and Aquarium. “Her historic birth and her amazing longevity have come to represent historic achievements in gorilla care and conservation. We are so pleased to be able to celebrate this day with people from around the globe.”
This month, a new documentary about the Gorilla Doctors – a nonprofit group of veterinarians in Rwanda who treat sick and injured mountain gorillas to ward off extinction – was released in Canada. The film is not available in the United States yet, but you can listen to a fascinating interview with the filmmakers and the Gorilla Doctors’ head veterinarian about the risks and rewards of these efforts.
Do you ever wonder the effect that protecting wildlife has on local communities? On Sunday, the Guardian newspaper published an outstanding article on how Rwanda’s gorilla conservation program has benefited local residents. It profiles Console Nyirabatangana, a widow with five children who lives near Virunga National Park, where the country’s mountain gorilla families live. She used to earn less than $2 a day and struggled to feed her family one daily meal. Today, she has a three-bedroom house, a flourishing vegetable garden, and a good income. Her younger children all go to school, and her oldest daughter is now a teacher in a village near the park.
The change is thanks in large part to Rwanda’s tourism revenue-sharing program, which invests 5 percent of income from national parks in local communities. Some of these funds go toward helping residents establish small businesses, such as beekeeping and crafting.
An article in National Geographic explained how efforts at boosting the mountain gorilla population have benefitted human health. Since many illnesses can pass between different species, doctors and veterinarians work to protect the health of all—from offering health screenings for people who come into close contact with apes to vaccinating domestic animals for rabies.
Photo taken by Ellen Wilson on an Ujuzi safari in Rwanda.
British naturalist and science documentarian David Attenborough has launched a fundraising campaign to help protect mountain gorillas. The campaign, hosted on crowdfunding website Indiegogo, seeks to raise about $177,000 to support work by the conservation group Fauna & Flora International in Rwanda, Uganda and the Democratic Republic of Congo. The group will use funds to protect mountain gorilla habitats, train community members as gorilla protectors, develop eco-tourism, and support gorilla protection initiatives of the local governments and parks.
Supporting mountain gorilla conservation is a great holiday gift idea for the nature lovers in your life! You can find out more about the campaign here.