Gorilla Tourism Helps Rwandans Thrive

Ellen Wilson took this amazing photo of a young gorilla while traveling with Ujuzi in Rwanda.
Ellen Wilson took this amazing photo of a young gorilla while traveling with Ujuzi in Rwanda.

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.

Would you like to visit the mountain gorillas and see some of the community benefits in person? Ujuzi is offering a mountain gorilla and migration safari with Zoo Atlanta gorilla specialist Jodi Carrigan in February 2015. Participants will have the opportunity to track mountain gorillas on up to three separate days—a rare treat, as most group safaris limit gorilla visits to just one day. Time is running out, so please download the full itinerary and reserve your spot right away! Contact me with any questions.

Creating a Safe Coexistence for Humans and Mountain Gorillas

Bwindi Imepentetrable Forest in Uganda is famous for its mountain gorillas. But another unique feature of the area is that it has one of the highest human population densities of any rural area in Africa.

Gladys Kalema-Zikusoka, a leading Ugandan scientist, wondered if this large number of humans – combined with the popularity of gorilla tourism – was exposing mountain gorillas to human diseases. (Gorillas and humans are close genetic cousins, so many illnesses that affect one species also affect another.) She found that parasitic infections were higher among mountain gorillas who lived close to humans than in ones that lived farther away.

To help address this issue, Kalema-Zikusoka founded Conservation Through Public Health. The group works to improve healthcare and sanitation in the communities surrounding Bwindi. By reducing infectious diseases in the human community, the group also reduces diseases that could spread to mountain gorillas and further harm this endangered species. It’s a win-win for every one!

Find out more:

Featured Lodge: Mountain Gorilla View Lodge

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On the slopes of Mount Sabinyo, Mountain Gorilla View Lodge is a wonderful base from which to start your gorilla tracking. The lodge is only 15 minutes from the main entrance to Rwanda’s Volcanoes National Park, famous for its families of rare mountain gorillas and golden monkeys. Guests can also visit local villages for cultural excursions.

With spectacular views of the Virungas Mountain Range, the 32 stone-and-thatch chalets are well-spaced to offer privacy. Each cottage is simply and comfortably furnished and includes a private bath, balcony, and a sitting area with a fireplace to take the chill out of the high-altitude nights. An on-site restaurant serves meals, and the bar is a great place to meet and chat with other guests. Electricity comes from a generator that operates during meals and through 11 p.m.

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Featured Guide: Anderson Mwesigye

Anderson Mwesigye
Anderson Mwesigye

Born and raised in Uganda and later moving to Rwanda, Anderson has been a guide for four years. His all-around knowledge of flora, fauna, history and culture makes him a great guide for first-time and experienced safari-goers, including those with specialized interests such as bird watching, plant lore and gorilla tracking. Travelers in his groups describe him as knowledgeable, friendly, and helpful.

“He was professional and intelligent. He understood that we liked to be kept busy and he got us involved in interesting & enjoyable activities. We were glad he was with us.”
– Bruce & Donna Aitken

“[He was] a good companion on our safari and he taught us a great deal about Rwanda – am glad my husband and I had him as our guide during this safari.”
– J. Hand

Travel Tip: What to Bring on a Gorilla Trek

Coutesy of Linda Mueller

Linda Miller enjoys spending time with young mountain gorillas on a trip to Rwanda organized by Ujuzi African Travel.

A mountain gorilla trek is an experience of a lifetime. Nothing compares to seeing these close genetic cousins in the wild. Ujuzi arranges gorilla treks in Uganda and Rwanda, two of the three countries where mountain gorillas live. (Because of political instability, we do not arrange mountain gorilla treks in the Democratic Republic of Congo, the third country they call home.)

In order to minimize the spread of disease and give gorillas ample time to themselves, tourists who have a gorilla permit are allowed 1 hour of viewing on any given day. But the total trek is much longer, since reaching most gorilla families requires a significant hike through the forest.

Make sure that you enjoy every minute of your gorilla trek by preparing properly. Here’s a list of things to bring on a gorilla trek.

You should have:

  • Comfortable clothes with pockets. On top, wear a t-shirt and a long-sleeved shirt or sweatshirt that you can tie around your waist if you get too hot. Also pack a light rainjacket or poncho, since sporadic showers are common in the forest. Long pants (nylon or canvas) will protect your legs from stinging nettles and brambles.
  • Supportive, waterproof boots that you’ve broken in before the trip. Since gorillas move around the forest, you can never be sure how far you’ll need to walk before you spot one. The entire trek can take anywhere from a few hours to the entire day, and you’ll likely be spending a lot of time on uneven or muddy terrain. So supportive shoes are a must. Boots are preferred because mud can be deep and you may encounter red ants, which sting.
  • Money. We highly recommend that you hire a porter to carry your backpack and water on the trek. Porters can be hired at the morning meeting site prior to your trek. The fee is typically about $10 or $20.
  • Small bottles of insect repellant and sunscreen. Apply these before heading out on the trek, and bring some extra along in case you need to reapply during the day.
  • Light gloves (such as gardening gloves). These protect your hands from stinging nettles and brambles.
  • Hat. It’s good for protecting you in the sun and the rain.
  • Handwipes.
  • Any prescription medicine you are required to take during the day.
  • Backpack or waist pack. For carrying food, snacks, camera, etc. Keep in mind that you may have to remove your backpack and leave it with the porters when you view the gorillas. This is why it’s important to have pockets in your clothes!

We highly recommend you also pack:

  • A camera with a backup memory card, extra batteries, and a waterproof case or bag. Flash photography is prohibited around gorillas because it can scare them, so you’ll need to disable the flash. A zoom lens is useful, as is a neck strap. Don’t bring a tripod or monopod.
  • Binoculars.
  • Sunglasses.

Your do not need to pack (because they are provided):

  • Walking stick. These are available at your morning meeting point prior to the trek.
  • Snacks and water. Your lodge will provide food and water to bring along for the day. You may be tempted not to bring all of it with you, but ignore that temptation. The walk may take longer than you expect; it’s much better to carry a little extra water and food than not to have enough.

A Vivid Encounter with Mountain Gorillas

Mountain Gorilla

A mountain gorilla in Bwindi Impenetrable Forest appraises human visitors. Photo taken by Petra Kilian-Gehring on an Ujuzi safari.

Last week, I ran across this wonderful account of a Ugandan mountain gorilla trek in The Wall Street Journal. It captures the entire experience so well – from the challenging hike  through Bwindi Impenetrable Forest (it’s called impenetrable for a reason, but thankfully machetes help clear a narrow path) to the elation you experience upon seeing a gorilla family. The reporter did a great job of relating the sense of connection you feel when encountering mountain gorillas. I was especially struck by this comment:

It has been said that making eye contact with mountain gorillas gives you the distinct sense that they possess self-awareness. But what captured my attention—and made them seem very much like humans—was how they used their hands.

She also talks about the pragmatic details of a trek, such as what to wear and the basics of human-gorilla etiquette. It’s a must-read for anyone who’s curious about what it’s like to see mountain gorillas in the wild, and a great way to rekindle fond memories for those who have been lucky enough to go on a trek!

  • Tracking Mountain Gorillas in Uganda: Embark on a great ape escape in the southwestern part of the country to catch a glimpse of the endangered, endearing animal. By Robin Kawakami.

Photo Friday: Rwanda and Tanzania

Kathy Terlizzi and a group of volunteers from the Fort Wayne Children’s Zoo in Indiana recently went to Tanzania and Rwanda with Ujuzi. View a slideshow of their trip.

When Kathy Terlizzi told people that her first foray out of the United States was going to include a visit to Rwanda, she often got one of two reactions: puzzlement or warnings that the country must be dangerous because of the genocide that took place there in 1994.

But it had been Terlizzi’s dream to see mountain gorillas in the wild since she was a little girl, and she’d wanted to go on a safari for almost as long. The volunteer manager at the Fort Wayne Children’s Zoo in Indiana finally had her opportunity this February when she went to East Africa with several zoo volunteers. Ujuzi African Travel organized the group’s weeklong safari in Tanzania followed by a gorilla trek in Rwanda. “If it hadn’t been for the mountain gorillas, I probably never would have gone to Rwanda,” she says. But she’s glad she did.

She found a people who were proud of their country’s reconciliation and unification efforts over the past two decades, and a commitment to keeping communities safe for everyone. In Kigali, the capital city with 1.5 million residents, Terlizzi went on a two-mile walk with others from her group. “We were never, ever worried. I wouldn’t do that in many places in my own city. But I felt very, very safe. Our guide later told us that if someone does harass you on the street, citizens almost always step in and help you.”

The civic pride also shows in the beauty and cleanliness of the country. The day after Terlizzi arrived in Kigali was the fourth Saturday of the month, a day that Rwandans from all walks of life go outside and clean their neighborhoods. Businesses even open late so that their employees can participate. “Everywhere we went, you would see people out with broomsticks sweeping the street. … It was beautiful. They have affluent sections of town … and they also have very dirt poor housing, but every place we went, you could tell there was a pride in ownership. Even if it was a poor place, it was swept, and they had gardens and flowers.”

The humans weren’t the only friendly presence in Rwanda. When Terlizzi went on her mountain gorilla trek, the guides told her group how to behave and to show respect by keeping their distance from the gorillas. But no one informed the gorillas that they were supposed to turn a cold shoulder to the humans. The gorillas were as interested in their human visitors as the humans were in them. “When I show people videos from our gorilla trekking, they’ll say, ‘Are you zoomed in?’ But no – that’s how close we were. Oftentimes, [the guides] have to grunt and keep the babies from touching you because they’re so curious. They’re very gentle animals by nature.”

Courtesy of Kathy Terlizzi

Mountain gorilla. Photo by Kathy Terlizzi.

Courtesy of Ellen Wilson

Baby gorilla. Photo by Ellen Wilson.

Terlizzi was thrilled by the closeness to other creatures she experienced with the mountain gorillas and throughout her trip. “I went there to experience Africa – not a tour bus version, not a sanitized version, not looking at animals through binoculars,” she says. And she got what she was looking for.

Within an hour of arriving at Ngorongoro Crater in Tanzania, she saw lions, elephants, Cape buffaloes, leopards, and rhinoceroses.

Courtesy of Ellen Wilson

A cape buffalo enjoys napping in the sun. Photo by Ellen Wilson

Courtesy of Kathy Terlizzi

Elephants of all ages hang out. Photo by Kathy Terlizzi

Courtesy of Ellen Wilson

A leopard surveys the savannah. Photo by Ellen Wilson

And her group spent a few days right in the middle of the Great Migration, when more than 2 million wildebeest trek through East Africa for their spring calving. “Until you are there – hearing, seeing, looking at the dust cloud all around you, you can’t even fathom how incredible that is,” she says.

Courtesy of Ellen Wilson

It’s calving season for wildebeests.
Courtesy of Ellen Wilson.

At night, Terlizzi relished the opportunity to stay close to nature – while experiencing many of the comforts of home, such as beds and private baths – by sleeping out in the bush in luxurious tented camps. “The tent lodges were so awesome. They were the safest way you could get as close as possible to the wildlife. I would get up early and just sit out there and watch the sunrise.”

Courtesy of Kathy Terlizzi

Sunrise in Tanzania. Courtesy of Kathy Terlizzi

During those sunrises, she saw almost as much wildlife as she saw during the day on safari, including a herd of waterbuck antelope, a group of hornbills, and a giraffe that stopped to nibble on a tree just outside her balcony.

Terlizzi spots a giraffe from her balcony. Photo courtesy of Kathy Terlizzi.
Terlizzi spotted this giraffe from her balcony. Photo by of Kathy Terlizzi.

“Every day was a new adventure,” Terlizzi says. “I don’t know that I could have asked for anything more.”

Climbing Mt. Kilimanjaro: A Dream Come True

Successful summit of Mt. Kilimanjaro

It’s an unforgettable experience to achieve a dream you’ve nurtured your entire life.

Such was the case for Bill Jollie, who climbed Mt. Kilimanjaro with his wife and son as part of an Ujuzi African safari to Tanzania and Uganda. The day he reached the summit was also his 58th birthday.

“I’ve wanted to climb Kilimanjaro since I’ve known about Africa,” Bill said. As a teenager, he was fascinated by Africa, reading the Edgar Rice Burroughs books, Alan Moorhead’s White Nile and Blue Nile, Hemingways’s Snows of Kilamanjaro, history of Boer War, anything he could get his hands on. “I’ve always been interested in the continent, but it was those early experiences that cemented that desire. Africa was a land of mystery, romance and danger.”

Bill is a seasoned hiker. “Some of my earliest memories are hiking and climbing with my father.” He’s climbed Mt. Washington, the Tetons, Selways. “I’ve climbed every mountain range in Alaska except the Aleutians.” He’s also climbed in Italy, France, Austria, Greece, and elsewhere. He gave up technical climbing when he had small children, but he was always interested in a challenging hike.

Despite Bill’s international hiking experience and his fascination with Africa, Mt. Kilimanjaro remained elusive. He always kept his eye on the possibility of climbing the mystical mountain, but knew it required permits, and he could never seem to find permits available during the times he could travel.

A friend told him about her plans to take a safari with Ujuzi African Travel, and he realized that Ujuzi had access to permits.

“I called Ujuzi and thanks to Anne Medeiros’s initiative, we got permits for a trek that started on New Year’s Day. Then we built the rest of the trip around this trek.”

But it wasn’t just procuring the permits that made Bill’s Ujuzi safari memorable, it was the overall design of the trip. Although Ujuzi was busy planning his lodging, safaris, and other elements, he did a little research on the best lodge to stay to prepare for his climb, eventually discovering that the lodge other climbers recommended was the same one already booked for him by Ujuzi.

“I have the highest regard for Ujuzi Travel. They really listened to us, got to know us, what we love about the outdoors. It was an extraordinary trip. Down to the tiniest detail, like getting us the best seats on the plane, even having our layover in Amsterdam, which is the easiest airport to wait in. They were so thoughtful and mindful about the details,” Bill said.

Climbing Mt. Kilimanjaro is difficult, but possible for anyone in good physical condition. “Because it starts at the equator and goes to 19,500 feet, you essentially walk from the equator to the pole,” Bill said. “Doing so, you pass through the climate of every region on earth. It’s the highest you can climb without carrying oxygen.”

There are cases of altitude sickness, which can be life-threatening. People who’ve traveled from all over the world to summit Mt. Kilimanjaro may be turned away or sent back down the mountain at any stage of their climb — even just before they reach the peak — because they show worrying symptoms. Altitude sickness can affect anyone, no matter how physically fit they are. On the flight over, Bill’s wife, Joanie Oullette, who was 56 at the time, read an article about how Martina Navratilova had been forced to abandon her own ascent to Mt. Kilimanjaro. If a woman as fit as Ms. Navratilova couldn’t avoid altitude sickness, what hope did they have?

“It’s an issue of acclimation,” said Bill, advising all climbers to listen to their guides. “The guides deliberately try to stay in the background, but they’ll say, ‘Slowly, slowly.’ No matter how slowly you think you’re going, they want you to go slower.”

Hikers can choose from four well-known routes up Mt. Kilimanjaro, but Bill and his family chose the one colloquially known as “The Whiskey Route,” which is not the easiest option. The easiest route is commonly called “The Coca Cola Route.”

“The Whiskey Route keeps you up at higher elevation longer over the six days,” said Bill. “In our opinion you need that time to acclimate.” On researching ascension completion percentages — the percent of people who successfully summit Mt. Kilimanjaro — Bill found that it’s higher for the Whiskey Route than the Coca-Cola Route.

Bill’s party included three guides, eight porters and one cook, along with his wife and son. It took six days to summit Mt. Kilimanjaro, but Bill and his family successfully climbed it. Which isn’t to say that there weren’t challenges. After camping at Berafu one night, the next morning’s plan was to first scale the Great Barranco Wall, also known as the Breakfast Wall since it’s the first challenge after breakfast.

“It’s a bit of a technical challenge,” Bill said. While climbing, his wife, Joanie, asked their head guide, Elias, if anyone has ever fallen. Without hesitation, he responded, “Oh yes, it happens all the time.” Joanie asked, “Have you seen anyone fall?”

“He paused. You could see him remembering each instance before replying, ‘Yes, three times. They were all right. We carried them off the mountain.’”

During the final days of the ascent, hikers have shorter pushes to preserve energy for the final climb, breaking off for the day at 2 or 3 in the afternoon.

“Now the precipices are very steep. Outhouses cantilever over the edge and there’s no horizontal space to pitch a tent,” said Bill. “You really feel like you’re on the top of the world.”

The final ascent, like all great climbs, begins well before dawn. “You’re on the trail at midnight and want to get to the subordinate peak by 7 a.m.,” said Bill. “Every climb has a scree field and you’ve got to cross it when it’s frozen or it’s like walking on ball bearings: you take a step and you slide back ¾ of a step.”

Bill and his family woke that night to hear their porters reciting the Lord’s Prayer in Swahili. “We don’t speak Swahili, but we recognized the cadence,” said Bill. “I asked Elias about it and he said, ‘That’s right. We’re praying for you that you make it tonight.’”

Although the challenges of the climb are not to be underestimated, neither is the beauty. As Bill recalled the final climb, he said, “You look down at Mt. Meru and it’s like looking out of an airplane. You look up at the stars and feel like you can reach out and touch them, but you’re actually too tired to raise your arms above your head.”

Even Bill was not immune to some of the side effects of the altitude. “It gets colder and colder, and you get more and more tired. You can’t get enough oxygen in your lungs and your mind starts to play tricks on you.” At one point, Bill hallucinated, thinking a loose strap on his wife’s backpack was a mouse, only realizing the truth just before he reached out to brush it off.

Still he was healthy enough to complete the climb. “I don’t remember most of that last stretch. The only thing I remember is another individual arguing with his guide. I remember thinking, ‘That’s not a good idea. I know who’s going to win that argument.’”

Limited numbers of people ascend Mt. Kilimanjaro. With the variety of paths up the mountain, approximately 100 people come from all directions on any given day, merging together in a single line. “You can see them all, you’re all wearing headlamps. I looked back and thought it looks like a giant centipede as they all shift right and left around boulders and other obstacles. The Tanzanian park authorities do a great job keeping it orderly, you don’t feel crowded.”

Bill and his family reached the summit around 9 a.m. “We were really lucky because we had good weather. If it’s snowing or really windy, you can’t get up there. I climbed the highest peak in Wyoming 3 times before I could reach the summit. But that day on Mt. Kili it was very cold, but windless and cloudless.”

“It was a once-in-a-lifetime experience. We probably spent 10 or 15 minutes up there. Enough to do a long, slow 360-degree turn, take pictures, hug our guides, hug each other. Then you have to get out of there because someone’s coming to take your spot. Then we went down to take a nap.”

Bill said that the descent was more difficult for him because of arthritis in his knees, making the process very painful.

“So we pulled ourselves off the mountain, got a certificate and bought a t-shirt. It’s customary to take your guides out for a meal and beer.” Even after their work was done, the guides once again exhibited their graciousness. Bill’s family’s truck broke down and the guides sent their truck to pick them up. “‘It’s OK, we’ll walk,’ they said. ‘The hotel will send another truck.’”

At the hotel, the staff was considerate and gracious. “They were like, ‘Oh, you climbed Kili! That’s great! You must have a lot of dirty laundry.’ And they did all that laundry — overnight — at a special rate for climbers instead of the hotel rate.”

Bill and his family still had a full Ujuzi safari to enjoy. “We were over there for a month,” said Bill, who highly recommends such an approach. “How can you go over there and not see this extraordinary land populated by these amazing beasts, wonderful flowers, wildly different sets of ecosystems. Papyrus marshes, high plains, crocodiles, hyenas, cheetahs. You can’t over there and not go see that. After the climb you’re in wonderland, and you’ve earned that reward.”

On safari, Bill and his family saw all of the “Big 5” game: lion, elephant, Cape buffalo, leopard, and rhinoceros. They also saw a cheetah, one of the most elusive animals.

“We were driving through the Serengeti and we see a bunch of vultures on a fresh carcass,” Bill recalled. “Every species of vulture in that section of Africa was on that kill.”
Their guide spotted a water hole and suggested they drive over. “There was a cheetah, sitting on the overlook, licking its paws, looking very satisfied.”

They saw several lion prides, the largest of which was of eight lions. “The youngest of the young are playing and wrestling. Then there’s the adolescent males lying on the road who flash into action in an instant. You constantly hear from the guide, ‘You have to get back in the truck, they’re very aggressive.’ One minute they’re 40 feet away from you, looking the other way, then they are right up on you in one leap.”

Bill sensed a difference between animals in Africa compared to animals in North America. “I’ve been around big animals that can be dangerous before, grizzlies, bison, but in Africa it’s different. In North America the animals, even the carnivores, don’t immediately attack. In Africa, lions perceive you as food. But even herbivores perceive you as a threat so they’ll charge. They’ll all charge with homicidal intent.”

One of the more humorous moments was a night at Ngorongoro Sopa Lodge, when Bill and his son Sam had stayed up after Joanie had gone to bed. “The lodge has a little sign that says please ask for an armed guide to take you back to your room. Sam and I look at each other and think, we’ve backpacked through Yellowstone. But a little voice says, ‘You are in Africa.’” So they called for the armed escort.

“Our hut was all the way at the end of a row of huts. Maybe a 10 minute walk. We asked him, ‘Do you get animals here?’ And he says, ‘Yes, just two nights ago there was an elephant outside and he was making a terrible racket, the poor people couldn’t get out of their cabin for four hours. Last week there was a lion. And almost every night we have buffalo come to get away from the lions and they are very disappointed there are humans here. Of course, they should be disappointed because we’re visitors, they’re the ones who live here.’”

The next morning as they left the hotel, they’d only driven maybe 30 yards and there was a buffalo in the trail and another peering out from the bushes.

Despite the dangers, Bill couldn’t say enough about the wonders of Africa. “It’s a place of incredible beauty, there’s so much wildlife.

On the safari, they tracked gorilla. “They’re very soulful animals,” said Bill. They were quite the contrast from Bill’s chimpanzee trek, when the chimpanzees had been into some fermented fruit. “They were drunk! They acted just like drunk humans!” he recalled.

In another example of Ujuzi’s thoughtful planning, they went to the regional hospital in Bwindi because Joanie is a nurse. As a bonus, the hospital tour also included exposure to traditional medicine. “It was what we used to call a ‘witch doctor,’” said Bill. “He showed us the herbs he uses and described what chants he uses with them.” It was an example of Western medicine collaborating with traditional medicine. “They work very effectively together. That tour wasn’t something we asked for, but Ujuzi is very thoughtful. You’re going to spend a lot of money on airfare and lodging, you might as well take advantage of a place like Ujuzi and maximize the value.”

Bill says he absolutely wants to return. He recommends that travelers spend time learning not only about the animals and landscape, but also visiting with the people, including those in rural areas with more traditional lifestyles. As Tanzania and Uganda experience more urbanization, traditional ways of life are changing, but they continue to have an important role in East African culture. Getting to know people from a different background can give you a fresh take on the world, as well as your own values and culture. “Everyone should go,” he says.

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