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.)
CNN recently ran a fascinating story about Iby’Iwacu Cultural Village, a site where many of Ujuzi’s travelers to Rwanda have learned about local arts and ways of life. Visitors can learn to grind sorghum or millet by hand, start a fire without matches, or shoot a bow and arrow. Tasting banana beer and other local foods, watching traditional dances, seeing artisans at work, and talking to village elders are unique experiences that open our eyes to a different way of life – and the commonalities that tie all humans together.
It all started when Edwin Sabuhoro was a warden in Rwanda’s Volcanoes National Park. He had the opportunity to talk with some individuals who had been jailed for kidnapping a baby gorilla to sell to a private buyer. He heard stories of desperate poverty and hunger, and came to realize that poaching would not stop until these issues were addressed.
He provided farm land and seeds to former poachers so they could raise their own food and sell it at market. “I left them with that and they started farming, and when I came back six months after I found they had harvested enough – they had enough food at home, but they were [also] selling more in the markets,” Sabuhoro told CNN. They no longer needed to turn to poaching for income.
Looking for other ways to generate income for communities near Volcanoes National Park, Sabuhoro worked with locals to create a Iby’Iwacu Cultural Village. The village has brought in enough income so families no longer need to turn to poaching to survive.
Visit the link below to view an interview with Sabuhoro.
Mihingo Lodge is a peaceful and luxurious retreat adjacent to Lake Mburo National Park in Uganda. Situated on privately owned land, it features 10 permanent tents on raised wooden platforms and covered by a thatched roof. Each spacious and comfortable tent includes an en-suite bathrooms with hot and cold running water, showers, and flush toilet. Each room is nested into a private spot and has a great view.
There is so much to do at Mihingo, from walking safaris and horse rides to game drives and boat trips on Lake Mburo. Guests can go on a cultural walk, ride a bike to a fishing village or visit the local primary school.
The main dining area is a large thatched structure built from rocks, the wood of dead olive trees found on the land, and native grasses. Below the dining area, an infinity swimming pool stretches out from the rocks and seems to disappear into the vast landscape beyond.
Next to the dining area is a lovely round sitting room where people can sit and relax, have a drink and watch the animals at the water hole.
Upstairs is another room with breathtaking panoramic views of Lake Kacheera and the park. This is the perfect place to chill out with a book, have a nap or play a game of backgammon or chess.
And don’t forget the bushbaby platform – a wonderful place for cocktails and of course the best place to see Mahingo’s family of resident bushbabies up close.
In appreciation of its fragile surroundings, Mihingo Lodge is an environmentally friendly accommodation. All electricity, hot water and water pumps are powered by solar panels and there is a natural water catchment system to take advantage of the rains.
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.
I’ve been waiting with anticipation ever since it was announced a few months ago that Netflix had acquired Virunga, a documentary about Africa’s first national park. In the Democratic Republic of Congo, Virunga is one of the last remaining homes of the world’s mountain gorillas, but it’s been threatened by war and oil exploration. It’s just across the border from Rwanda’s Volcanoes National Park, where Ujuzi often leads gorilla tracking excursions.
I got a chance to watch Virunga last night and highly recommend it. It offers incredible insight into the intelligence and emotional lives of the gorillas, and the commitment of park rangers, scientists and local residents who work to protect their habitat.
Some of the film’s most touching moments take place in the park’s mountain gorilla orphanage. Poachers killed these mountain gorillas’ parents – not for meat, but in hopes that they could sell the babies on the black market. On at least one occasion, poachers massacred almost an entire gorilla clan as part of an effort to drive the gorillas to extinction. Their thinking is that if there are no more mountain gorillas, the park will open up for mining and other ventures.
The orphanage offers safety to four young mountain gorillas, as well as an opportunity for them to grow up healthy and strong. You can see the great amount of love among the gorillas and their human handlers. But the handlers are aware of a bitter paradox. The baby gorillas needed human helpers in order to survive, but now they have learned not to see humans as a threat. What does this mean for their possible re-release into the wild?
It was also heartbreaking to witness the funeral of one of the park’s rangers, and to hear rangers talk pragmatically about the possibility of death. Rangers are often injured or killed in conflicts with poachers or with armed groups that want to claim park land. But many of those in the film echoed the assessment of Andre Bauma, who heads the gorilla orphanage: “You must justify why you are on this earth – gorillas justify why I am here, they are my life. So if it is about dying, I will die for the gorillas.”
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.