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.”

Birthday Safari

For your next birthday, how about treating yourself to an Ujuzi African Safari? That’s
what Linda Shaeffer did, celebrating her 70th birthday by joining a group from the Dickerson Park Zoo in Springfield, Missouri, as they traveled to Uganda and Tanzania.

“It was the most incredible trip I’ve ever experienced — way beyond my expectations,” Linda said. “I fell in love with Africa. I wish I’d gone years ago.” The highlight of Linda’s trip was the gorilla trek in Uganda, even though the hike is notorious for its steepness. Her group had been advised to hire porters to carry water and other belongings, but the porters were able to assist in other ways. Although Linda prefers active vacations that require a level of physical fitness, she welcomed the porters’ willingness to help on the steep climbs.

“One porter would reach back and pull me up and the other was behind me giving me a little push,” Linda laughed. “I was glad to have them helping me come down, too, because it’s so steep.”

It was all worth it to see the gorillas. “We paid for a two-day pass,” Linda said. The first
day, they found a group of 18 in the tree canopy. “The next day they were in a clearing and we got within 8 feet of them. We saw two silverbacks and several mamas with babies on their backs. It was amazing.”

Another treat was the boat ride in the Kazinga Channel. “It was great bird viewing. We
saw lots of hippos in the water and elephants, herds of elephants, whereas before we’d only seen one or two at a time. We got to watch two juveniles in the water, wrestling and falling down in the water. They played just like human kids; it was so fun to watch them.”

Linda lucked out with many animal sightings on her trip. “In Tanzania we saw three of the most elusive animals,” Linda said. The first was a leopard, perched in a tree, then a black rhino with her baby, and also a cheetah with her three cubs.

“It was thrilling. She knew we were there and she was wary, but she didn’t run off.” Instead, Linda’s group was able to observe the cheetah teaching her cubs to hunt. “She caught a rabbit; we watched that long, lean, gorgeous body running across the field. She brought it over to the cubs and let it go twice. Finally, she killed it and broke it apart for each of her cubs.”

Because her trip was timed during the Great Migration, Linda got to see some very special animal interactions, from wildebeest frisking in the rain to lions lounging in the sun. “An interesting fact we learned is that you always see the zebras and wildebeests together as they have a relationship that works for them,” said Linda. “The zebras warn of danger, and the wildebeest find water, so they have this great relationship and help one another.”

Although, as Linda said, her trip “barely scratched the surface of Africa,” it was also a well-rounded experience with cultural visits to three different tribal groups — the Hadzabe, the Batwa pygmies, even visiting the Maasai and watching their competitive jumping dance known as adumu.

Just like all who take an Ujuzi safari, Linda praised her guides. “Our guides were so much fun and very, very knowledgeable. It was so well organized, so well-coordinated, and so much fun.”

Linda also praised the group experience. “I’ve traveled quite a bit and know that your group can make or break your trip. Being with a group of six giggly women just made the trip. We laughed our way through Africa. At the end, we asked our guide if we were the best group he’d ever had, and he said we made the eight days together seem like four.”

Just like the people in her group, Linda was also impressed with the Africans she met. “The Ugandans especially are so soft spoken, so appreciative of our visiting there and wanted us to have a good time. They’re trying so hard to rebuild their country and a big part of that is tourism.”

Linda’s group also stopped at an orphanage of about 35 children who had lost their parents to AIDS or during the war. “Their living conditions were so spartan, but they’re doing a wonderful job just giving these children a place to live. We’re all going to gather things together and send them to them.”

Speaking about her experience overall, Linda said, “It’s a trip everybody should take. I would go back to Africa in a minute.”

Mountain Gorilla Tracking

It wasn’t until January 1970, when National Geographic Magazine published an article about Dian Fossey and her work in Rwanda that the Hollywood “King Kong” myth of an aggressive, savage gorilla was transformed.  Fossey defined gorillas as being “dignified, highly social, gentle giants, with individual personalities, and strong family relationships.”  Photographs in the article showed the gorilla “Peanuts” touching Fossey’s hand and depicted the first recorded peaceful contact between a human being and a wild gorilla.

Fossey’s work also showed that mountain gorillas could be habituated to be around humans.  In the decades to follow, Uganda and Rwanda, two of the three countries where mountain gorillas call home, began a habituation program to promote the tourism of mountain gorillas.

Today 7 gorilla families are habituated for tourist trekking in Uganda.  A total of 8 permits are available for each group, allowing 56 daily permits in Uganda.  In order to minimize the spread of disease and give gorillas ample time to themselves, tourists are allowed 1 hour per day with the gorillas.  The per person cost of a permit is $500.  Visitors are encouraged to spend two days with the gorillas.

Uganda

Mubare group (Bwindi Impenetrable National Park – Buhoma Side): (8 members)   1 Silverback; 3 Adult females; 1 Sub adult; 2 Juveniles; 2 Infants.

Habinyanja group (Bwindi Impenetrable National Park – Buhoma Side): (23 members) 1 Silverback; 3 Black backs; 7 Adult females; 1 Sub adult; 5 Juveniles; 6 Infants.

Rushegura (Bwindi Impenetrable National Park – Buhoma Side): (15 members) 1 Silverback; 6 Adult females; 4 Juveniles; 4 Infants.

Bitukura (Bwindi Impenetrable National Park – Buhoma Side): (13 members) 4 Silverbacks; 2 Black Backs; 3 Adult females; 2 Juveniles; 2 Infants.

Oruzogo (Bwindi Impenetrable National Park – Buhoma Side): (23 members) 2 Silverbacks; 7 infants; number of black backs and females forthcoming.

Nkuringo (Bwindi Impenetrable National Park – Nkuringo Side): (19 members) 2 Silverbacks; 4 Black backs; 4 Adult females; 4 Sub adult; 1 Juve-nile; 4 Infants.

Nshongi (Bwindi Impenetrable National Park – Nkuringo Side): (24 members) 2 Silverbacks; 7 Black backs; 5 Adult females; 5 Juveniles; 5 Infants.

Mishaya (Bwindi Impenetrable National Park – Nkuringo Side): 10 members) 1 Silverback; 2 Adult females; 2 Juveniles; 5 Infants.

Rwanda Safari Scheduled for 2012

Rwanda has long been famous for its amazing gorilla populations, but today you can explore its cultural riches as well. Ujuzi travelers not only have opportunities to track gorillas, Colobus monkeys, and chimpanzees, but also to experience traditional Rwandan lifestyles, dances, fine arts, and the craft arts such as jewelry-making, ironwork, basketry and pottery. Visiting Rwandan art museums such as the National Museum of Butare gives you the opportunity to gain insight into African art and culture, and to support local artisans, which helps alleviate poverty, broadening your horizons today and making a difference in the Africa of tomorrow.

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