Deep in the heart of Africa lies the small, landlocked nation of Rwanda. Known locally as “The Land of a Thousand Hills”, the entire country is covered with deep valleys and steep volcanic foothills. The Volcanoes National Park, in the north of the country, is home to an estimated 250 of the world’s 700 remaining mountain gorillas, and is part of a larger volcanic region known as the Virunga Massif. Since no mountain gorilla has ever survived in captivity (unlike lowland gorillas), the World’s entire population can be found at the convergence of three countries; Rwanda, Uganda and the Democratic Republic of Congo.
The Virunga Massif is blanketed by a thick, impenetrable jungle. The gorillas utilise the great diversity of flora found in this region by consuming up to 70 different plant species, including the thistles and giant stinging nettles that force anyone visiting the park to wear gloves and thick jackets! The gorillas inhabit the slopes of the volcanoes up to an altitude exceeding 4,000m. Temperatures here can drop as low as 0 degrees Celsius meaning that mountain gorillas are generally bigger, and have much longer hair than other gorilla subspecies. Adult males can be twice the size of females, with an arm span of 2.25m and a weight of 204–227 kg! They are known as silverbacks because of the saddle of grey hair that adorns their backs.
Gorillas are social animals and tend to live in groups of varying size. In all, there are upwards of 10 habituated groups that live on the Rwandan side of the Virunga Massif. At the start of each day, the park authorities allocate a maximum of 8 visitors to a professional guide who is responsible for leading the trek to the gorillas. On our first day, we visited the Umubano group, a relatively small family of 8 gorillas. They seemed to be quite shy, hiding behind the leaves and never looking towards our cameras. Naturally this made it difficult to take photographs. On the subsequent days we visited the Sabinyo, Hirwa and Group 13 families. Out of these, our favourite was Group 13.
Group 13 has around 25 individuals, all led by a dominant male silverback called “Agashya”, meaning “special one”. As alpha male, he has sole breeding rights over the twelve females in his group. The other half of his group consists entirely of baby gorillas under 3 years of age. It was a wonderful experience to watch these young gorillas play fighting and tumbling around in the foliage! For an hour, we followed the family through the jungle, photographing them as they snacked on bamboo shoots. Due to the alcohol content of the bamboo, the young gorillas became progressively more rowdy in their play (even the massive silverback was noticeably tipsy!). They would climb up the trees and swing from the vines, and on a number of occasions they fell to the ground in a heap of leaves and fur!
It was a constant struggle to try and photograph all the action without getting distracting branches or vines in the frame. The dense foliage eliminated most of the ambient light, forcing us to use wide-apertures and high ISO speeds. One of the most valuable tips to remember when photographing gorillas (or any animal that has black fur) is to set your camera’s exposure compensation to around -2/3 or -1. This is because your camera is tricked by the black fur into thinking the conditions are darker than they actually are.
Rwanda is a densely populated country, and almost every inch of the uninhabited or unprotected land has been transformed into a patchwork of fields and terraces. Farms and settlements push right up against the stone wall boundary of the National Park. The pressure on the gorillas’ habitat is clearly visible. However, Rwanda has a stable tourist infrastructure in place and puts much emphasis on the conservation of the gorillas and the preservation of their habitat. Ecotourism provides the necessary funding to initiate conservation and much of the money generated from the purchase of park permits goes into paying for guides, guards, trackers and also local community projects. Ultimately, if the local people benefit from gorilla tourism, there is less incentive for them to poach.
Rwanda is a beautiful country that has experienced a troubled past, but the kindness and willingness of its people to accept visitors to their country does not go unnoticed. We came away from this trip feeling privileged and humbled that we had seen both Rwanda and the incredible mountain gorillas.
View the gallery: Mountain Gorillas