While Nigerians are fixated with assuaging their palate with wild animals’ meat, in the local parlance called bush meat, in Rwanda, the gorilla is the national icon and the country’s cash cow. Annually, the animals bring in millions of dollars in revenue to the country through gorilla trekking. OKORIE UGURU was recently in Rwanda for gorilla trekking and reports that Rwandans don’t kill their gorillas. They are source of foreign exchange.
The first sight of the gorillas was initially ephemeral, just a tiny movement of foliage, then silence. It was followed by an eerie noise as if the gorillas were passing across information to family members that human intruders were once again around. The park guide, Bernice, a small but very energetic woman, urged us to follow her.
We followed with trepidation. First we sighted the small gorillas. There were movements all around. We knew the Hirwa family was there but could not see them immediately.
Gradually, they started coming out of the bush. In Nigeria, these are bush meat to be killed and eaten. It is difficult not to remember the recent killing of elephant in Idanre, Ondo State. Along the major Nigerian highways, different wild animals are killed and displayed for people to buy and eat. Here in Rwanda, gorillas are cash cows. Each mountain gorilla is worth its weight in gold. People spend millions for the long trip to Rwanda to see the mountain gorillas.
To many, the East African country of Rwanda still evokes pictures of unbridled violence, bloodshed, anger and hatred, no thanks to the 1994 Hutu-Tutsi conflict that degenerated into genocide against the Tutsis. It was a period of temporary insanity.
However, the reality on ground in the country is that although memories of this dark period still remain, Rwanda has moved ahead. It has become a model for many African countries. The country’s capital, Kigali, is neat, smart and affluent.
Moving around the country today, there is a sense of safety and the people are warm and welcoming. A lot of kudos must go to the government of President Paul Kagame for navigating the country through this dark period.
Rwanda has little in the area of mineral resources and so the government decided to be creative and fashioned out an area that the country could thrive and excel. Three key areas came to the fore: tourism, agriculture and Information Technology (ICT).
The country is making tremendous progress in these key areas. However, tourism has emerged as a major source of income for Rwanda. The country has emerged as the number one African destination for conference tourism and adventure tours. People come from all over the world to engage in this expensive adventure tourism. The tourism products are the rare mountain gorillas that reside on the Volcanic Mountains of Kunigi, Northern Rwanda.
This reporter had the opportunity of going on this tour experience.
The Volcanoes Mountain region of Rwanda is an international boundary region shared among Rwanda, Uganda and Congo Democratic Republic (Congo DR). It is home to the mountain gorillas that prowl the mountain forest in their family groups.
The gorillas are found in the three countries that the Volcanic Mountains fall within. However, the different countries charge differently to visit and see the gorillas. Rwanda charges $1,500; Congo DR charges $1000, while Uganda charges $600. Many prefer to go on the trekking from Rwanda. It is better organized and safety is fully assured.
The gorilla trekking involved different groups: the park guides, trackers and security guards. The trackers are in the forest assigned to a particular gorilla family. They track the movement of each gorilla family and relay the information to the park guides. This helps the park guides to know how to guide each group of tourists from the park’s office to the point of seeing the gorillas.
Trip to Volcanoes Mountain in Kunigi
The adventure started in the morning, around 4am when the group gathered at the lobby area of Radisson Blu Hotel and Convention Centre, Kigali. That was the only way to meet up. The drive to Kinigi, Ruhengeri was done more in the dark, but the road was undulating. Rwanda is often referred to as the land of a thousand hills. This is very true. Most of the journey is done navigating between hills, sharp turns, ascending and descending from hills.
The view from the tops of these hills on the countryside is awesome. At this period, hints of rainfall are always in the sky. Some of the cloud formations kiss the tip of the hills merging the hills with the sky.
Kunigi, the headquarters of the Volcanoes Mountain Park, is a beautiful suburb, populated by rural farmers who cultivated potatoes. On the right hand side of the road, potato farmlands stretch as far as the eyes could see. On the left are small houses and behind them the Volcano mountains with cloudy tips spread out. The group arrived at Kuningi around 7am.
At entrance to the park headquarters, there is huge statue of a gorilla that welcomes tourists. The tour guide would then go and present the appointment paper at the park office to show that the tour group has been earmarked for that particular day’s gorilla trekking.
Inside the park office, there are pockets of huts and enclosures with different names of them. This group of writers was directed to sit in an enclosure called Hirwa. A few minutes after, two park guides came to meet us. A man, Francis Bayingana, and a woman, Bernice Iwacu. Bernice was the leader. The enclosure was for briefing before the commencement of the trekking. She explained that we would be going to see the family of gorillas called Hirwa (lucky). Hirwa is a family of nine gorillas with one alfa male silver back, three adult females, two sub females and three babies.
There are certain dos and don’ts that go with gorilla trekking, Bernice explained. No member of the tour group must go there with food, not even water. It must be kept away in the back pack. The group must keep its distance from the gorilla family; no usage of phone or camera flash while taking pictures. With the pre-trek talks completed, we were set for the trek. The jeep drove us to the point where the road became impassable.
very body alerted. There were some park officials that handed each member of the team a walking stick with gorilla carved on the handle. The sticks turned out to be very important because of the difficult mountain terrain.
Rwandan mountain gorillas live at altitudes ranging from 2,300-4,500 metres above the sea level. For person coming from a low altitude area, climbing up this kind highland was difficult. Some parts of the road were marshy. It took quite an effort to ascend up the mountain. Added to this was the low oxygen air at this high altitude, making breathing difficult. However, the thought of seeing the gorillas in their natural environment was enough incentive to go on.
A tour team for gorilla trekking is guided by three sets of people, the park guides, the advance tracking team and the armed park security. The park guides lead the team to the gorilla family assigned to the group. The advance tracking team follows the gorilla family in the forest and keeps informing the park guides leading the tourists using a walkie talkie.
The initial direction our team was heading had to change when the trackers called to inform the park guides that the gorillas had changed their direction and moved in a different direction. We turned facing a different direction leading to the top of the mountains. After strenuous trekking of about an hour, we came to the boundary between the community and the mountain forest.
There was a barrier erected to prevent gorillas from wandering outside the forest into the potato farms of the nearby community. We crossed the forest barrier into the main forest. First the wisdom of holding a walking stick became apparent. The forest track was treacherous and also muddy; the walking sticks helped to steady our steps and stopped us from falling.
Volcanoes Mountains Park is has a large preponderance of bamboo trees. It happened to be the favourite meals of the gorillas, we were told. We walked about another hour, dodge bamboos. At a stage we were told to change our course because there were herds of buffaloes and antelopes on the direction we were moving. We saw huge, fresh footprints of elephants. Gradually as we were nearing the Hirwa gorilla family, we started seeing fresh, green gorilla dung. We had been warned not to talk loud not to frighten the animals.
Bernice, the head of the park guides, took over. She would move forward and then beckon to us with signs and in hush tone to follow. We continued until the first sight of the gorillas.
Face to face with mountain gorillas
With all the images that Hollywood churns out about primates like gorillas, the initial emotion on seeing the gorillas was fear. After all, this was their territory, in the middle of the jungle. If anything goes wrong, we are at the mercy of the gorilla family.
However, the gorillas didn’t seem to be bothered with the presence of human beings. They went about their business not bothered by the presence of human beings. Their pre-occupation was eating.
They were devouring bamboo stems. They have a way of getting to the succulent stems of the bamboo and devouring them. First we saw the young adult gorillas, and then the old mother of the family called Kabatwa. She is 37 years old, the park guide explained. Kabatwa was carrying a baby on her back. Then after the initial young gorillas had passed, from the bush, the alpha male, the silver back gorilla called Munyinya lumbered out of the forest.
He looked arrogant. Mere seeing Munyinya, one wouldn’t ask who was the boss in the Hirwa family. He came out of the bush, looked disdainfully at us and lumbered away with two young ones tagging behind him.
Tourists visiting the mountain gorillas are warned to keep a distance from the gorillas. The gorillas do not show any fear of human beings and go about the feeding routine unmindful of the prying human eyes. But there were two cute young gorillas in the family who seemed to be fixated with putting up a show for us.
They were the two tagging behind the alpha male, Munyinya. Once Munyinya was engrossed in feeding from the bamboo trees, they engaged in playful fight, shoving and kicking at each other and occasionally somersaulting on trees. They behaved as if there were in a circus train. Occasionally, when they tended to be coming too near, the park guide made some funny noise that seemed to be a kind communication with the gorillas and they kept their distance.
A tour group can only stay with a gorilla family for an hour. A gorilla family can only be visited once a day by a group of eight tourists. Every gorilla family makes about $12,000 a day for the Rwandan government. So, the 10 gorilla families in the Volcanoes Mountain Park make about $120,000 daily. During peak seasons, the gorillas could make about $3.6 million in a month.
Ikechi Uko, a travel expert and the organizer of the only international tourism exhibition in West Africa, the Lagos Akwaaba Travel Fair, is among the few privileged individuals in the world that had had the opportunity to name a Rwanda mountain gorilla. He spoke on the success story of Rwanda mountain gorillas: “It is a two-way success story. They are making income from tourism and are successful in conservation. In most places, like Nigeria, they have not been able to do that.
“We have a different type of gorillas, the low land gorillas found in Cross River State. They are equally rare. Nigeria ought to be generating revenue from them. We have not been able to make a success of it like Rwanda. In our parks, we do more of conservation and not tourism, excerpt Yankari.”
Asked why Nigerians have this tendency of killing rare animals in the wild and getting away with it, Uko replied: “It is because we do not consider them as national assets. If we consider these rare animals as national assets, killing them would be like destroying national assets. It should be seen as a serious crime.
“We have lowland gorillas that could make about 200 million dollars for the government annually.”
The publisher of the African Travel Times magazine, Mr. Lucky George, also spoke on Nigeria’s inability to harness its wildlife for tourism like Rwanda.
“Wildlife is national treasure and many nations that are lucky to be custodians of some handle and treat them with dignity and respect. The recent brutal killing of an elephant in Idanre in Ondo State, for example, was a senseless act.
“It is the duty of the relevant government agencies at federal, state and local government levels where these national treasures are located to sensitize the population.
“Again, one of the reasons why many don’t really care is because of the size and number make them insignificant to reckon with by society at large. Finally, the creation of the Federal Ministry of Tourism, Culture and Wildlife has become necessary in this regard to spread the gospel among Nigerians”.
While Nigeria battles with conservation and making these rare animals a tourism product, for those interested in wildlife adventure tourism, Rwanda’s gorilla trekking is an exciting activity worth embarking upon.