Wednesday, September 06, 2017

Paying Tribute to a Conservation Hero

Greetings Everyone,
On July 24 we returned to Volcanoes National Park in Rwanda to search for another endangered primate that makes the highland forests of central Africa its home. The Golden Monkey (Cercopithecus kandti), once considered a subspecies of the Blue Monkey (Cercopithecus mitisis), is protected in four national parks: Mgahinga in southwest Uganda; Volcanoes in northwest Rwanda; and Virunga and Kahuzai-Biéga in the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo. We got a glimpse of a Golden Monkey in Virunga National Park but here in Volcanoes National Park two groups have been habituated making them much easier to see. Surprisingly they were quite close to our lodge and right on the border of the national park. A group of 50 or so were feeding high in the bamboo making it difficult to get a clear view of them. One came down in the open and Marc was able to get a decent photo.

Golden Monkey

While trying to get a better vantage point from which to observe the troop, our ranger/guide came across a snare set to capture a small antelope called a duiker for the bushmeat trade. I was surprised that a poacher would have the audacity to set a snare within the National Park but bushmeat has become big business and the temptation too great. No wild animal including gorillas, chimpanzees, bonobos, antelope and pangolins are safe from this illegal and unsustainable practice. Our guide quickly disarmed and destroyed the snare before some unfortunate animal fell victim to its grip. 


Disarming a Poacher's Snare

We resumed our observation of the Golden Monkeys as they foraged in the bamboo, sometimes climbing down a nearby shoot.


Golden Monkey

The next morning we set off to make a pilgrimage to Karisoke, the site of Dian Fossey's research camp from 1967 to 1985. Dian first came to Africa in 1963 where she met renowned palaeoanthropologist Louis Leakey. He was studying the fossils of our ancestors but realized to understand how we evolved we would have to learn about our closest living relatives, the great apes. On the urging of Leakey, Dian returned to Africa three years later to study Mountain Gorillas in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Political instability in the Congo drove her to neighboring Rwanda where she set up the Karisoke Research Center in September 1967. 

As we set off from the nearest village I couldn't help wondering how much encroachment into the forest had taken place since Dian was here. Our guide, Francois, who worked with Dian when he was in he early 20's replied "there is actually more forest today since the villagers and their cattle have been relocated outside of the Park". I was surprised. It was not the response I expected but I was happy to hear it.


Start of Hike Showing Bisoke Volcano

We climbed steeply toward a saddle between the volcanoes of Bisoke and Karisimbi in the foothills of the Virunga Mountains. Karisoke gets its name from these two volcanoes. For the research center's name Fossey used "Kari" for the first four letters of Mount Karisimbi that overlooked her camp from the south and "soke" for the last four letters of Mount Bisoke, the slopes of which rose to the north, directly behind camp.


Nearing Karisoke at the base of Bisoke Volcano

Along the way we were distracted by colorful sunbirds sipping nectar from the flowers of giant lobelia. 


Northern Double-collared Sunbird

We encountered a group of trackers so we knew that a family group of mountain gorillas was nearby. I was hoping they'd cross the trail but they remained hidden in the forest. We couldn't go off in search of them since we didn't have a gorilla tracking permit. It was thrilling to know that the gorillas that Dian Fossey gave her life to study and protect were thriving in their mountain home! There were about 475 Mountain Gorillas in the early 1960s, but their numbers were dwindling due to poaching and habitat loss. In the early 1980s the population dropped to about 254 individuals! The world population of Mountain Gorilla is now estimated at 880. In fact, Mountain Gorillas are the only great apes whose numbers are increasing largely due to the efforts of Fossey!

She may not be happy that so many tourists flock to Rwanda each year to see the gorillas but some of the money they bring in goes to the local communities providing them with much needed income and giving them impetus to protect the gorillas and their mountain habitat. Throughout the forest were signs of other animals, buffalo, duiker and porcupine who benefit indirectly from the gorillas. We arrived at Karisoke around 10:15 in the morning.


Original Sign at Karosoke Research Center

There's not much of the original structures as most of the materials used to build them have been carted off by refugees from the Congo's many conflicts but the feelings I experienced were overwhelming. We stood at the site of Dian's original cabin. All that remained was a rusted stovepipe. 


Site of Dian's Original Cabin

I tried to imagine what it would have been like for a single woman to live alone in the forests of wild Africa. She had became known by locals as Nyirmachabelli, or Nyiramacibiri, roughly translated as "The woman who lives alone on the mountain." She battled poachers and villagers who wanted to graze their cattle here. Many have criticized Dian's methods of capturing and interrogating poachers, pretending to practice black magic to scare them off and shooting their cattle.  Her actions may have been extreme but the situation for the gorillas was dire and Dian was desperate to save them. 


Dian with one of her Gorilla Friends (Credit: Ian Redmond)

Her controversial tactics earned her many enemies and on December 27, 1985 she was hacked to death with a machete by unknown assailants. Standing on the spot of her murder was intense and moving. I couldn't imagine being so passionate about a cause that I'd be willing to suffer such a horrible fate. Yet, Dian was and that is why she is one of my conservation heroes.


Site of Dian's Cabin where she was Murdered

Our last stop was the Gorilla Cemetery and her grave. When we arrived leaves had fallen on the graves and Francois and our porter lovingly removed them. 


Gorilla Graveyard

Out porter had picked flowers for us to lay on Dian's grave. It made me cry, not so much out of sadness but in knowing that 33 years after her death Rwandans respected and admired the woman who had despised and distrusted them. 


Dian Fossey's Grave

If Dian was alive today I hope she would be proud in all that she accomplished in bringing the plight of the mountain gorilla to the world. On New Year's Eve in 1977, Digit, her favorite gorilla, was brutally murdered by poachers as he tried to defend his family. He was only 12 years old when he had been decapitated and his hands hacked off to make ashtrays. His murder was a tragic blow to Dian but Digit's death did raise awareness of the gorillas' plight and, crucially, more money. Fossey subsequently created the Digit Fund (now the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund International in the USA) to raise money for anti-poaching patrols. To learn more about the fund and how you can help go to:



Dian was laid to rest next to her beloved Digit.


Dian is buried next to Digit

I hope that she would be happy to see that the descendants of the poachers and villagers that she had battled were now working to protect the gorillas and Volcanoes National Park and that they hold no animosity toward the woman who once held them in contempt. It was heartening to hear Francois feelings about Dian and the work she did.




As we left Karisoke, a Black-fronted Duiker peered at us from the edge of the forest. It was good to see that not only the gorillas were safe in this mountainous forest of central Africa.

Black-fronted Duiker

We encountered a lucky group of tourists who had just visited the group of mountain gorillas that we had passed on the way up. We too had the opportunity to visit the gorillas earlier in our trip on July 9th. You can read more about our encounter on our blog at:


Paying our respects to Dian Fossey was a fitting end to our visit to Rwanda. We were happy to see that the people and wildlife of Rwanda were doing well. It was encouraging to see that the Mountain Gorillas and the villagers can coexist.  We were glad to see the local people benefitting from the Park and the money tourist dollars bring into the country.  It was good to pass by schools and health clinics built by the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund. May this mutually beneficial relationship between humans and gorillas continue.

We hope all is well with everyone.
Peggy and Marc

Our Route Map:

Our Hike Route to Dian Fossey's Camp


Thursday, July 27, 2017

A Window into the Center of the Earth!

Greetings Everyone,
We're in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) exploring Virunga National Park. In addition to tracking Mountain Gorillas, the park's other big feature is a climb up Nyiragongo Volcano. Volcanoes have long intrigued us and we've climbed many but this one has a special surprise on top. Our tour began from Mikeno Lodge where we were given a backpack into which we put our things for a night at the top of the mountain: sleeping bag, warm clothes and water. The next morning we were driven to the Kibati Patrol Post at 6525-feet, the start of our hike. To reach the summit at 11,382-feet we'd have to climb 4860 vertical feet, a fact that many tourists ignore. We assembled at the base to fill out paperwork, get a porter each to carry our backpacks and to wait for the other climbers coming from Goma.


Trailhead at Kibati Patrol Post

We were a big group of 13 and along with our porters, guides, armed escorts and cooks we were quite an entourage. Our multinational team was composed of tourists from China, Botswana, Belgium, Netherlands, Italy, Ireland, England and the US. We got a late start around 10:45 and climbed gradually through the forest to our first break spot. 

First Break

Everyone was doing OK but we had to keep together as one group and go at the pace of the slowest member. We were fit having just trekked in the High Atlas Mountains of Morocco but it was clear from the outset that others weren't as well prepared. We climbed more steeply through thinning vegetation toward our second break point. A troop of L'Hoest Monkeys crossed our path. We were in the front so got a view but most in our group never saw them. Just past our second rest stop we paused to check out a deep fissure.  Our guide explained that it was through this crack that lava escaped and started flowing down the mountain toward the city of Goma.  On January 17, 2002 the eruption was triggered by tectonic spreading of the Kivu rift causing the ground to fracture and allow lava to flow from ground fissures such as this one out of the crater lava lake at the top. The eruption lasted for one day, destroyed 15% of Goma and left tens of thousands of people homeless. Today vegetation covers most of fissure.  


2002 Fissure

Higher up on the volcano we could see Shaheru Crater which collected the lava during the 2002 eruption and gave the 400,000 people evacuated time to flee into neighboring Rwanda saving many lives.


Shaheru Crater

Nyiragongo has been identified by the International Association of Volcanology and Chemistry of the Earth's Interior as one of 16 decade volcanoes. A decade volcano is worthy of particular study in light of their history of large, destructive eruptions and proximity to populated areas.


(Wikipedia)

The climb became much steeper as we entered into a new zone of vegetation characterized by heather, heath, giant lobelia and groundsel. We encountered similar vegetation in the Ruwenzori Mountains to the north when we trekked there in 2003. 


Heather, Heath, Giant Lobelia and Groundsel

We reached our third and final break point at an unused shelter before beginning the steep climb to the volcano's rim. We were among the first to arrive and peered over the lip to an awe-inspiring view of the steaming lava lake about 2000-feet below!


On the Crater Rim

The main summit crater of Nyiragongo is a steep-sided pit with terraces marking the former locations of lava lakes.  Almost a mile wide, the summit crater is famous for the frequent presence of active lava lakes. In February 2016 activity intensified and a new vent opened at the base of the near-vertical crater wall outside the active lava lake on the right side as seen in the photo below.


Crater View

We settled into a tiny shelter just below the rim where we'd spent the night.


Crater Rim Shelters

Nyiragongo's fiery display comes alive after dark when you can see fountains of lava and lake crust being spewed into the air. It was hard to tell the height of these "mini-eruptions" but we guessed hundreds of feet. 


After dinner prepared by our camp cook we donned all of our layers and sat on the rim to enjoy the show. Nyiragongo's lavas are made of an alkali-rich type of volcanic rock whose unusual chemical composition makes the lava very fluid. In fact on January 10, 1977, the crater walls fractured and the lava lake drained in less than an hour. The lava flowed down the flanks of the volcano at speeds of up to 40 mi/hr, the fastest lava flow recorded to date! Tonight, the fluidity of the lava sure made for an impressive display with the ever-changing patterns on the surface of the lake.


Fiery Lava Lake View

Fortunately we brought a pair of binoculars and could really see the violent activity of the lava fountains.

Closeup View of Lava Fountains

It was as if we were peering into the fiery center of the Earth!

Peering into the Fiery Center of the Earth

Nyiragongo Volcano is associated with the Albertine rift, the western arm of the East African Rift Valley. Here the Earth's crust is weakened by tectonic movements that are gradually splitting the Somali Plate away from the rest of the African continent!  Someday a big chunk of East Africa will split away from the continent and become another island like Madagascar to the south.


Albertine Rift (Wikipedia)

We sat in awe until the constant cold winds forced us into our shelter for the night. Early the next morning the lava lake was covered in clouds of steam and we would not get another glimpse of it's immense power. The sun rose over nearby Mount Mikeno creating another awesome scene.


Sunrise Over Mount Mikeno

Around 6:30 it was time to start our long descent. I didn't mind the climb the day before but going down is so much harder on the knees and you're fighting gravity all the way. We proceeded cautiously on the upper slopes to avoid slipping on loose scree and falling.


Steep Descent on Scree

We stopped for a break halfway down for a last look at the summit of Nyiragongo and its steam plume.


Last View of the Steam Plume

We made it down without incident arriving at the patrol post around 11:00. The next group coming in passed us on our way down. We thanked our porters and guides and drove to Goma for lunch. After lunch it was time to leave the DRC and we crossed the border into Rwanda. I'm not sorry about leaving the Congo, the country faces a lot of challenges and it will be some time before tourists feel completely comfortable here. I am happy though that things were stable enough to venture into Virunga National Park to see the largest lava lake in the world!
We hope all is well with everyone.
Peggy and Marc

Our route map:


Wednesday, July 26, 2017

Long Live Africa's Oldest National Park!

Greetings Everyone,
We're in Bukavu on the southern end of Lake Kivu in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) on our way to Goma on the northern shore. The easiest and safest way to get there is by high speed motorboat. As we were preparing to get underway, fishermen floated past in a wooden boat constructed of three canoes linked together by long poles,  On the front and back of each canoe were more long poles used to connect a very large net. Fishing isn't a big enterprise on the lake these days. Fish stocks are low due to overfishing and the high amount of carbon dioxide and methane in the lake.

Fishing Boat on Lake Kivu

I was a bit nervous about traveling on the lake due to its unusual ecosystem. Lake Kivu is a fresh water lake and along with Cameroon's Lake Nyos and Lake Monoun, is one of three that undergo limnic eruptions. A limnic eruption, also referred to as a lake overturn, is a rare type of natural disaster in which dissolved carbon dioxide (CO2) suddenly erupts from deep lake waters forming a gas cloud that can suffocate wildlife, livestock, and humans. Such an eruption may also cause tsunamis in the lake as the rising CO2 displaces water.


Lake Kivu Ecosystem (http://www.hydragas.net)

There's concern that if the DRC and Rwanda go ahead with an agreement to explore for oil, this disturbance could cause the CO2 trapped in the sediment at the bottom of the lake to be released causing a catastrophic explosion. Fortunately during our 2-hour excursion no such eruption occurred and we arrived safely in Goma. Goma is infamous as the staging point of UN peace-keeping forces in the DRC and is the center for many NGO's and aid organizations working in the Congo. Almost every new vehicle had an aid agency logo: UNICEF, UNHCR, FINCA, Doctors Without Borders and Oxfam to name a few.

Goma Traffic

After lunch we left Goma and drove for about 2 hours to Bukima Camp in what's known as the "Gorilla Sector" of Virunga National Park. Established in 1925 by the King Albert I of Belgian and originally known as Albert National Park, it is the oldest national park in Africa! The park has had a tumultuous history surviving years of civil war, poaching, the destruction of infrastructure and in 1994 a refugee crisis from the Rwandan genocide. The Kivu War, one of the more recent of Congo’s conflicts, was centered inside the park with rebel forces occupying the park headquarters and evicting the park’s staff. By the end of 2008 it seemed as if Virunga would not survive as a national park. In 2008, Emmanuel de Mérode, a Belgian prince, became the director of the park and things began to improve. He survived an ambush carried out on April 15, 2014 on a road in the park and is still the director today. 


Map of Virunga National Park (http://www.virunga.org)

The political situation in the DRC has improved dramatically since then. The park is back in the hands of the Institut Congolais pour la Conservation de la Nature (ICCN) and is enjoying the greatest resurgence of tourism and development in its history. We thought it wise to take advantage of this window of calm and visit the park. We arrived at Bukima Camp in the late afternoon and settled into our tent.

Our Tent at Bukima Camp

The next morning we were to visit one of Virunga's habituated groups of Mountain Gorillas named after its chief silverback, Humba. We set off at a brisk pace with our guide, Jean Bosco, a woman from Hungary and two rangers for about 50 minutes until we met the trackers. It was another 10 minutes on a crude path hacked through the jungle to reach the gorillas. We put on surgical masks to prevent disease transmission to the gorillas and one of the juveniles came running out of the vegetation right past us. Jean Bosco grabbed me and pulled me out of the path of the energetic youngster. 


Peggy Getting Pulled Out of the Way

We next encountered 15-year-old Mahindure. He is Humba's son and may very well be the next leader of the group. We were very close, maybe within 8-feet, and I couldn't resist the temptation to have my photo taken with him. 


Peggy and Mahindure

An adult female named Kakule and her 6-month-old baby (yet to be named) were in the vegetation nearby. The baby wanted to play with his half-brother and at one point Mahindure grabbed him by the arm and dropped him at his feet. Kakule was having none of it and quickly retrieved her baby. I was able to get the action on video! 
We moved around to where we could see Kakule and her infant more clearly. Kakule was trying to groom the rambunctious youngster and had to hold him with a firm hand to get the job done.


Kakule Holding Her Infant

Jean Bosco suggested we see Humba, the group's chief silverback, and he was sitting nearby surrounded by his family.

Humba Grooming His Family

Some have asked us about differences we noted between Eastern Lowland Gorillas seen in Kahuzi-Biega National Park a few days ago and today's Mountain Gorillas. Mountain Gorillas have longer fur and a more compact face than Eastern Lowland Gorillas. What do you think?

Eastern Gorilla Comparison

All too soon our hour was up and it was time to head back. When we arrived, I noticed a vehicle in the parking lot with a "Gorilla Doctors" logo on the door. I thought that Dr. Martin Kabuyaya whom we had met in Kahuzi-Biega National Park a few days earlier may be here visiting the gorillas. Just then a man with a " Gorilla Doctors" T-shirt arrived. He was Dr. Eddy Kambale, DRC Head Veterinarian. He was also featured in the 60 Minutes documentary we had seen just prior to leaving on this trip. See our previous post for more information about the Gorilla Doctors and a link to the 60 Minutes documentary. Eddy was collecting vegetation from the forest for Maisha, one of the gorillas at the Senkwekwe Gorilla Orphanage we would be visiting tomorrow in the hopes that he could get her to eat and put on weight. 

Peggy with Dr. Eddy Kambale

The next day we drove from Bukima Camp to Rumangabo where the park's headquarters and Mikeno Lodge are located. We checked into our bungalow and walked a short distance to the Senkwekwe Center. The center is named after the dominant silverback of the Rugendo group who was murdered in 2007 along with three other members of his family by an illegal charcoal mafia. Their motivation was simple: kill the Mountain Gorillas and there will no longer be a reason to protect the park. It is the only facility in the world that cares for Mountain Gorilla orphans. Each of the four gorillas living at the center was victimized by poachers or animal traffickers. In an enclosure were three of the 4 orphaned Mountain Gorillas living here. We went to meet the orphanage's famous director, André Bauma, and he invited us inside. We had to wear surgical masks and clean our shoes before entering. There was one gorilla inside, 9-year-old Ndakasi. Ndakasi was 2-months-old when she was found clinging to her murdered mother during the 2007 Rugendo Massacure. Thanks to the loving care of Andre and the Gorilla Doctors, she survived. Ndakasi has to stay inside while her keeper has lunch because she's a master at escaping the enclosure. The gorillas sleep in this building at night. 

Inside the Senkwekwe Center

It was an honor to meet André and to see first hand the important work he does to save and raise orphaned Mountain Gorillas like Ndakasi and Ndeze. For these two young gorillas, André has become their parent and he refers to them as “his girls.” He was recently featured in an Oscar-nominated film "Virunga". You can watch this inspiring documentary on Netflix. 

Peggy with André Bauma 

The next morning we went tracking for chimps around the lodge. Unfortunately there weren't a lot of fruiting trees in the vicinity and the chimpanzees were nowhere to be found. We did come across some of Mikeno's other resident primates. Olive Baboons were along the road scavenging sugar cane that had fallen from a truck. A female grabbed a stock before scurrying off with a baby on her back.


Olive Baboon and Baby

A handsome Colobus Monkey greeted us as we returned to the lodge easing our disappointment over not finding the chimps.


Colobus Monkey

Blue Monkeys were frequent visitors and we could see them foraging in the trees near the restaurant.


Blue Monkey

On our last afternoon at Mikeno Lodge we went to check out the "Congohounds". Bloodhounds are trained to track poachers in Virunga National Park. They were in a kennel a short distance away.


"Congohounds"

Tomorrow we leave Mikeno Lodge and head south to our next adventure in Virunga National Park.  It was a privilege to spend time with the rangers, guides, trackers and gorilla doctors who risk their lives on a daily basis to protect the wildlife of the park and to keep it safe for the tourists who come from all over the world to visit.
We hope all is well with everyone.
Peggy and Marc

Postscript:

We were deeply saddened to learn that Maisha, one of the Senkwekwe Center’s orphaned Mountain Gorillas, passed away on July 21st after a long illness. We know that André and the Gorilla Doctors did everything in their power to save her. We are grateful that she had 13 years in their loving care after being rescued as an orphan at the age of 3.

Our route map: