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 (

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 (

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.


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


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:

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