Saturday, July 22, 2017

Our Closest Living Relatives

Greetings Everyone,
Do you know what our closest living relatives are? Many people think that the answer is gorillas but it is actually chimpanzees and bonobos who share 99.6% of our DNA! Gorillas are a distant second sharing 98% of our DNA. We ventured to Rwanda to look for some of theses critically endangered primates. We arrived in Kigali, the capital of Rwanda, on July 8 and very early the next morning drove 2 hours to reach Volcanoes National Park. The park is one of the last strongholds of the Mountain Gorilla (Gorilla beringei beringei), made famous by Dian Fossey and the movie about her life "Gorillas in the Mist". Today there are 10 groups of habituated mountain gorillas that tourists can visit. Tourist groups are limited to 8 per group so this means 80 people per day can visit the gorillas. By 7:00 quite an entourage had formed.

The Entourage

While having a cup of coffee we were entertained by a local troupe of drummers and dancers to get us in the gorilla tracking mood.

Sacola Traditional Dancers

After the performance we divided into groups. We joined 5 other women and would visit the Pablo Group. To reach this group we had to drive another hour to get to the start of our walk which began through village fields of potatoes and groves of introduced eucalyptus.

Village Potato Fields

There is a lot of pressure on the forest and if it wasn't protected it would be cleared for agriculture and firewood. Today the villagers get direct compensation from the money tourists pay for gorilla trekking permits so they have more incentive to protect the Park and its famous residents.  At the border of the park we entered bamboo forest and climbed about 1300 feet to reach a transition zone with Hagenia trees where the gorillas were feeding.

Entering the Bamboo Forest with Placide

Since we had just been trekking in the Atlas Mountains of Morocco we found the climb easy but others struggled to reach the gorillas. We left our packs behind and the trackers hacked their way through the thick vegetation with machetes. The first gorilla we encountered was a subadult male called a blackback. He has yet to develop the characteristic gray or silver back of a mature male. He was taking a snooze and didn't seem too perturbed by our presence.

Our 1st Mountain Gorilla Encounter

Nearby was an adult female with a one-year old infant. At this age he's still nursing from mom although he's also learning to eat vegetation.

A Baby Nursing

The silverback (or patriarch) of the group, named Gicurasi, was napping but woke to feed on wild celery. Mountain gorillas are mostly vegetarian and an adult male needs to eat 34 kg of vegetation per day to maintain his massive bulk! 

Gicurasi Eating Wild Celery

As Gicurasi lumbered off quadrupedally we could see the characteristic saddle of gray or silver-colored hair on his back that develops with age and gives a silverback his name. Gicurasi took over control of the group about 2 years ago from his famous father, Cantsbee, who at the age 37 years old relinquished dominance to his 20-year old son. Cantsbee had been the leader of Pablo’s group of mountain gorillas for more than two decades, the longest reign of dominance the Fossey Fund has ever observed. 

Gicurasi, the Chief Silverback

The Dian Fossey Fund International is dedicated to the protection, conservation and study of gorillas and their habitats in Africa. To learn more and how you can help go to:

The Pablo Group consists of 25 members but we were seeing maybe 20 of the group's individuals. It was difficult to keep track of them as they moved through the thick undergrowth. We could approach to within 20-feet of the gorillas but they could come nearer to us.

Mountain Gorilla Encounter

After our one-hour visit it was time to leave the group. The trackers stay behind to follow the group until they stop and make their nests for the night. The trackers not only make it easier for tourists to find the gorillas, they provide vital protection from poachers.

Our Gorilla Tracking Team

On our drive back to Kigali the next day we stopped to visit the Genocide Memorial. Many of us remember the horrific genocide that took place in 1994 where 500,000 to one million Tutsis were brutally murdered by their Hutu brothers. It's difficult to comprehend what drove the Hutu to kill the Tutsis but trouble had been brewing since colonial times. On April 6, 1994, the plane carrying Rwandan President JuvĂ©nal Habyarimana and Cyprien Ntaryamira, the Hutu president of Burundi, was shot down as it prepared to land in Kigali and anarchy ensued. Today the wounds appear to be healed at least on the surface. The distinction between Hutu and Tutsi is downplayed and people view themselves as Rwandans only. 

The next stop on our tour was Nyungwe National Park, about an 5-hour drive from Kigali. We broke up the journey by stopping at the Ethnographic Museum where baskets, tools, weapons and even a house of early Rwandans were displayed. I was intrigued by the uniquely Rwandan baskets with conical lids. I asked our guide if they were still made today. He said yes by a group of women who have lost their families and have now formed a cooperative. There were a few for sale in the gift shop and I purchased one to support the women's cooperative. I asked to meet the woman who took 2 months to weave my basket and we found her in a house behind the museum. She was surprised that I requested to meet her but I told her I wanted to thank the woman for making such a beautiful basket and for keeping this dying tradition alive.

Basket Weaver with Peggy

We arrived in Nyungwe National Park in the early afternoon and were greeted by the L'Hoest monkeys along the road. Normally hard to see, these vulnerable mountain monkeys are common here and we got great views. 

L'Hoest Monkey

We continued on to the Uwinka Visitor's Center where a canopy walkway had been constructed in 2010. Being 70 meters off the ground and about 150 meters long, it was a great way to see the Nyungwe forest, the best preserved montaine rainforest in Central Africa.

On the Canopy Walkway

The next morning we went in search of our closest living relative, the Common Chimpanzee (Pan troglodytes). They are relatively easy to find here as a group of 45-50 are confined to a 4 square-km patch of forest called Cyamudongo. The trackers had already found them and our guide Solomon led us to the chimpanzees. These chimps are a subspecies of the Common Chimpanzee called the Eastern Chimpanzee (Pan troglodytes schweinfurthi). They were high in a tree making the viewing difficult so our guide led us to two male individuals that were lower down in a tree a short distance away. We watched them as they fed on figs which they chewed into a paste to extract the moisture.

Eastern Chimpanzee with Fig Paste

We watched them feeding for about an hour and a half before they moved off into the forest.

Eastern Chimpanzee

Just outside this tiny remnant of rainforest tea plantations spread as far as the eye could see. We asked where all this tea was going and our guide told us it was exported to Britain and India! Without protection the Nyungwe Forest would have suffered the same fate. Plans are under way to connect the Cyamudongo Forest to the main Nyungwe Forest with a 15-mile corridor. It's a major undertaking involving the planting of many trees and years for them to mature before the chimps will feel safe passing through.

Tea Plantations Outside of Nyungwe Forest

That afternoon we went off in search of some of Nyungwe's other 13 species of primates. In a patch of rainforest bordering a tea plantation was a troop of Angolan Colobus Monkeys (Colobus angolensis ruwenzori). An adult female was protectively holding her week-old baby. At this age the infants are entirely white.

Angolan Colobus Monkeys

David, our guide, told us that this group of Colobus monkeys was actually led by a female Dent's Mona Monkey. I was somewhat skeptical so David went off to search for her. He found her a short distance away and we went to investigate. Sure enough a different monkey was in the trees but she looked very odd. David went on to explain that she is actually a hybrid between a Dent's Mona Monkey (Cercopithecus denti) and a Red-tailed Monkey (Cercopithecus ascaniu).  

A Hybrid between Dent's Mona Monkey and a Red-tailed Monkey

How bizarre! I asked David if she was shunned by troops of Dent's Mona Monkeys or Red-tailed Monkeys and he said no but that she preferred to stay with the Colobus Monkeys. Being a hybrid she has never given birth presumably because she is sterile.

Another View of the Hybrid

Before leaving the park the following morning we drove back to the Uwinka Visitor's Center to search for Blue Monkeys. It was a long shot but I read that they sometimes hang out by the Visitor's Center. We walked along the road and Sam our driver says "is that a Blue Monkey?". Sure enough there was one low in a tree right next to the road. How lucky to see them so close. I later read that this monkey was once considered a subspecies of the Blue Monkey but is now classified as its own species called a Silver Monkey (Cercopithecus doggetti).

Silver Monkey

We're now on our way to the Democratic Republic of the Congo in search of more rare primates. Hopefully we can get through the Cyungugu Border Crossing without too much difficulty.

Cyungugu Border Crossing

Stay tuned to see how we make out in the Congo!
We hope all is well with everyone.
Peggy and Marc

Our route map:

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