Saturday, July 22, 2017

The Largest Living Primates!

Greetings Everyone,
On July 13 we crossed the border of Rwanda at Ruzizi and entered the Democratic Republic of the Congo. We have long wanted to come here but civil unrest and security concerns prevented us from visiting. Today there are a few areas safe for tourists and we were on our way to visit one of them, Kahuzi-Biega National Park. Not far from the border post is the town of Bukavu on the southern end of Lake Kivu and the starting point of our visit to Kahuzi-Biega. Bukavu is a chaotic place where street vendors line the pot-holed streets and people move about on motorcycles or in decrepit vans. The contrast to Rwanda couldn't be sharper and it took me a few days to adjust.


Fortunately there was an oasis of tranquility in town, the Orchids Safari Club, where we would spend the next 3 nights.

Orchids Safari Club

The following morning we drove through town along the shore of Lake Kivu before reaching the Tshivanga Visitor Center of Kahuzi-Biega National Park. We were greeted by the head guide Lambert and led into a building for a briefing. Straddling the Albertine Rift and the Congo Basin, Kahuzi-Biega National Park extends over 600,000 hectares of dense lowland rainforests as well as Afro-montaine forests. The park is named after two dormant volcanoes Mounts Kahuzi (3,308 m) and Biega (2,790 m) which are within its limits. Kahuzi-Biega was established in 1970 by the Belgian photographer and conservationist Adrien Deschryver whose grave was just above the parking lot.

The Grave of Adrien Deschryver

Kahuzi-Biega National Park is one of the last refuges of the Eastern Lowland or Grauer's Gorilla (Gorilla beringei graueri), a critically endangered species with fewer than 3800 in the wild as of 2016. Grauer's Gorillas are endemic to the Democratic Republic of the Congo and are one of the two species of Eastern Gorilla with Mountain Gorilla being the other species.

Eastern Gorilla Range Map (from Wikipedia)

We arranged to visit one of the Park's habituated groups called Chimanuka after the group's silverback. We drove along a dirt road through the park which is being upgraded by the Chinese contingent of the UN. I'm not sure if this is a good thing as it will improve access to the gorillas and increase the chance of poaching and encroachment into the forest.

UN Road Work

Surprisingly the gorillas were not far from the road and we could see the trees shaking even before we entered the forest! Sitting in a cleared path not more than 50 feet from the road was Mwidja a 29-year-old female.


There were at least two other gorillas in the vegetation that we couldn't see. One may have been her 3-year-old infant, Mwira. We were given masks to avoid transmitting diseases to the gorillas. We climbed steeply down through thick vegetation which our trackers had to hack through with machetes. 

Hacking Through the Jungle

There sitting in the open was Chimanuka, the silverback in the group. He got up and we followed him through the dense vegetation. I can't believe how close we were, maybe within 6 feet. 

Photographing Chimanuka

We followed him back up encountering more of the group, including another female and a young male call Uhuru (Swahili for freedom) taking a snooze. When he yawned he revealed his ferocious-looking canines. 


Being vegetarians, the canines are used for fighting between males. Chimanuka had a gash on his forehead from one such encounter 2 months ago. 


We followed the gorillas high above the road but it was getting difficult to track them so Lambert suggested returning to the road to see if they would cross. We could hear and see one gorilla on the hillside but he didn't come down to cross. It's no wonder as traffic along the road was surprisingly heavy with motorcycles and trucks piled high with people and goods crossing from the interior to Bukavu. 

Road Traffic Through Kahuzi-Biega National Park

We went to Lambert's position where two gorillas, one of which was Uhuru, were high up in the trees. We watched until the gorillas slid down the main trunk of the trees and disappeared into the forest.


We returned to our hotel where I spotted a colorful lizard just outside our room. We sent a photo to our friend Peter Uetz who works for Center for the Study of Biological Complexity based in Virginia. He confirmed the species to be Acanthocercus atricollis kivuensis, a subspecies of the Blue-headed Tree Agama found near Lake Kivu. According to their Agama expert, Philipp Wagner, he doesn't know of any published color photo of this subspecies. We were happy to have this photo posted in the Reptile Database!

Blue-headed Tree Agama

The next day we returned to the park to visit the Chimanuka Group a second time. Again they were quite close to the road and it took only 25 minutes to reach them. Eight members of the group including Chimanuka were foraging high up in a tree. It's amazing that a creature weighing up to 550 lbs. is so agile in the treetops. In fact, Eastern Lowland gorillas are the largest subspecies of gorilla and the largest living primates. He tore off large branches to reach the fruit growing on the end. 

Chimanuka in the Tree

On the ground sat 7-year-old Meteo. One of our trackers, Safari, pointed out that she had lost her left hand in a poacher's snare. Meteo is a poignant reminder of the many threats these gorillas face. Even though the snare may not have been meant for her but for some other animal sought out for the bushmeat trade she was an unfortunate victim. She was able to forage with her right hand and can even climb trees.


I noticed a man with the trackers taking photos. I asked him if he was a researcher. He said "No, I'm a field veterinarian based in the DRC." I asked if he was one of the Gorilla Doctors and he replied "Yes, I'm Dr. Martin Kabuyaya." I couldn't believe it! We had watched a 60 Minutes documentary reported by Lara Logan about the Gorilla Doctors just before leaving on our trip and Martin was one of the vets featured. I told him he was now a movie star and well known in the US.

Dr. Martin Kabuyaya with Peggy

To watch the 60 Minutes documentary click on the following link although you may have to subscribe to CBS news.

To learn more about the Gorilla Doctors and how you can help go to:

Martin provided a lot of information about the group and how it interacts with other groups. Three-year-old Karibu, named after the Swahili greeting, was sitting near Mateo. His mother was taken by the silverback from another group. In fact all the adult females except for Mwidja whom we had seen yesterday had been stolen leaving 35-year-old Chimanuka to care for many juveniles. Some as young as two and still nursing were left without mothers. Somehow under the protection and care of Chimanuka they all survived. Sadly his reign as chief silverback may be coming to an end because of his age. 

Meteo and Karibu

At the base of a tree sat another 3-year old female named Marhale. Her mother, Makali, was killed by a silverback from another group when she refused to go with him. 


All too quickly our 1-hour visit with Chimanuka and his group had come to an end. What a privilege to spend time with them on two consecutive days and to learn so much about them from Dr. Martin Kabuyaya! It was so much more than viewing gorillas but about meeting and learning about individuals and the struggles they face in the Congo. Just as important was meeting some of the rangers, trackers and veterinarians who risk their lives to protect and care for these critically endangered primates. Our sincere gratitude and admiration goes out to them. May they stay safe in protecting the largest living primates in the world!
We hope all is well with everyone.
Marc and Peggy

Our route map:

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