Golden Gorilla

Golden Gorilla

14Jul.Gorilla.Jim.462a.PdVOnly the rich can see wild animals. That’s the message – indeed, the policy – of Rwanda’s decision over the weekend to raise the permit fee for an hour with mountain gorillas to a staggering $1500 per person.

It’s really more profound. Not just seeing, but helping, conserving, understanding … all the components of saving our earth now become the purvey of the rich and the rich alone. Other implications are equally staggering.

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When More is Too Much

When More is Too Much

MoreGorillaHelpWhat do Mother Jones and the African Wildlife Foundation (AWF) share in common? They’re always broke?

Yesterday, tens of thousands of persons on Mother Jones’ mailing list received an appeal from AWF to add their signature to a petition against oil drilling in the Virunga mountains. Virunga is home to the endangered mountain gorilla and a host of other lowland rainforest species.

Ostensibly the one-click link within the email adds your signature to a petition telling the Ugandan government not to issue oil licenses in the area, but in fact the page looks remarkably like a signup sheet for the AWF newsletter.

Like the “Stop the Serengeti Highway” which continues nearly five years after the Serengeti highway was stopped, aggressive development of Virunga for oil was stopped three years ago after Leonardo di Caprio’s remarkable documentary, “Virunga” was nominated for an Oscar.

Di Caprio was incensed when a British oil company began exploitation of the Virungas in 2013. Together with an aggressive campaign by the World Wildlife Fund which collaborated slightly on the film the original oil companies developing the area pulled out.

That was more than a year ago.

There were probably many reasons major oil companies pulled out of the area. We were on the brink of the decline in the oil price, so if anyone was aware of the upcoming glut, these companies were.

The new peace that came to the Virunga right about that time remained fragile, and it was and remains actually Uganda, not the DRC where most of the reserves have been located, that is trying so aggressively to sell its rights. Without clear collaboration with the DRC, development would be incomplete and probably too costly.

Without the major oil companies’ interest, the Ugandan government’s possible imminent assignments of exploration blocks in the area isn’t quite as serious as it seems.

This kind of global pandering is typical of the Museveni government as he thumbs his nose at an increasingly critical foreign community. Last week western ambassadors walked out of his umpteenth inauguration ceremony when he deviated from published remarks into a tirade about the west and the World Court.

AWF is not alone in the current campaign. It’s joined by Greenpeace. Both organizations have had a long history of positive work in the Virungas but this current campaign rings a bit hollow.

Not because it lacks merit, but because it carries a very obvious ulterior motive: fund raising. Fund raising for all not-for-profits is a never-ending struggle and there’s nothing negative about it per se.

But there are thresholds of “urgency” when asking for money. AWF in particular has recently initiated a number of crisis campaigns, from elephants to lions, with increasingly short intervals.

It’s hard to get attention in these days of Trumped-up reality. But the right way to do it isn’t just by increasing the volume.

Better the Beast You Know

Better the Beast You Know

"Gorilla Taxes": original construct by pborgbarthet at worth1000.com
The second greatest conservation success story in my lifetime may be out of control. Mountain gorilla populations may be prospering because so are bribes and corruption.

The first mountain gorilla trek I brokered was in June, 1979. At the time Dian Fossey reigned on Karisoke volcano with no aplomb and great madness. But science had arrived and the population count was reliably put at 285.

That is a dangerously low number for any life form.

Last week a consortium of field biologists announced the current mountain gorilla count is right around 800. “Right around” is the euphemistic scientific phrase that means “we can’t get an exact count in The DRC Congo because there’s a war there.”

Nevertheless, the number is fabulous. The population of this awesome beast is not going extinct, at least not right now. And really the sole reason is tourism.

Mountain gorillas live in two places near to one another: Bwindi Forest almost entirely within Uganda, and the much larger Virunga Mountains (which is actually the highland forests connecting seven dormant volcanoes) which is mostly in Rwanda but a bit in Uganda and a bit more also in The DRC Congo.

Bwindi is separated from the Virungas by a 50 kilometer long forest corridor that gorillas likely could use to migrate, although little field science has confirmed this.

Three years ago when guiding a prominent American zoo group I experienced first-hand how a large portion of Bwindi “tourism” works: illegally. It had been often reported before, but this was my first personal experience. Years before, when Uganda tourism was not yet mature, I had a similar experience with my daughter that was actually far more dangerous. This zoo experience was not dangerous, it was simply corrupt.

I knew what we were doing from the getgo. Most tourists do not. A blog I found posted by an enthusiastic traveler last March is a perfect example of a tourist who doesn’t realize she’s engaging in the black market, and it’s a perfect blow-by-blow description of just such an experience.

I’m not want to extol the virtues of capitalism, but the dynamic is a perfect indicator in this case. In Rwanda’s Parc de Volcans, where mountain gorilla trekking has merged art, science and commerce to near perfection, the cost of seeing a mountain gorilla for an hour is $750. In Uganda’s Bwindi, permits are currently going for under $350.

It happens usually with “walk-in” tourists or tourists who have booked too late for a legitimate permit. Real gorilla permits are controlled in Uganda in a very nepotistic way: a mix of officials playing strictly by the rules and demanding full nonrefundable payment at the time of reserving, or by holding a few residual permits in reserve that are allocated to relatives and friends in the tourist industry.

This means that if you book your trek through a reputable local ground handler far enough in advance, you’re probably playing by the rules. In my case three years ago, my choice of a “reputable operator” was flawed.

For a number of years I had relied on a small but extremely dignified man who had deep connections with the Ugandan government which gave me singular but above-board benefits. He had a heart attack only weeks before we arrived, long after we had fully paid him, and his tourist company fell into the control of his far less reputable nephew.

What the disreputable operators do is bribe soldiers or rangers to “guide” tourists to gorilla families that are not yet fully habituated, so to gorilla families that are not yet “on the list” to be visited. At a serious discount to the official permit price.

There are eight habituated gorilla families in Bwindi and nine (soon ten) in Rwanda’s Parc de volcans. With a maximum of 6-8 tourists allowed per family visit, that caps legal permits at right around 125 daily. The demand is far greater than this. It also means that only a fraction of the mountain gorillas alive today are a part of habituated groups. Most are wild animals ripe for exploitation.

Legitimate permits are usually sold out a year in advance. Walk-in tourists usually don’t have the funds, they are generally savvy on the internet, and they know that someone in Kampala will sell them a permit for much less. That wasn’t my unique situation of course, three years ago, but it’s the case most of the time.

There is danger in any black market, and in this one it’s physical as well as the risk that you won’t see gorillas at all. The physical danger comes from approaching a powerful wild animal before it wants you to. “Charging” very rarely happens with habituated gorillas, but you’ll note in the blog I’ve chosen above that this was central to her tourist experience. It’s not a good thing.

But missing the experience altogether is as great a risk. The chance of not encountering a gorilla family on a legitimate non-black market experience is today next to nil. But trekking to non-habituated families usually means it’s much longer, more difficult and easily aborted if weather turns bad. It also means the so-called “guide” probably knows how to shoot better than commune with a gorilla.

Ugandan society at large is much more corrupt than Rwanda, and the shenanigans in Bwindi is pretty typical of the whole range of Ugandan society from permits required to starting a business to parading in public.

The iron fist government in Rwanda, for which I have an equal tome of criticism of a different kind, is insurance that black marketeering of gorilla permits there won’t happen.

Nuff said? Almost, but there’s more. I can’t figure out if the Ugandan official response to the black marketeering was good or bad. That government response was to lower the official permit price to what the black market was commanding, $350.

(In my personal experience three years ago with eight other people, I discovered that the “guide” was given only $150 per person. We had of course paid $500 – the official rate at the time – so there was quite a profit in the capitalist chain that one morning.)

Lowering the price to the black market level is creative, but my assumption is that the black marketers will simply go lower still. Whatever the case, official Uganda is now considering raising the official price back to $500. This remains $250 below the Rwandan level.

What we have happening with mountain gorilla trekking in Uganda is a dangerously unregulated market, because official Ugandan control of Bwindi has been lost to racketeers and corrupt rangers. And I don’t think official fiddling with the price will stop it.

The free-for-all capitalism of Bwindi has led to all sorts of tourist attractions linked directly to less and less good science and wildlife management. Gorillas regularly wander into tourist lodge areas there, for example, something the Rwandans understand is neither good or safe.

Yet the fact is that the mountain gorilla population in Bwindi seems to be increasing faster than in the Virungas. Is ecology linked to an unfettered free market?

According to Uganda’s Minister of tourism, “’This result confirms beyond reasonable doubt that Uganda’s conservation efforts are paying off.”

Or something else.

Rwanda’s Choice: Gorillas or Guerillas

Rwanda’s Choice: Gorillas or Guerillas

Rwanda is beginning to boil. Genocide is not in cards, but tourism is definitely jeopardized.

Last month the UN issued a report clearly implicating Rwanda in the growing conflict in neighboring Congo. Western countries on the Security Council responded with reductions of aid and other sanctions, and the situation is growing tense.

The mountain gorillas live in an area that straddles the three countries of the Congo, Uganda and Rwanda. There is fighting in The Congo and it’s never achieved a level of safety capable of a stable tourism industry.

Uganda remains unstable for tourism, and the market has confirmed this. A mountain gorilla permit remains $750 in Rwanda and the 56 daily permits are often booked up a year in advance. In Uganda you can now obtain a permit for around $350 for the day before.

As the situation in the Congo escalates, the safety or more correctly, the well-being of tourists visiting Rwanda is jeopardized. I’m not warning tourists to avoid Rwanda, now, but it’s very important that those who now book gorilla ascents recognize that future events could impact the efficacy of their planned visit.

They should be prepared and willing to cancel at the last minute.

While violence is increasing in The Congo, there is no violence in either Uganda or Rwanda and nothing right now to suggest any. The point it that the same discomforts and apprehension tourists traveling to Uganda to see gorillas feel today might in the next year or so develop in Rwanda as well.

These discomforts and apprehensions are often minor. We as guides are effected by them much more than the tourist. They’re manifest mostly in a breakdown of park patrolling and authority, the increase in the necessity of bribes, and the breaking of conservation rules especially those applied particularly to tourists visiting the gorillas themselves.

Eventually tourists begin to feel these, though, and that’s the reason for Uganda’s huge market decline right now.

Rwandan Tutsi seem to be throwing down the mantel, and that’s not good for tourists. Popular local journalists are growing increasingly offensive to Americans, especially.

Sensitive American tourists are now reporting the unease themselves.

The complicated problem in the area is the same as it’s been for centuries: Hutus versus Tutsis. The violence has a colonial culpability to it, and the inability for any lessons to have been learned from the great genocide of 1994 is squarely the blame of western countries, particularly France and the U.S.

I find it singularly ironic that Bill Clinton, the principal reason the 1994 genocide was not curtailed (and he has admitted this as his greatest foreign policy failure) was in Kigali a few weeks ago acting totally oblivious to the storm clouds gathering.

The UN experts determined last month that Rwanda was directly funding and in other ways supporting the main Tutsi militia group that has successfully beaten the UN peace keeping forces in several battles in the last several weeks.

M23 has taken control of considerable territory in Kivu Province and is threatening the major town of Goma. Refugees are fleeing by the thousands. The UN is in an enormous dilemma as the current peace-keeping force will be unable to curtail further M23 advances.

Following the Rwandan genocide in 1994, perhaps a million Rwandan hutus fled into the less stable eastern Congo. At first they were treated as refugees and supported by the UN but over time they became a powerful militia known as the Interamwe.

Rwanda and to a lesser extent, Uganda, supported any armed group that could push back against the growing power of the Interamwe. As time passed allegiances grew complicated, as did the politics of the greater Congo nation. In an attempt to establish authority in the far eastern Kivu province, Kinshasa essentially provoked more war in Kivu, stirring up the pot further.

Out of this extraordinarily complicated mess emerged “M23,” a militia group decidedly Tutsi. One of its first commanders is currently on trial in The Hague for crimes against humanity, specifically the conscription of children as soldiers. But M23 continued and is today the single greatest threat for stability in Kivu.

And the UN with western nations’ affirmation has charged that Rwanda is illegally supporting M23.

This will not be solved soon. Rwanda is one of the most dictatorial countries on earth, but that alone shouldn’t stop aware tourists. Safety is the paramount issue. And “well-being” which includes being able to have fun, is intrinsic to any valuable travel experience.

Rwanda’s teetering on the fence. Stay tuned.

What Price is Too High?

What Price is Too High?

More than a million and a half viewers have watched the mountain gorilla YouTube. Is this the reason Rwanda has raised the permit price to $750?

I’m absolutely infuriated by this hike. The added revenue is not going to gorilla research, and the bulk of it is not going back into any kind of conservation whatever: it’s going to a very corrupted, dictatorial and inhumane Rwandan government.

There’s no way Rwanda will open its books so that we can see exactly where that $750 goes. The country has become one of the world’s worst human rights violators, thumbing its nose at virtually all organizations demanding public accountability. I’d speculate that $750 is divided something like this:

$125 for gorilla and other conservation
$125 for country-wide development
$150 for security and incarceration of political dissidents
$150 for unnecessary pet projects of political bigwigs
$300 into the pockets and Swiss bank accounts of high officials

Second, this absurd cost to spend an hour with a wild animal continues the transformation of the planet’s wildernesses into a playground exclusively for the rich.

And thirdly, it coopts wilderness conservation from a scientific orientation into a commercial one insensitive to the needs of the Rwandan people, and in fact one which tacitly supports their oppression.

EWT sent some of the very first tourists up Karisoke during the first mountain gorilla visits in 1979. The permit cost was $25. There was one organization involved in the project and Rwanda was anything but a stable, modern country.

Today Rwanda is probably the most modern country in East Africa. Fiber cable has been laid or is being laid to carry the most advanced technologies to virtually every corner of this tiny country. The Rwandan economy – benefitting from a hugely disproportionate amount of foreign aid as a result of the ‘94 genocide – is booming.

And gorilla permits now cost 30 times what they originally did and there are more than a dozen foreign wildlife organizations working in the area. And, very importantly, the population of mountain gorillas has more than doubled to just under 800.

That population is probably near its maximum, because the habitat isn’t large enough for more. I’m sure that many scientists will disagree, but I’ll cynically suggest they are circumscribed by their own over-field population encouraged by Rwandan officials.

I’m sure throughout Africa there is more habitat suitable for mountain gorillas than there currently are mountain gorillas, but in Rwanda specially and alone, I think we’ve reached the maximum. The gorilla density in the Rwandan Virungas has exceeded its natural carrying capacity specifically to encourage tourism dollars.

The evidence of this is the growing size (numbers of individual per family) and the acceleration of family amalgamation and the growing examples of multiple silverbacks in the same family.

Humans in Rwanda are also overpopulated. But the state of the Rwandan people is far from being 30 times better than in 1979. There have been notable improvements in the eradication of some poverty and general overall economic development, but personal liberty and freedom of expression have been squashed like a gorilla stepping on a mushroom.

I’ve watched that YouTube video multiple times. I’ve listened to the person narrating the experience drift with his personal excitement into a world of inaccuracies that he either considered inconsequential or artistically fanciful, as proof we as tourists are being fashioned as the weapons against the local population, and as paymasters of the world’s worst dictators.

The excitement of the tourist in that video is still to me critically important. I’ve now trekked to see the gorillas more than 50 times and I will bring others, still again. Whatever else it may be, it is a haven of natural balance and beauty and every time some tourist bonds with it, we can hope her priorities have been realigned to saving the earth.

But just as we walk the Great Wall or paddle down the Tambopata, we must more than ever be cognizant of exactly what we’re doing, and I don’t mean shooting a video.

I mean wondering where the money we paid ends up. I mean wondering why people who aren’t as rich as we are can’t as easily experience the most natural and pristine parts of our earth. I mean wondering why our clawed Victorian bathtub holds gallons of steaming water while the family of the man who cleans it for us is searching for a teaspoon of clean water to drink.

To me, developing the awareness of this awful conundrum in the so-called “wild” is the most important experience of all. It’s a very personal decision. For me as a guide, the absurdity of the cost provides an easier platform for me to help my clients achieve this special awareness. So not yet is the price too high. But what is too high, then? I don’t know. That’s my own, the guide’s conundrum.

Hot Time in the Old Town

Hot Time in the Old Town

There is probably nowhere better on earth to see and learn about volcanoes than Hawaii. But it’s in Africa where you can risk your life to get close!

And that’s the important phrase: risk your life. I’m not sure it’s either wise or appropriate no matter who you are, but right now the officials managing a track of Congo national park are organizing trips up to a cliff just above the erupting Nyahamiru.

Nyahamiru – which you’ll find spelled in a variety of ways – is the live brother of the dormant volcanoes lived in by the mountain gorillas in Uganda and Rwanda. It is the western most volcano of this range. And for my entire lifetime it has been a live volcano moving in and out of dormancy about every 10-15 years.

In the days before the Congo wars, we traveled up and down Kivu province with abandon, and there were mountain gorillas in several different places. In Kahuzi-Biega national park literally adjacent Nyahamiru, there are the eastern lowland gorillas, gorilla berengei graueri, lives. Not too long ago Kahuzi-Biega was its own live volcano.

So this is beyond doubt the land of volcanoes. Some of my closest associates in the tour business in the 1970s and 1980s were volcanologists. Together with Hawaii, the volcanoes on the western Rift of Africa (this place) are the most spectacular and interesting in the world.

Which is probably why I’ve never personally climbed one, or a mountain beside one, as currently promoted in Congo tourist literature.

In fact one of the conservateurs (top officials) of the eastern Congo parks is personally inviting us all to join him on the plateau just above the volcano. And people are doing it. And I won’t admit whether I would like to do it or not, but you shouldn’t.

There’s no other place in the world with as loose or nonexistent tourist safety regulations as The Congo, so essentially you can do anything you want. Right now, the Congo’s wildlife sanctuaries are simultaneously its hunting reserves.

So the “Conservateur” of the public land on which sits this giant volcano has invited everyone to come and see it … up close.

This should not be disseminated on college campuses.

The conservateur has found a flat piece of land about 300 feet above the molten lava, and in a position where prevailing winds always carry lava spews in the opposite direction. It’s been given the scientific seal of approval by selected by volcanologist Dario Tedesco who heads the Goma Volcanological Observatory.

I’m not sure this is wise, but then if you’ve even just found yourself in The Congo you’re probably unwise from the getgo.

Here’s what one Scandanavian traveler recently posted on a blog:

“The Nyiragongo is an omnipresent view from the streets of Goma: a smoking giant during the day, a surreal glowing shadow at night. With a group of 7 tourists we started our ascend (sic) through the foothills of the volcano through dense jungle, after about an hour the forest gave way to an old lava flow, which according to our guide originated from the 2002 eruption, which burned down half of Goma.”

You got that last bit, right? Burned down half of Goma.

“After this point the landscape varies between lava flows, jungle and African alpine vegetation. The last leg of the journey is by far the toughest, a 20-30 minute hike up a 45 degree angle mountain mostly consisting of loose scree. But when you get to the crater all your weariness is forgotten, one of the most amazing sights you will ever witness welcomes you with warmth (literally).

“All your senses are stimulated by the loudly boiling, red-hot glowing, warmth radiating and sulfur smelling lava lake, the largest in the world.”

There is a reason that there aren’t too many tourists traveling into The Congo yet. The numbers going in never equal the numbers coming out.

No Odds on Bossie

No Odds on Bossie

Hardly had my business to show people big wild animals got off the ground when Peter Beard published his book, End of the Game. Now, I wonder, are there too many wild animals in Africa?

Yesterday we learned that the predictable “bamboo season” in Rwanda’s Parc de Volcan was bringing “as expected” many of the mountain gorillas out of their reserves into adjacent farmer fields. The battle between the cow and the gorilla, though, was not expected.

Researchers following the Urugamba silverback recorded him “charging a nearby cow” last week, although the expected bloody encounter was avoided when he unexpectedly stopped the chase. But cow-gorilla conflicts while troublesome are not what is principally bothering researchers.

Human-gorilla conflicts are escalating throughout the Virunga range, and give every indication that some biological threshold has been reached. The list is long but began horribly documented in 2007 when irate villagers stoned to death a gorilla that had entered their village.

An EWT client was one of the first ever tourists to visit habituated mountain gorillas back in 1979. Then, there were an estimated 280.

Today, the estimates range between 685 to more than 700, approaching a three-fold increase during my lifetime. Similar numbers apply to many animals throughout Africa, including other headliners like elephant and wildebeest.

Researchers are currently painting the human-gorilla conflict as not necessarily something the gorilla needs, but rather something it wants. This is the “bamboo season” as new shoots grow quickly with the onset of the seasonal rains. Gorillas “love” bamboo shoots.

In PdV many of the best and newest bamboo shoots appear first outside the park. The report of the incident between the gorilla and the cow was concluded by the researcher, “There are sure to be many incidents in the coming weeks surrounding the highly anticipated bamboo season. Stay tuned!”

Interestingly, this is exactly opposite to what the researchers in the PdV’s sister and adjoining park in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), Virunga National Park, claim. There, researchers wait anxiously for the “moment bamboo shoots are available” when their gorillas end raiding farmers’ crops and return inside the park boundaries.

So it sounds to me that there is no particular reason that new bamboo shots are outside rather than inside a park, and probably, in both parks they’re in both places. The human-gorilla conflict is more serious than where new bamboo shoots occur.

The human-gorilla conflict has been seriously documented ever since 2009 when an interagency working group HUGO was formed to deal with it. The name of the group was changed to human-wildlife conflict, in part because as researchers got into the problem they realized the area’s residents while concerned with gorilla conflicts were equally concerned with other burgeoning wildlife in the park, like buffalo.

A foot-high stone barrier is being erected around almost the entire PdV, and this seems to have helped stopped human-buffalo encounters. Near very productive farms alongside Sabyinyo volcano a trench has been cut, which seems to have impeded human-elephant encounters.

But a successful technique to discourage gorillas has not been found. Several years ago the International Gorilla Conservation Program (IGCP) encouraged using drums to scare away the gorillas, but one researcher in 2009 said, “I’m told they enjoy the sound and allegedly start dancing when the drums appear.”

And then this year the DRC gorillas became so familiar at tourist camps and area farms, that researchers began using drums again.

They still don’t dance. But it still doesn’t work.

One of the things that gnaws equally at my conscience and nostalgia is that the growing human-wildlife conflict in Africa is a reflection that years ago the precarious state so much big game found itself was, in fact, a natural if precarious balance with man.

But when man discovered he could make money showing animals to other men, which bought time to deliver a growing compassion as well as a separate understanding that biodiversity is essential to man’s long-term survival, big game became nurtured … developed.

And so, surprise, it prospered.

And so did man.

So the conflicts that existed so long ago that nearly made extinct such animals as the mountain gorilla are only more severe, today. The conflict resolutions are becoming more high tech, more intense and understandably, much more expensive.

And in some cases, such as with gorillas, there don’t seem to be any good conflict resolutions.

Ultimately this growing human-wildlife conflict in Africa will reach a breaking point, and if scientists are unable to stop the rate of growth of these animal populations by benign means before this happens, human policy that understandably favors humans will. And it may not be very pretty, then.

Volunteerism Not Always Good

Volunteerism Not Always Good

I often receive requests by sincere travelers who want to volunteer in Africa. The latest is from an enthusiastic woman who wants to help the mountain gorillas. She doesn’t want to pay “some tourist company thousands and not directly help.” Like many well meaning people, she’s got it very wrong.

Particularly with regards to the mountain gorillas, it’s my opinion that tourists doing nothing more than “paying thousands to tour companies” do as much if not more to help the mountain gorillas than scientists.

Read In the Kingdom of the Gorillas by Bill Weber and Amy Vedder, the two scientists who began the mountain gorilla project in the 1970s. From that book alone (and there are many more) you’ll see that without tourists paying the huge fee to the Rwandan government just for the privilege of seeing the gorillas, plus the funds paid local transporters and hoteliers, it is likely there would be no mountain gorillas left.

The sentiment to volunteer is a hopeful one, to be sure, and shared by many enthusiastic conservationists. And it is typical of caring travelers and crosses well beyond animal conservation into all areas of volunteerism.

Volunteerism can be good, please don’t mistake me. But there are several negative sides to it which send up serious red flags to the organizations involved.

Casual volunteers usually cause more difficulties than they expect. The most important one is time. Unless you have a half year to dedicate to some project, it’s unlikely you’ll be invited to assist. This is as true for mountain gorilla research at Kinigi as it is for AIDS education in Soweto.

Someone coming for just a month, for example, causes tremendous housekeeping problems such as food and housing (which you cannot try to do yourself).

Integrating the skills of a new team member into the team is as hard for an experienced field researcher as a casual volunteer. It takes careful analysis and if done wrong can compromise the goals of the entire project.

Analyzing your skills by a potential project takes time and money. Mistaking your capabilities, or inappropriately allocating your skills, will cost the project even more time and money. And today, time and money are scarcer than ever.

The mountain gorilla project in particular is not your down-the-street food bank. The people who work there are highly educated, generally postdocs, in highly specific fields. Of course any organization can use someone to paint the walls, but doing that robs part of the high intentions of the project: it takes those types of jobs away from Rwandans.

Remember that a principal goal of practically any aid project, whether it be animal conservation or public health, is to ultimately turn that project over to locals. The first stage of this implementation is turning over the least skilled jobs, something that is almost always the rating of a casual volunteer.

And finally, there is a negative side that is extremely important to me personally that people must try to understand. Volunteering in any sense can coopt one’s support for the grander projects that carry real potential. Projects that are government to government, or foreign aid support of organizations like the Mountain Gorilla Project.

Our first and foremost responsibility as true conservationists and sincere volunteers is to support politics at home that will continue to fund the organizations we support. If you were able to expend energy, for example, in making sure that your political representatives supported USAid projects of the Mountain Gorilla Project, and you and others were successful, you will have achieved a much greater goal in helping the gorillas than anything you could do personally in a short time there.

I am happy and willing to link anyone with trained skills appropriate to projects in Africa with any of a number of organizations, provided you have a half year or more available. Let me know! Otherwise, recognize that it is we paean tourists who have done the greatest good for the mountain gorillas, just by going there and “paying thousands” to the local government and local businesses!

So Who’s Smarter?

So Who’s Smarter?

Doreen Yashen photographing Baldy in Parcs de volcans.
Sixty-four people with broken legs and open wounds gather at Kinigi headquarters everyday to see 8 mountain gorilla families. We were no different.

I love Parcs de volcans. I love the guides, the organization, the scenery, and most of all I love the artifice we guides bring to the daily planning session with the chief guide to decide which clients will visit which families.

Some families are almost always hard, like Sousa. Some families are almost always easy, like Hilwa.

“Hard” means a trek of an hour or more, and more than once my treks have exceeded four hours. It’s not uncommon to return at dark from a day that begins just after 8:30a.

“Easy” means you’re back at your lodge before lunch.

Right.

Left to right: Bill, Doreen, Alex, Sarah & Stephen

So today I – like every other guide – pleaded in guide pow-wow that I had five people with broken limbs and failing organs. Other guides had brought one-eyed clients, the deaf, and the recently released insane. One guide even claimed his client was 90 years old but knew how to wear cosmetics well.

That over, the implacable chief guide politely began to filter the pool.

Stage one: all those who had trekked yesterday over to the side. These included two women who had been vomiting most of their lives and an old man who couldn’t remember his name.

Stage two was a general separation by age. The 90-year old was excised and presumed 60, and the under fifties with insured ailments were lumped together.

In beautiful African undertones, artifice gave way to smiles and streaks of honesty. My five were assigned to one of the easiest groups, Hilwa, in return for taking moderately hard group, Sabyinyo, for the rest of us eight.

And off we went.

We eight to Sabyinyo saw the largest silverback, Gahonda, and a week-old baby, along with what seemed to be a drunken 5-year old and others in the family of 11. The day was spectacular, the experience as always thrilling, the trek took about 16 minutes, and we were back at the lodge at 11:30a.

The five to Hilwa saw one of the most impressive silverbacks, a year-old kid, and were not the requisite 7 meters from several family members, but more like 7 millimeters. The day was spectacular, their experience particularly thrilling as they scaled 80% inclines, hung from rocks by their fingernails, and tiptoed across a 1″ ledge of the Great Rift Valley.

And the five assigned to the easy group got home at 4 p.m. Haggard is not sufficient to explain their condition. Daniel Pomerantz, a refugee into the group of five from the youth corps, arrived with most of the left leg of his pants trailing his feet.

The low road was the high road and the antics in trying to predetermine which would be which now seemed patently absurd. Cathy Colt and Hope Koncal were turned into champions, their positive and unrelenting attitudes taking them to heights they could never imagine scaling.

It’s really amazing as you sit for that short hour among these monoliths of pre-humanity. You know that they know a lot more than you think. Are they entertaining us? Are they earning their security this way, cognitively? Or, are they just having fun brushing by us and rolling out of trees?

Seeing distant reflections of our humanness in these gentle creatures makes war and aggressive capitalism and obsessions with success seem utterly trivial. They are so simple, so supremely self-confident and so survival savvy that they’ve manipulated us to preserve them.

So all the questions about what they’re doing out there turn back around onto us. It isn’t why are they so fascinating, but why have we dedicated so much of our resources to preserve them?

Is it, maybe, that we want to find the justification for preserving ourselves?

Existentialism aside, you big brutes bested us, today! And I suspect you always will.

Left to right:
Silverback Gahonda, ZooDirector Steve

Bwindi Gorillas

Bwindi Gorillas

Alex Banzhaf photographing Bwindi's Bitakura silverback.
This safari has two scheduled gorilla treks, one in Bwindi (Uganda) and one in Parcs de volcans (Rwanda). Today’s was in Bwindi.

Our group of 13 was divided into three sub-groups. Four people visited the Habinyanja group, and the other two groups visited the Bitakura group (one in the morning and one in the afternoon).

Unlike Rwanda where permits are not group specific, because Bwindi is so spread out (the distance from one gorilla station to another can be 6 hours of tedious driving) permits are issued group-specific.

Habinyanja was closest to where we were staying at Buhoma. So Dave, Hope, Margo and Stephen, left the lodge at 7:30a and drove about 1½ hour to the starting point. Sometimes, Habinyanja can be within ten minutes of Buhoma.

Steve, Sarah, Doreen and Roger were headed to Bitakura. This was presumed to be a 3-hour drive from our lodge, so they started out at 6 a.m. But in fact it took them only about 1¾ hours.

The rest of us didn’t leave the lodge until 9:30a. We had lunch after a three-hour drive, and then started trekking about 1:30p.

Everyone saw gorillas! The trek I was with was the hardest one: it took us nearly two hours before we found the Bitakura family, but what a prize! We saw all three silverbacks, the one-year old, and number of other family members.

The Habinyanja group proved the easiest trek. They descended from their start point and were with the 18-member family within a half hour.

Daniel Pomerantz & silverback.

And in between was the morning excursion to Bitakura. So actually, no trek was excessively long – not even mine. But the Bwindi terrain is often more difficult than the Parcs de volcans terrain, and so in that regards it did seem taxing on some members of the group. But with attentive porters and great guides, it was a super experience for all!

One of the greatest moments of a gorilla safari is when everyone gets back, cleans up, shares some digital photos and endless stories. See my earlier blogs about mountain gorilla trekking: it’s not just a personally rewarding and dramatic experience, but a real part of successful conservation.

Tomorrow, our long trek into Rwanda!

Personal Note: This was my 50th gorilla trek! Somewhat ironic, since I’ve had only 6 of those in Uganda, most of the rest in Rwanda (and 5 in The Congo). I quietly celebrated by sitting on my deck at the lodge and listening to the sounds of Bwindi until I fell asleep.

To the jungles of the Gorilla

To the jungles of the Gorilla

As I leave for Africa to guide the Cleveland Zoo to see mountain gorillas, it’s worth repeating what a wonderful success story this is.

When EWT sent its first tourist into Rwanda’s Parcs de volcans in 1979, there were less than 320 mountain gorillas, a dangerously low number. At the time scientists had determined that if the population dipped below 280, it was likely the genetic diversity would not be great enough to sustain a long-term population.

There had been a lot of good science already completed back then, by such people as George Schaller and a bevy of Japanese researchers.

Dian Fossey was not a good researcher. Neither was she a good person. She was a media creation who in the end completed no good science and probably set the science of primates on a reverse track.

There’s no question that her media celebrity, though, helped the cause. Maybe even jump-started it.

But for the truth about early mountain gorilla science and the mountain gorilla program that began in earnest in the 1980s and which saved these great beasts, read In the Kingdom of Gorillas: The Quest to Save Rwanda’s Mountain Gorillas by husband/wife researchers Bill Weber and Amy Vedder. Bill and Amy were technically Dian’s first assistants, but as you will learn from reading their popular book, Dian needed almost more medical attention than the gorillas.

The gorilla project essentially begun by Bill and Amy is what saved these grand beasts. Today there are more than 750, despite a series of wars and natural disasters. It is a healthy, robust albeit still endangered population.

What happened?

Basically the business of tourism saved the gorillas. Today every visitor (and there are 56 daily in Rwanda and up to 42 daily in Uganda) pays $500 for an hour with habituated mountain gorilla families.

The enormous revenue this generated was transparently used first to help the gorillas and their habitat, and then, to help the human populations surrounding the habitats which for centuries had been understandably hostile to the animals.

This seed mountain generated more money. Money from research institutes, tangential organizations and even direct from governments.

The model of the mountain gorilla project is one of the most successful in the tourism/conservation arena…

Next week I’ll be blogging from Uganda and then Rwanda as a group of 12 others joins Cleveland Zoo Director, Steve Taylor, and myself as we explore the jungles for these grand beasts and some of their equally interesting cousins.

I hope you’ll follow us!

TITUS the gorilla

TITUS the gorilla

This U.N. “Year of the Gorilla” couldn’t have come at a worse economic time, and as if to underscore the sadness, the great Silverback Titus has died.

Probably the most studied mountain gorilla on earth, Titus, died September 14 at the age of 35. He was survived by uncountable progeny and most importantly his son, Rano, who killed him.

Titus lived in Rwanda’s Volcano National Park, the master for so many years of the Susa Group. His birth was recorded on August 24, 1974, by American researcher, Kelly Stewart. He was observed every day thereafter until researchers at the Karisoke Research Station found him dead in his nest in the morning.

Rano had been hassling him for months. Titus avoided fights – he was still bigger but not as strong as his son – but the researchers who buried him in the gorilla cemetery on September 16 (at the site of the original Karisoke Research Camp) said he had just “given up” to Rano’s incessant bullying. Thirty-five is a ripe old age for a wild gorilla.

There was no autopsy. Researchers do not think he was sick. He was just old, and hassled by his son.

During his life he made films (click here) , was WikiPedia’s poster child (click here) , and even headlined the BBC World News (click here) . Simply put, he was the baseline not only for mountain gorilla research, but the rise of tourism that ultimately saved this endangered creature.

The heavy sort-of El Nino rains that were predicted had started two weeks earlier. New bamboo shoots were sprouting everywhere, and this meant that the gorilla families didn’t have to wander so much each day to feed. More time for bickering, I guess.

It is an oustandingly beautiful time in the park. Some of the orchids continue to bloom as the rains begin, the already lush jungle bursts out in fresh color and smells, and the whole mess of foliage is filled with rainbow colors of elegant Arum Lilys, wild versions of Geraniums, Hyacinths, Aster Daisys, Lupins, Dahlias and Nasturtiums.

The greatest of the turacos moves into its spectacular breeding plumage, looking like a giant blue soccer ball piercing the green, its monkey-like grunting echoing all over the place.

It was probably his favorite time. So make your bed, go to sleep and let pesky Rano take over.