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Aping the Movie, They Were Tourists in the Mist

WASHINGTON POST

I think I came the closest to giving up when the guides started using their machetes not just to knock down an errant vine or two but actually to hack our path through the jungle.

Come on, I thought, this is only allowed to happen in Stewart Granger movies. But we pressed on, hunching forward to more or less butt and shoulder our way through wet and clinging greenery, with mud and tangled roots sucking at every footstep.

There were 10 of us--six middle-aged American tourists, a Belgian student, two official guides and a local hanger-on who, I suspected, had joined up in hopes of earning a few dollars carrying out our broken bodies.

Ten--including guides--is the largest group permitted to visit the gorilla families that live in this chilly, rainy refuge 9,000 feet up the slopes of Volcanoes National Park in northwest Rwanda, along the borders of Zaire and Uganda. Many more are pressing to come these days, inspired not by Stewart Granger but by Sigourney Weaver, who played pioneer gorilla researcher Dian Fossey in the hit 1987 movie “Gorillas in the Mist,” filmed here.

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People called Fossey a nut when she first set out to see gorillas in their remote native habitat here in 1967, and I was beginning to believe we were just as crazy to be doing it now. But what can equal the uneasy fascination inspired by the gorilla, this stronger, hairier version of ourselves?

From P.T. Barnum to King Kong, the gorilla’s image-makers have pumped up our fears and fantasies: Unchained from our clothes, our schools and dinner tables, is this what we would be, roaring through the jungle, beating our chests?

The tingle of meeting an unpredictable, seven-foot, 400-pound creature face to face, and being tolerated, even accepted as a mere visitor--well, the idea of such an experience had drawn all six of us to Africa for nearly a month.

So here we were, having explored Nairobi, Olduvai Gorge, the plains of the Serengeti and Ngorongoro Crater in Tanzania--that is, the standard East Africa tour--all of which we had long beem tempted to visit.

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As we slogged along, trying to keep track of people three feet in front who kept disappearing into the vines, it struck me that my stooped posture was rather gorillalike; that I was gazing upward through my eyebrows in order to confront the brush with the top of my head rather than my face, and that I might have slipped less in the mud had I been barefoot and able to grasp the roots with my toes.

I considered beating my chest and howling, but we had been told specifically not to do that. We were there to watch the gorillas, not to challenge them. Not challenging the animals, we were told, was very important.

If a gorilla looks hard at you, look away, the guides advised. Don’t maintain eye contact; that could be taken as a challenge. Keep your head lower than the big male silverback’s head. Don’t point your finger. Move slowly. Don’t show your teeth too much. Don’t touch; people carry diseases gorillas can catch.

But if one touches you, don’t pull away; he may think you’re attacking. They may hit you with a branch, or pull down a tree on you, but don’t worry, they’re only joking. If one charges, lower your gaze but stand your ground. Usually it’s a bluff. Never, ever run. And above all, don’t beat your chest.

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Right. Not to worry. I hadn’t beaten my chest in months.

This all assumed we would actually find the gorillas somewhere in what looked to be trackless mountain tropical forest.

We had set out to see Group 11, one of four gorilla families that the Mountain Gorilla Project (now known as the International Gorilla Conservation Program) has habituated over the years to brief periods of close human contact.

Our target group had nine members: one silverback, or dominant male, three junior silverbacks, three females and two infants. Its current feeding area was a 3 1/2-hour slog into the bamboo forest from the nearest rutted track; the three other groups, with seven to 34 members, currently lived at different places on the mountain, all much closer to the MGP camp where we had spent the night.

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One band of gorillas--Group 13, with 13 members--was only a 45-minute walk from a road, and our tour leader had thoughtfully booked us geezers through the Rwanda Office of Tourism and National Parks to see that group--the following day. But we were so eager that we had come a day early, in hopes that we could go twice.

We were lucky. Or were we? As rainwater sluiced into my squishy boots and down my neck, I began to wonder.

I knew that if I collapsed or broke an ankle on the roots, the MGP guides could radio for help. The gorilla project, comprising researchers, guides, teachers and volunteers, was organized by a number of conservation groups worldwide--including the African Wildlife Foundation, the World Wildlife Fund, the People’s Trust for Endangered Species and the Fauna and Flora Preservation Society--and the Rwandan government in 1979 to take care of about 100 gorillas in the park and the tourists who come to see them.

Using the latest animal medical techniques, communicating by radio and armed with the power of arrest, the project keeps track of the gorillas and monitors their health, meanwhile fending off poachers, destroying animal traps (2,600 in 1988) and running classes and lectures to educate area residents on why the park’s 46 square miles serve them better in their natural state than as farmland. The last part may be the most important.

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Like most African nations, Rwanda has an exploding population--second densest in the world after Bangladesh--that is already farming just about every square inch of available land. Much of the tiny country looks like Asia, with irrigated green terraces marching up the mountainsides. All native trees outside the parks were burned as firewood long ago, and now only banana palms and eucalyptus firebreaks shade the longhorn cattle.

Volcanoes National Park in the west and the Akagera National Park on the eastern border (with 980 square miles of wild game that is the equal of anything in Kenya, but nowhere near as crowded) are under tremendous and constant political pressure from land-hungry people.

All over Africa and in many other parts of the world, natural habitat is vanishing under the plow, and the wildlife is vanishing with it. But do the yuppie nations of the world have a right to tell the world’s poor to stop killing elephants that destroy their crops, to stop plowing land just because it supports wildebeests?

Debate over how to reconcile the rich nations’ interest in wildlife and unspoiled nature with the poor nations’ interest in eating is at the forefront of all current thinking on development and conservation.

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Fossey’s approach, illustrated in the movie, was to fight local interests tooth and claw on behalf of the gorillas, defending “her” mountain that was and is the animals’ last refuge.

The gorilla project has turned that policy upside down, working to making the gorillas into such a vital part of the national economy that local people stop being a threat and become the parks’ chief defenders.

It seems to be working. Last year, tourists put between $7 million and $10 million into Rwanda, and the 6,800 gorilla visitors were up 30% over 1988, according to African Wildlife Foundation figures. No gorillas have been killed by poachers since 1983, and polling indicates that 85% of area residents now think the park benefits them, compared to 35% in 1980, according to Craig R. Sholley, who was gorilla project director during our December visit.

He said the project’s education program has trumpeted not only the benefit of the tourist dollars--which inevitably are not spread around equally--but also the priceless value of the unspoiled volcano forest as a water catchment area nourishing the farmland in a third of the rest of the country. Plow the land, project teachers say, and not only do you lose the gorillas and the tourists, you lose the land too.

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Sholley said a maximum of about 10,000 tourists a year can visit the Rwanda gorillas: one group of eight for each of the four groups for a maximum of one hour per day.

More than that, he said, would disrupt the gorillas’ routine beyond acceptable levels and damage the environment. Yet the gorillas have to perform if tourism is to be a reliable source of income.

“The reality is that people aren’t going to come without a guaranteed gorilla experience,” Sholley said. It is clearly a difficult balancing act. The project’s solution has been to make the “gorilla experience” one that tourists more or less have to earn.

The tickets and permits require advance planning and are a bit of hassle to obtain, and they cost $180 per person, which instantly reduces demand to the most determined. That does not include the high cost of local transportation (you need to have four-wheel drive to get to the drop-off point).

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Accommodations and food are, however, cheap--$15 per night--but that is for basic summer camp: five people to a cabin, outdoor toilets and cold showers, a choice between bring-your-own food or the scrawniest, slowest grilled chicken in captivity. “People’s expectations have to be that the animals are the priority here, not them,” Sholley said.

And then, of course, there is the climb.

Just at the point when I had decided we would never find the gorillas and would die soon, there they were.

A large dark mass through the greenery, the sound of branches snapping. The guides motioned us into a silent crouch. They parted the vines. A young male, munching on a strip of bark, eyed us warily from about 10 feet away. The guides made a low, rumbling sound, a reassuring semi-snore, and the gorilla cocked his head.

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We scrambled--slowly, quietly--to take pictures, elbowing one another for the best view. As if amused, the gorilla turned and ambled into the brush. We followed as best we could, and there was the family, all around us--in that thicket, behind that tree, little ones up in the branches.

Excitedly we pointed here and there, grinning and exclaiming in whispers. The guides shook their heads. “Don’t point! Don’t stare!” The big silverback loomed in a thicket, enormous, gazing at us like a vast black statue, the white back hairs that announce his age and status glinting in the shadows. Obediently, I looked away.

Then one of the little ones scrambled up a bamboo stalk not four feet from me, apparently to get a better view. As he neared the top, staring at me the entire time, the stalk began to bend.

He was falling! No, he was riding it. He clung with his feet and beat his little chest as the tree bent double, and let go just as he was nearly upside down, vanishing into the undergrowth.

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I burst out laughing and turned to my husband--did you see that? I pointed. Did you see him beat his chest like this? I showed him how the little fists had flailed. My husband’s eyes rounded in horror, and the guide was instantly at my side, pushing my hands down. Oh no! I had done it! I had beaten my chest!

In terror, I looked toward the silverback. He was indeed watching. But he didn’t seem offended. In fact, was that a smile on his face? We looked at each other for several seconds.

He seemed to be waiting. Sure enough, the little one popped up through the branches and scampered to him, climbing up on his enormous belly as though he were a chair. I sighed in relief.

It went on for an hour, but it felt like 10 minutes. The gorillas came and went on every side of us, sometimes close enough to touch, eating lunch.

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They stripped bark from selected branches, sampled leafy salads and picked up tiny berries. They watched us but ignored us at the same time.

The younger ones seemed to enjoy falling out of trees; or were they just learning what would hold their weight? We followed them into thickets and out again; we clambered over one another; we ran out of film.

The guides pulled at our sleeves--time to go. The silverback agreed: He sat back on a green cushion, he reclined, he rolled over with his feet in the air. Nap time. Reluctantly we left them in their pillowy green bedroom and slogged back down the mountain in a pouring, chilly rain.

What an experience! When we thawed enough to talk, steaming our clothes dry before a roaring fireplace back at camp, we agreed it had been worth every penny and every miserable step.

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The next morning, after a snap of a 45-minute climb under sunny skies, we found the gorillas of Group 13 in a clearing amid the bamboo, busy with pre-prandial grooming. Mothers and babies plucked and combed, played and cuddled, and the babies rode piggyback from one snack tree to another, climbing and falling again and again.

They posed nicely for our cameras until finally the old silverback called everyone off the stage, as it were, and into the forest. We felt like experts. At the bottom of the trail, a youngster appeared selling hot baked potatoes, an unexpected pre-lunch treat of our own.

In February, when the Mountain Gorilla Project became the International Gorilla Coservation Program, it moved into what African Wildlife Foundation Vice President Diana McMeekin called “Phase Two.”

The project now includes not only the 100 or so Rwandan gorillas but the 200 or so others that live in the parts of the volcano forest belonging to neighboring Zaire and Uganda. The protection and education programs will expand into those countries, along with the tour techniques, but the major change is that the program will now be run by Rwandans, trained and advised by the international groups but controlled by the Rwandan government.

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