VOLCANO NATIONAL PARK, Rwanda — Pushing aside a big branch, I step into a clearing and stand face to face with Muninya, a 440-pound mountain gorilla.
He stares at me intently. We are about 15 feet apart, but it looks like he could easily grab me with one of his long arms.
“Huhh huhh huhh!” grunts Muninya, and our Rwandan guide responds, saying the loud grunting is a friendly call. I follow our guide and move off to the side of the clearing.
Soon all eight members of our group are perched on the edge of the jungle glade. In addition to Muninya, we see 15 other gorillas — five adult females and nine adolescents and youngsters.
A pack of muscle covered in blue-black fur, Muninya has the distinctive silver back of an adult male. He has succeeded in attracting the females from other groups in the park and is the chief of his growing family.
Most of the gorillas lie on their backs and doze in the sun. They have been busy eating a breakfast of bamboo shoots and other vegetation since early in the day, and now they are have a mid-morning snooze.
Except for Kabatwa, the mother of eight-month-old twins. She is trying to nap, but the two toddlers climb on her chest and wrestle with each other by her head and step on her face.
Visibly irritated, she pulls them to her side and pats them down, as if to say, “settle down and rest a bit.”
Quickly the two little rascals are scrambling about again. They head for another sleeping gorilla, but their mother, more forcefully this time, grabs the troublemakers. She separates them, holding one with her hand and another with her very dextrous foot.
The gorilla group continues lazing in the jungle opening, idly scratching their armpits.
Through the clearing is a view of the valley below and, amazingly, some houses are visible. It is a Sunday and we can hear faint strains of church music.
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Then Muninya crashes through the bush and sits right by the twins. Soon the gorilla family wakes. Young mother Kabatwa, flips her twins on her back and, giving us a passing glance, clambers past us and goes into the bamboo.
The entire family follows and they nimbly break off the shoots, strip off the hard outer shell and chomp on the juicy core. Gorillas are vegetarians. An adult eats about 66 pounds of plants per day. They rarely drink water because they get so much liquid from the plants, our guide tells us.
After spending an hour with Muninya and his family, we hike away through the forest.
Mountain gorillas are the most critically endangered of all great apes. There are only 800 mountain gorillas in the wild, and 280 of them are in Rwanda’s Volcano Park. The rest are in neighboring Uganda and the Democratic Republic of Congo.
Despite Volcano National Park’s relatively small size of 62 square miles and a high level of human habitation surrounding it, Rwanda has built up a thriving mountain gorilla population, as well as a booming business in gorilla tourism. In 1999, 417 tourists visited Rwanda’s gorillas, and by 2010 that number had increased to 23,000. With each tourist paying the park a fee of $500, that earns the park considerable income of $11.5 million.
To keep the tourism sustainable, the national park, working with the Dian Fossey Gorilla Foundation and the WWF, has substantially reduced the level of poaching, and is now counting rising numbers of its gorilla population.
“Dian Fossey was not in favor of tourism, but now we are convinced that controlled tourism can be beneficial to the gorillas,” said Felix Ndagijimana, acting director of the Karisoke Research Center, the Rwandan program of the the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund International. The gorillas are protected from poaching and are monitored by veterinarians. The gorillas habituated to human tourists have higher reproductive rates than wild gorillas and better overall health. “Without tourism, those gorillas would probably be gone,” said Ndagijimana.
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It’s not easy to get gorillas to live so close to human populations. The humans, who are attracted by the super fertile volcanic soil, farm right up to the park boundaries. Traditionally, they would hunt wildlife by setting snares. But the parks have persuaded most to stop.
Five percent of the amount raised by the parks in gorilla tourism goes to the local community, and pays for electricity, schools, roads and other improvements. In addition, local residents are hired to tend the park and to seek out and remove snares.
“We’ve been converted because we have a different life from when we were poachers,” said Francois Ndungutse, 40, president of an association of former poachers. The group has 565 members who have sworn off hunting and now work with the park.
“All our members are at different levels, but we have all improved our lives from when we were poachers. It was a hard life, and we have crossed to a level that is better,” said Ndungutse in a village near the park. A dozen other men crowded around him, nodding in approval.
“We have seen roads, electricity and schools come to our community from the park,” said Ndungutse. We earn money from working in the park so we can buy beef and sheep meat at the market. And we are teaching our children. Children learn from what their parents do.”
“These people are the reason why we can have conservation and a park here in Rwanda,” said Prosper Uwingeli, chief park warden of Volcanoes National Park. “Our challenge is to get even more people involved. We want to reduce poverty around the park, that is the best way to improve conservation.”
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Andrew Meldrum's trip to Rwanda was sponsored by the International Reporting Project.