REPORTER: Ginny Stein
This is gorilla country.
In Rwanda’s Virunga mountains live some of the last 700 or so wild mountain gorillas to roam the planet. While humans remain one of the gorillas’ greatest threats, in the heart of Central Africa, it’s tourism that’s keeping them alive.
ROSETTE RUGAMBA, RWANDAN TOURISM AUTHORTY: We do not want to just reap from tourism, but we want to make sure that tourism that helps conserving. And you really cannot conserve if you are over-exploiting what you have. And that’s really the guiding principle.
It’s first light, and a team of trackers sets out to try and locate one of the seven mountain gorilla families that live on the Rwandan side of the Virunga volcanoes. Leonidas Zimarinda has watched over Rwanda’s gorillas for almost 30 years.
LEONIDAS ZIMARINDA, TRACKER, (Translation): I come early in the morning to track the gorillas from where I left them the night before. I have to track them until I find them. When I get find them, I keep an eye on them.
Reading the jungle takes years of practice. Francois began working here almost a decade ago.
FRANCOIS: You see the plants for eating, celery, various kinds of mushrooms”¦because the gorillas eat many different plants.
One of the greatest dangers for both trackers and gorillas is poachers. That’s why Leonidas carries a gun.
LEONIDAS ZIMARINDA, (Translation): The poachers set traps for antelopes and buffalo but the gorillas also end up getting caught in them.
Francois says the trackers have one major advantage over the poachers when it comes to getting close to the gorillas, and that’s speaking the same language.
FRANCOIS: If you talk to the gorillas, the gorilla sees this is my friend who is coming, now he talks “hmmmmmmmm”. See – is his communication to say I am a friend and we are coming.
During the 1990s, the gorillas’ habitat became a battleground in a decade of ethnic violence and genocide. Now tourism authorities are working to overturn the country’s image from killing ground to vacation spot. It’s high-end ecotourism, a strategy that has struck a cord, tourism arrivals have doubled in recent years. To get this close to wild gorillas is not cheap. A once-only permit to visit the gorillas costs about $480, and that fee is about to rise to $640 in coming months. Such is its success that the Tourism Authority no longer calls on the government for public funds.
ROSETTE RUGAMBA: When we package the special things that we have in this country, then we actually say, “If you are ready to pay for it, then come to Rwanda, but if you are really not ready to pay for it, then probably this is not the right destination for you.”
REPORTER: What are the gorillas worth in the overall tourism picture to Rwanda?
ROSETTE RUGAMBA: When somebody buys a gorilla permit, they don’t just straightaway go to the gorillas – they stay in a hotel, they pay for transportation, they buy a souvenir, so the worth of a gorilla permit is probably $33 million in Rwanda.
REPORTER: It’s a lot.
ROSETTE RUGAMBA: It’s enough.
Back at Volcanoes National Park, the trackers have called in the gorillas’ locations and final briefings are under way in readiness for the tourists’ departure.
ANACALET, GUIDE: Where you won’t see this great species elsewhere in the world apart from here in the Virunga Massif. They are endangered species, they are endangered because of their loss of habitat.
The majority of this seasoned group of travellers – all friends – hail from the United States. Hearing stories of gorillas being poached prompted this group’s journey.
DEE MUSSELMAN, TOURIST: I’m here because I am concerned about the gorillas and what is happening to them on a continuous basis, and I wanted the experience of seeing them. This is my third trip to Africa.
And as for the price of the permit?
BILL MUSSELMAN, TOURIST: Money always worries me. But, you know, it is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, and if you are fortunate enough to have the money, well, it’s great. It is really regretful that this doesn’t happen to all those people who would really get a benefit out of it. But it is a wonderful experience to be here.
REPORTER: So you don’t mind spending the money on something like this?
BILL MUSSELMAN: No, I don’t. Not at all.
Trackers and guides are assigned to each of the family groups to be visited this day.
ANACALET It’s a very good group.
Groups of no more than eight tourists are allowed one visit per day to one of the seven family groups, and they are only allowed to stay for one hour. That’s a maximum of 56 tourists per day across the whole park.
ANACALET: This is the family. But actually this was not initially it was not the dominant silverback in the group. He just came from around in the park and joined the group, challenged the former silverback which was in this family. It means the dominant one and the only young male. The rest, they are females. Can you imagine for him?
A bone-rattling car journey to the foothills of the Virunga Mountains, and the group is ready to go.
It’s estimated that the gorillas are about an hour’s walk away. Armed soldiers come with us. We’re told it’s for our own safety as buffalo and elephants can be a problem, but I can’t help wondering if their presence may have something to do with rebels in neighbouring Congo who use these mountains to hide out.
FRANCOIS: Behind there, is Uganda and that side, is Congo. Here, see is Rwanda.
Split between the Virunga volcanoes, which straddles the borders of the three central African nations, the gorillas have seen their numbers increase in the past few years. The gorilla population here is estimated at 380, with a further 320 in nearby Uganda. Soon we leave cleared land behind and enter the bamboo forests. Francois picks up where the gorillas have been eating.
FRANCOIS: This is salad for the gorillas. Normally they want to eat is the peeling this one and this one.
REPORTER: It’s hors d’oeuvres and main course all at once.
FRANCOIS: It makes it together. Makes it very happy. It comes very strong. You eat this every day, you comes the same as the silverback.
REPORTER: No, thanks.
Humans and gorillas share 98% of DNA. This leaves them vulnerable to all our diseases. Anyone with a cold is not welcome here. An hour later and word comes in – the gorillas are very close. Our guides start talking the talk.
ANACALET: They may reply by doing the same or not. It doesn’t matter. We can still proceed.
And then there they are.
ANACALET: There are a few missing.
One rather large silverback surrounded by his wives and children. Our presence is not so much tolerated, but ignored. Agasha, as this silverback is called, gives our group the cold shoulder, for almost the entire duration of our 1-hour visit. Francois says he does because he can.
FRANCOIS: He’s the chief, yeah. He is the chief. He can look where he want. See is the language of talk. There is no problem.
REPORTER: That means he is happy?
FRANCOIS: Yeah, he is happy. And “Mmmm, eeeerrrgghh,” is OK? No problem.
With time running out, my guides think it is a good idea for me to be filmed in front of the gorillas. I wasn’t planning on getting any closer, but the pressure is on.
ANACALRT: If it charges, you sit. You sit. So you talk and, “Oh, this is the guide.” Talk same, is communication for the gorillas, same as here. This is the friend, no problem.
I survive. And in what seems like no time at all, our visit is almost over.
FRANCOIS: One minute left. You take the rest of the picture because it is time.
For the keen photographers in this group, getting that perfect shot had been a challenge.
MAN: So did you get some good shots?
WOMAN: Hard to say. Not really. I think maybe I got some face shots today.
But the verdict was unanimous.
DEE MUSSELMAN: I mean, it was just beautiful. It’s beautiful. It’s spiritual to see these animals in their natural state.
JEAN CHARLES AFRICA