Gorilla Trekking with Friends (kuongezeka sokwe na marafiki zangu)

The world’s largest ape species can be found in Democratic Republic of Congo. The eastern lowland gorilla, also known as the Grauer’s gorilla is the largest of the four gorilla subspecies and can only be found in the Kahuzi-Biéga National Park in the eastern region of the country. The park is named after two extinct volcanoes, Mount Kahuzi and Mount Biéga and a UNESCO World Heritage site. Due to widespread insecurity, poaching, and the presence of armed groups in the park for the past 20 years, Grauer’s gorilla have been critically endangered.

My good friend, Dominique, founder and director of Strong Roots, works tirelessly with local and indigenous communities to find sustainable strategies for the development and conservation of Kahuzi-Biega National Park and the people living around the park. I have always wanted to see the gorillas but didn’t want to be just another tourist visiting the park and neglecting the local communities living on the boundaries of the park. When Dominique offered the incredible opportunity to accompany him and his team, Sarah, and Beatrice to go to Kahuzi-Biega, I was overjoyed! We were joined by anthropologist and behavioral ecologist, Dr. Amy, who works very closely with the only habituated family of Grauer’s in the park. We all crammed into the land cruiser with bottles of water and took the 2 hour journey to the park. The bumpy ride showcased the beauty of Lake Kivu, workers breaking volcanic rock to make building material, and vast fields of cassava, maize, and tea.

When we got to the field site, we were met by park rangers who protect the park, L’Institut Congolais pour la Conservation de la Nature (ICCN). One of the rangers lead our trek into the jungle the through dense green. After walking for about twenty minutes, we stopped to listen for the gorillas. We quickly switched directions and after trekking for five minutes, we came upon a group of gorillas basking and napping in the sun. The rangers told us that they had just finished a meal of fruits and leaves. The large silverback was cuddling with his children. It was the most profound experience because we were so close that we could look into their eyes and their gentleness. We sat and stared in awe of these majestic animals. Dominique looked over to me and said, “see how important conservation is?”