20 Years of IGCP: A Love Story – Twice Over

In this tribute to the 20 years of IGCP as a coalition of the African Wildlife Foundation, Fauna & Flora International, and the World Wide Fund for Nature, Rebecca Lomax-Sumner describes a life-changing visit to mountain gorillas in Rwanda in 1983. Her visit came during the years of the Mountain Gorilla Project, what would later become IGCP. The Mountain Gorilla Project championed the habituation of mountain gorillas for tourism, to provide economic incentives for the national government to protect the mountain gorillas and their habitat. More on the Mountain Gorilla Project in a future Anniversary post.

Here is a look back on the early years of organized mountain gorilla tourism in Rwanda and how it ultimately shaped her life, in Rebecca Lomax-Sumner’s words and with her photographs. Those photographs are not to be used without expressed permission from the photographer.

Congratulations to IGCP for 20 years of protecting the Mountain Gorillas. The hard work of your dedicated staff has enabled these animals to survive and even thrive through very challenging times in Rwanda.

My introduction to Mountain Gorillas (Gorilla beringei beringei) came in January 1983 when I realized a lifelong dream and traveled to Africa on a very special safari. This group was one of the first to go into Rwanda to see the Mountain Gorillas. Little did I realize how this trip would impact my life. On it, friendship became romance with Michael Lomax, a fellow tripper who would become my husband, even with no showers and just the very basic amenities of life. I also fell in love with a creature that has continued to fascinate me for almost 30 years.

After the flight into Kigali, we drove overland to Ruhengeri and to our hotel, the Muhabura. The next morning we drove to Volcanoes Park where we camped in very primitive conditions for the next five days. Strangely enough, there was a dirt hut close to the campsite where periodically a radio would blast out John Travolta music. The campsite had no shower, and as the week went on I really wanted to bathe. I remember another woman and I climbing up the side of the mountain to a stream one evening and washing as best we could in very cold water. The first morning we checked in at the park headquarters, which was actually an old Dutch colonial home with antelope and other game skulls hanging on the outside walls of the building. Inside the building I will never forget seeing gorilla skulls sitting on the mantle of the fireplace behind the desk, where we bought our permits to visit the gorillas. Our trip leader selected our guides from a group of men standing near the building, next to a diplated Volkswagen. Their only identification as guides was a green beret, which they very proudly wore.

Meeting with our guide before the trek. Photo by Rebecca Lomax-Sumner.

Meeting with our guide before the trek. Photo by Rebecca Lomax-Sumner.

That morning we drove to the base of Mt. Sabyinyo and had an easy climb through a bamboo forest searching for the gorillas. The head guide went ahead of our group, looking for signs of night nesting, scat or recent feeding. Our group would follow and look for a sign left by the tracker. The sign was two crossed sticks on the ground indicating we were going in the right direction. Using this primitive method we were able to locate Group 13. As we approached the group, the guide emitted a long, rolling belch, which in “apespeak” signaled peaceful intent. Grunting and belching the guide moved forward, crouching on his haunches and ordering us to do the same. We looked down in order to avoid eye contact, a threatening gesture. We were treated to the sight of a silverback and two females feeding on wild celery and other plants. They were big, velvety black and smelly. You could hear bezores rumbling in their stomachs from all the roughage they had eaten. Young gorillas were playing in the trees in front of us. Other unseen gorillas were in the trees too, which was evidenced by one of them urinating from the nest onto the ground. Fortunately, none of us was under that particular tree. I was terrified when the silverback charged in my direction. I stood still, stared at the ground, and he stopped a short distance away. We were able to observe and photograph the group for about two hours.

The hike on Mt. Sabyinyo. Photo by Rebecca Lomax-Sumner.

The hike on Mt. Sabyinyo. Photo by Rebecca Lomax-Sumner.

A day later we climbed Mt. Visoke to find Group 11. This climb was very arduous, through mud, nettles and enveloping heat and humidity. On the climb, I remember our trip leader falling into a large clump of nettles and suffering greatly from the stings. We used the same tracking method as the previous climb: the guide preceded us and would leave the crossed stick sign for us to follow. It took nearly three hours for us to find the gorillas. We found a group of five, including two large males. Sadly, one male was missing a hand and another had a deformed hand. The guide told us these deformities were probably caused by the gorillas getting their hands caught in snares that people set out in the park to catch small game. Men from the park staff went out periodically and collected all the snares they could find. The guide grunted and belched the entire time we were observing the gorillas, which seemed to calm them. He was able to clear away bushes without disturbing the animals, so that we would have a clear view of them. The eyes of the gorillas were haunting, so human it was disturbing. The guide would sit very close to the gorillas so that we could take pictures of them together. At times, I saw him touch the gorilla, which was certainly a danger to the animal. Transmission of disease from humans to the gorillas is always a concern. We were able to watch them strip leaves from plants, eat them, and then eat the stalks of the plants.

Our guide in close proximity to the silverback. Photo by Rebecca Lomax-Sumner.

Our guide in close proximity to the silverback. Photo by Rebecca Lomax-Sumner.

The infant gorillas were very playful, swinging from vines and trees and generally pestering the adults, just as human young do. After two hours we descended and ended our visits to the Mountain Gorillas. The last evening in Rwanda we were invited to a private meal with Rosalind Carr who was very involved with protection of the gorillas. It was wonderful to get an “insider” view of what was being done to protect them. Also, she served the best tilapia I have ever eaten in my life.

An infant looks at the visitors curiously. Photo by Rebecca Lomax-Sumner.

An infant looks at the visitors curiously. Photo by Rebecca Lomax-Sumner.

Every person on the trip was very touched and moved by the experience of seeing the gorillas. Some of us had read George Schaller’s “Year of the Gorilla” before traveling, but nothing could prepare us for the majesty and vulnerability of these animals. At that time the group working to save these magnificent animals was the Digit Fund, which was the financial arm of Dian Fossey’s Karisoke Research Centre. We wanted to visit the center, but were told it was off limits because it would interfere with their research. Most of the trip participants subsequently became supporters of the Digit Fund.

Michael and I were married in September of that year and over the years supported various groups, including FFI, that are guardians of these wonderful primates. Since his untimely death in 2001, I have honored his memory with contributions to FFI and MGCP to help protect the Mountain Gorillas. We had many discussions about the gorillas, and he was very emphatic that I continue to support their protection. To this end, I have become better acquainted with FFI and IGCP and enthusiastically support their work in Rwanda. I hope to return to Rwanda and visit again with these magnificent creatures.

IGCP is very appreciative of her continued support to the conservation of mountain gorillas in the memory of Michael and their time spent together in Rwanda. Rebecca, we will be very happy to host you in Rwanda should the opportunity come, and we hope that it does.

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  • Katie Frohardt said

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    Becky – what a wonderful, wonderful posting. Thank you for sharing this, and for your deep connection to this program for so many years. It is precisely support like yours that has enabled IGCP to be so effective for 20 years, and we are so grateful! Fondly, Katie