The bamboo is tall and sturdy here, elegantly bending over the muddy path to produce arches that rival the world’s grandest cathedrals. This cathedral is imperfect but just as stunning, her green roof piercing the opacity of the foggy sky in a gesture of resiliency and rain fed beauty: nature’s temple of organic grandeur.
We are on the slopes of the Virunga Volcanos’ highest peak today, Karisimbi, to observe and document the work of tri-national research teams. The Virunga Massif mountain gorilla census has launched, and the compact group of rangers and protected area authorities from Rwanda, Uganda and the Democratic Republic of Congo are finishing up this sector of the mountain, cutting lines in the forest called transects which they traverse and look for signs of gorillas. Sleeping nests or dung are the usual indicators, but trampled forest undergrowth, broken branches and torn up bamboo shoots (a favorite gorilla food) can also indicate a recent visit.
This team is one of many that have been trained and are fanning out all over the volcanoes in all three countries in an unprecedented show of cooperation over the months of March and April. The count seeks to get an accurate picture of the gorilla population in these tangled forests and lush canyons. IGCP has led the training of the teams, working with our partners the Max Planck Institute of Evolutionary Anthropology, The Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund International and Mountain Gorilla Veterinary Project to produce knowledgeable and motivated units that will scour six volcanoes (Karisimbi, Mikeno, Visoke, Sabyinyo, Murabura and Gahinga) and three National Parks (Volcanoes in Rwanda, Virunga in Congo and Mgahinga in Uganda) in little more than eight weeks.
Today is also a significant day because we have world renowned National Geographic photographer Mattias Klum with us. His photography and video will document this important work, with the purpose of bringing it to a larger international audience. The census is not only vital for the sake of science: an informed public can be an active public, and we need all who can to join us. Pre-census estimates indicate approximately 680 mountain gorillas are left on earth, making them the most endangered great ape next to their sub-species cousin the Cross River Gorilla in Western Africa.
Two teams are going to walk two kilometer long transects about 500 meters apart on Karisimbi’s mid-section. First, however, we have to climb there. As we emerge from the bamboo’s gangling shadow, we are more than 3,000 meters (9,842 feet) up, with the twisted moss draped limbs of the Hagenia trees spreading over the crisp green understory of the forest like wise old men gathering young converts up in their experienced arms for tales of this place’s secrets. It’s a lush wonderland that is completely reborn every day through these mountains’ prodigious rains, which do not hesitate to greet us as soon as we reach the transect’s starting point.
Soon the rain tapers to a soft hiss as we wind through giant Lobelia plants, their gangly prehistoric looking stalks running riot up, out and seemingly everywhere from the ruddy black volcanic soil. I have to remind myself we are searching for signs of gorillas, and not dinosaurs. And the path is not an easy one: with little notice we are plunging into canyons with rushing brooks to be crossed, snaking through scrubby bush as dense as wet concrete and emerging into clearings of spongy moss akin to walking on an old spring mattress. In less than two kilometers, the diversity of forest and landscape is immense, and it is not difficult to understand why the gorillas tuck themselves into its soggy pockets for food, fun and family. It’s a playground with endless diversity – discovery in every step.
But today they must be cavorting elsewhere. We find no nests or signs, only the charred branches and grey ash of a two-week old campfire – likely set by poachers. It’s a precipitous reminder that the gorillas do not have this Eden to themselves, and their visitors are not always friendly neighbors. We take note, and forge onward. After a deep gully clothed in wildflowers and gurgling water, another traffic jam of Lobelia, and more haunted Hagenia we stop just short of two thousand meters while the research team completes the transect. There is too much to savor here: two kilometers turns into a an eight hour roaming of delicacy and wonder – more than the soul can gather. So much more that we get ensnared by the fading light, its floating embers wrapping even the smoking, restless Nyamuragira Volcano, which had erupted and spewed its fire into Congo’s neighboring forests just three weeks ago, in the glow of dusk’s solitude. Of course, the teams don’t have time to savor and dream like me – their hard work contributes to the solid foundation of science and dedication necessary to bring this magnificent species back from the brink of extinction.
We practically hurdle down the mountain, skiing on wet rocks and slick mud most of the way. By the time we are back in the bamboo, however, night has inked out any remaining glow, and the last hour is a pitch black maze of brittle bamboo stalks, which we thread our way through by following the brief flashes of color our eyes can faintly capture from the jacket of the team member in front of us. Three of the team did remember to bring headlamps, and these are our saviors: with no electric lights for dozens of kilometers in front, behind or beside us, the blackness is all consuming.
Eleven hours of slogging through difficult rainforest makes one want to sleep for three full days afterward. But the census teams do this trek every day. There is no time to lose in mountain gorilla conservation. This census will play a big role not only in IGCP and our partners’ future responses to its ever shifting challenges, but also its current ones – our work on the ground right now, today. Karisimbi’s bountiful slopes have harbored an extraordinary diversity of life for millennia, with the mountain gorilla their monarch. With this census, collaboration and cooperation amongst those who protect this bounty for everyone, humans and hairy next of kin alike, has taken on new significance, and IGCP is proud to light the way.