This is Anna Behm Masozera writing my first personal blog post as communications officer for the International Gorilla Conservation Programme. In the last few months, IGCP has facilitated getting over one hundred Rwandan secondary school students and their teachers and headmasters into Volcanoes National Park (or PNV) to trek mountain gorillas and many more to trek golden monkeys and hike the trails. I was fortunate enough to join students on multiple days for the gorilla trekking briefing and de-briefings at PNV headquarters, and was able to join the Butete Secondary School group in their encounter with the Sabyinyo Group on November 16, 2010.
The students who came to trek mountain gorillas were in stark contrast to the well-equipped tourists coming from Europe and the US. They were prepared to confront the elements as they do every day-in sandals and pullovers- without backpacks or water bottles and only a scattered outdated camera among them.
For almost all of the students and teachers that trekked mountain gorillas thanks to a grant from the Annenberg Foundation, the approximately 35 USD it costs for Rwandan nationals to visit gorillas is beyond their means. For them, this was their first time to set foot in a park which they have lived next to all their lives. Students that were granted this opportunity were chosen to participate in this trek based on their involvement with environmental clubs and having top academic standing.
For the park guides, it was their first time to give the briefing in Kinyarwanda, the common language of all Rwandans. As I listened along with the group from Butete Secondary School, one phrase I did manage to pick up was repeated over and over- pariki yacu or our park.
We all fully experienced our park that day. We slogged through the sticky mud and climbed and climbed through stinging nettles and forest until we got to the bamboo patch in which the Sabyinyo Group was busy feasting on bamboo shoots. For the most part the students and teachers were pretty quiet, with the occasional laugh at the collective huffing and struggle with the climb.
Despite the briefing and the walk and the final preparations and instructions, none of us were fully prepared to finally encounter a mountain gorilla. We could smell the musky smell before we saw our first gorilla, a young male seated and eating bamboo shoots several meters to our left (watch a YouTube clip of our first approach).
It became immediately apparent that the bamboo habitat we were sharing with the Sabyinyo Group was going to be difficult for our group of eight to navigate in. We couldn’t see a gorilla until we were already in close proximity. It made for a tense few moments when the enormous silverback, Guhonda, made a sudden appearance and walked right in front of us.
For the remainder of the hour we were surrounded by mountain gorillas- around us and above us. The younger, and therefore lighter mountain gorillas were moving and playing within the bamboo. Some who thought they were light enough to travel through the bamboo, but in reality were not, crashed down around us. It was a constant effort to keep our distance from them, not because either party wanted to be close, but because there was little room to maneuver. Watch along with us via this YouTube clip and look for the pirouette by a young one.
The ‘seven meter’ rule- meant to protect people from unknowingly provoking a gorilla and to protect the gorillas from human germs- can be very difficult to follow at times. The terrain and habitat like the bamboo we experienced being one reason. The desire of tourists to get the perfect photo and experience being another. After all, they did pay thousands of dollars to stand in that very spot, right? And guides and rangers are of course eager and willing to help tourists get the perfect experience and photo.
The best guides know how to balance the expectations of the tourists while maintaining a safe distance from the mountain gorillas. I am grateful for IGCP staff who periodically conduct roundtable discussions with guides and rangers on the difficulties of keeping the distance as well as brainstorming and identifying ways of overcoming this for the sake and safety of the mountain gorillas as well as the tourists.
It is likely true that we westerners transpose our own desire to visit and experience nature onto those who live with it every day. Are students genuinely interested in experiencing mountain gorillas? The answer is overwhelmingly yes. Did they have an experience that they won’t soon forget? Yes. Were several future conservationist inspired by this visit? I believe the answer is yes.
When asked what surprised them the most about the gorillas, students overwhelming responded that it was amazing that the gorillas were gentle and accepting of us. One student was astonished that they kept on feeding and playing even though we were there. Another was impressed at seeing a mountain gorilla jump through the bamboo even while carrying her baby (watch a YouTube clip of this mother and baby).
However, taking the raw experience of being in the park and turning it into the monumental learning moments it could be, takes work. The responsibility of students getting something out of the experience lies not only with students being interested, but also in the investment put in by their teachers and headmasters to harvest all the possible lessons learned from the experience and to engage their students in active learning. The guides also did an incredible job of giving career advice and inspiration to the students.
I was struck by comments made by the headmaster of the Kidaho Secondary School, Donate Habimana, obviously someone who is ready to help his students learn. When asked why he felt it was important for the students’ education to experience the park and mountain gorillas, he answered by saying that the potential of the experience went beyond just a lesson in nature. It was a lesson in the economics of tourism, the natural history of the forest, the geology of the volcanoes, the sociology among the gorillas and people, and the civics of the collective responsibility to protect the park.
IGCP has taken on this responsibility as well. IGCP’s Conservation Incentives Officer based in Musanze, Benjamin Mugabukomeye, keeps in regular contact with the headmasters that participated in the mountain gorilla trekking and I have as well, making sure the printed photos and DVDs of videos taken are given to the schools in hopes of strengthening the environmental clubs. It is IGCP’s goal to take this opportunity presented by the Annenberg Foundation and get the most out of it.
IGCP will continue bringing students to visit the mountain gorillas in this New Year, thanks to additional support which came from a Facebook Cause funded by Explore.org, facilitated by the African Wildlife Foundation, and acted upon and made possible by all of you.
Until next time.