My name is Alister Mungai and I am the Programme Assistant for IGCP.
After ICCN (the Congo government’s national park and nature conservation authority) officially reopened the Mikeno sector of Virunga National Park for tourism on May 1st, IGCP was invited to train the rangers who would be involved in the handling of visitors. As rangers have not dealt with tourists for an extended period of time due to conflict and insecurity in the region, this workshop was vital to help get them back on track. Our team of four IGCP staff (Dr. Augustin Basabose, Maryke Gray, Altor Musema and myself) and a Veterinary Doctor from ICCN (Dr. Arthur Kalonji) arrived at the Bukima ranger outpost on the evening of Monday, May 11th and set up camp on a cold, misty and rainy night.
Training started the next day. The basic training was a mixture of introduction to tourism, ecotourism, customer care, roles and leadership of a tour guide, the rules of gorilla tourism, among others. Mine was the customer care section. This included the responsibilities of the rangers as customer service agents, and how they should conduct themselves. I was personally amazed at the response, interest and alertness conveyed by the rangers throughout the training. All went well, with the first night topped off with a movie after dinner, which helped everyone relax.
The second day of the training was to start with the rangers demonstrating part of what they had learned. This was done through a gorilla trek with us acting as ‘mock tourists’ and watching how much they put what they learned into practice.
For the trekking, we were split into three groups. My group visited the Rugendo family. This was my first time gorilla trekking and it was everything I had anticipated! They are such amazing creatures, and being around them makes you realize that videos and pictures do them no justice. We found the family had escaped the Park for a romp in adjacent farms, and followed them as they walked back in.
Within our one hour visit we were able to see the juveniles in the group play and feed while the silverbacks stayed in the thickets. After finishing our visit and making our way back to Bukima, our field day was summed up in another classroom session in the afternoon, which stretched well into the evening. There was still a lot to learn!
On the third day we replicated the field exercise, with different teams going to visit different gorilla families from the previous day. On this day I visited the Humba family. Unlike the Rugendo family, the Humba family was way up on the mountain. We were forced into our rain gear as the drops started to come down while we negotiated our way through damp thickets. We got to see more members of this family eating and even playing. The silverback stayed in the bamboo overgrowth, but we were able to see him resting and at one point even playing with the young ones. On this visit (since we ventured deep into the forest), I was also able to learn a bit more about local medicinal plants, some of which the mountain gorillas eat to keep healthy. Being in a remote damp rainforest had its small price to pay though…like being attacked by angry red army ants! Ouch!
Part of the feedback received from the rangers was the need for more training, especially in gorilla identification and English as a common language to facilitate communication with guests. IGCP will continue to support ICCN in these areas of training and more as the needs are identified.
We left the outpost at about 4 pm that day for the long journey down the mountain flush with feelings of accomplishment courtesy of the good response and positive feedback we received from the rangers. We are confident of returning to a professional and knowledgeable crew that will play a primary role in the rehabilitation of gorilla tourism in an area where peace has finally taken a firm foothold.