Dian Fossey came to Rwanda to study gorillas in 1967, after the political climate in Congo became unwelcoming. She set up a campsite for research and named it Karisoke, as the center is called today.
When Fossey was here, the mountain gorilla population was in decline. Most of the great ape species are, Bonilla said.
Through international cooperation and conservation, though, the mountain gorilla population is increasing.
“This is a flagship species and shows it can be done,” Bonilla said.
Fossey wasn’t big on tourism, Bonilla said, but “it’s been huge for conservation. We could not protect gorillas without it.” (Fossey was murdered in the national park in 1985; the case remains unsolved.)
Karisoke researchers keep close watch on the gorillas.
“We call it extreme conservation because we track every gorilla every day and know every gorilla by name,” Bonilla said. “It’s like taking care of your family, the individuals, not the population.”
Some 100 Fossey Fund trackers, researchers and scientists follow gorillas in Volcanoes National Park. A GPS location of every gorilla is recorded daily along with other demographic data. The field researchers explore the area using a rotation system to see each gorilla each day.
A massive database started by Fossey logs their work.
“After 45 years, we still want to know more,” said Veronica Vecellio, Karisoke’s gorilla program coordinator.
Even after death, they study their bones.
“Gorillas are a very charismatic species,” said Bonilla, who’s from Guatemala but moved to Rwanda a few years ago with his family to manage gorilla protection programs. “They are beautiful to look at and just like us.”
Rwanda is a densely populated, rural country in the middle of the African continent.
Lush landscape, mountains, hilltops and valleys. The opposite of Florida.
The capital city of Kigali is bustling — people everywhere — and completely trash free. Plastic bags are banned because President Kagame’s government doesn’t want them flying around.
Beautiful paved roads guide you around the crowded city, where streets are lined day and night with people walking to their destinations. Most are carrying things, on their heads, on their backs, in their hands.
Outside of the cities, most Rwandans are poor. They don’t have running water, electricity or much more than a mud floor in their homes.
So going to see the gorillas? A luxury.
We start hiking through farmland. It is a steep, steady climb for about 45 minutes.
The path is clear, but our breath tightens as we take in the mountain air. Once we reach the park boundary, we scale a stone wall and the real adventure begins. We are in a bamboo rainforest, minutes from the gorillas.
The climb is not so steep now, but it’s through a muddy, cluttered forest floor. There are leaves, branches, roots and poo. It’s wet and hard to navigate.
The gloves I was told to wear suddenly make sense. I must steady myself to get by. After about 10 minutes, we meet the trackers who got an hour’s lead on us so they could find the gorillas.
At this point, we have to leave everything with the porters. Goodbye walking stick.
It’s just me and the camera, which is bad, because here’s the really difficult part.