20 August 2016

The smaller of two silverback mountain gorillas in the Humba troop in eastern Congo (DRC).

Visiting Mountain Gorillas in the Congo (DRC)

Highly endangered mountain gorillas all live on the slopes of the Virunga mountains of Rwanda, Uganda, and Congo-Kinshasa (DRC).

I was blown away when I saw these gorillas in Rwanda in 2014 and I wanted to relive that experience in the more rustic setting of the Congo.

All four gorilla groups in the Bukima area were habituated to humans. Only nine visitors were booked on August 9 and we were spit to go watch two different troops.

My small group of four visitors was under
the care of two guides and two trackers.
With our lead guide machete whacking dense foliage,
we reached our assigned troop in about 90 minutes,
and the mountain weather was nice.
My paparazzi foursome was assigned to visit the nine-member Humba troop who put on quite a show.

In Rwanda, I'd seen a fascinating but mellow troop relax and lounge together. But this active Congo group was not all huddled together, and most were climbing, eating, wrestling, cuddling, or having sex.

The star of the day was a rambunctious, younger silverback named Mahindure. While much older Humba was reclining in the shade of today's nest, the younger silverback was restless and fun.

Let me introduce Mahindure, our most engaging silverback
although he's not yet the patriarch.

Photos with a human show our close proximity to the gorillas plus their size.

Yes, we all wore masks to protect the gorillas from human germs.

And, yes, he is looking at us as he and other gorillas often did here.
This surprised me since we'd seemed "invisible" and ignored in Rwanda.

I made this GIF from some of Kaz' photos.
It was our first encounter with Mahindure.
It shows some of his personality while
the adolescent gorilla is cuddling him.
To add to the excitement, several times Mahindure moved in our direction in a way that seemed calmly calculated to assert his dominance over us, or maybe just toy with us.

Twice he came toward us a bit faster than we were able to anticipate!
Others backed off in time but Phil had to go into a deferential crouch with his head down. I was lucky to snap what Phil dramatically called his "brush with death." The gorilla veered a bit left instead of crushing Phil. And yes even Mahindure, this smaller silverback, is huge.

Later Mahindure made another move requiring us to back off immediately.
Walking backwards, I managed to photograph Kaz and the ranger
hustling away as Mahindure decided to occupy the space where we'd been standing.

Gorilla's strip the leaves from the less tasty, less digestible stalk.

Authorities quoted online say adult mountain gorillas are not very "arboreal." But, happily, we got to see our stocky, lively show-off effortlessly climb a thin tree and then lean out to ride it smoothly down to the ground. Very cool.

Photo left by Kaz. >Watch the video below full screen!

In flagrante delicto with the
much smaller adult female
We also caught Mahindure in a quick and quiet copulation.

I assumed this furtive coupling would, if discovered, outrage Humba, the top silverback. But, it turns out, not necessarily...

All other gorilla populations use a strict "harem" system, but researchers have been astonished to find that Virunga's mountain gorillas often live in groups where the dominant silverback permits other males to mate at least occasionally.

On a different subject, we never witnessed any grooming but adult gorillas all had thick, clean, long hair that somehow seemed to have had a recent shampoo and blow dry.

Top silverback Humba relaxed in today's nest with adult female and babies nearby.

And baby gorillas are adorable. We got to see this brother and sister playfully wrestling.
Best viewed full screen.

And speaking of brother and sister, Phil and Kaz along with dad Chris were smart, congenial fellow explorers. These friendly Brits had lived for many years in Kinshasa and were all annoyingly fluent in French, the lingua franca of the DRC.

More than one hundred park rangers have been killed by rebels and by poachers, so the AK-47s are needed. Gorillas are given the names of long-serving and/or killed park rangers.

No visitors have been hurt at the park but, to be extra cautious, security is required at all times in the park and driving to the park. Most rangers are men but one day my guard was Clarisse (left), another day Julie (right).

New direct flights from Addis Ababa conveniently land at Goma twice weekly. After airport hassles and long, bumpy roads, the remarkable Mikeno Lodge awaits.

Center photo above is with the excellent manager of the Mikeno Lodge. I picked up those boots for $7 during a layover Addis Ababa in case of mud (none) or ants (some).

Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC)

Congo-Kinshasa (officially the Democratic Republic of the Congo; called Zaire for a while; and the Belgium Congo in colonial days) is a giant compared to Congo-Brazzaville ― seven times larger and 18 times as many people.

It's a land with incredible resources ― copper, gold, diamonds, cobalt, uranium, oil coupled with rich, fertile soil and big rivers. Yet, it is one of the two or three poorest countries on earth!

Rampant corruption, unending civil wars, brutal dictatorships, and failed socialism have yielded yet another African tragedy. And the many billions of dollars of foreign aid and NGO work may have served more to prop up the thieves in power than to make any lasting change.

As you can see in the map, the British Foreign Office still says to stay away from the area I visited north of Goma. However, the major M23 rebellion seems to have ended almost three years ago. UN peacekeeping forces (MONUSCO) are still in the area, mostly stationed about 120 miles farther north to deal with smaller rebel groups still operating up there. I think I was probably about as safe here as I'd have been in Europe.

I also spent a morning in the not terribly interesting provincial capital Goma, a city of one million people, but that was anticlimactic after my great time in Virunga.

While the easier way to the see the mountain gorillas is over in Rwanda (or Uganda), for less of an assembly-line ― and for the authentic thrill of being among a small number of pioneers ― head for the Congo (DRC).

These kids were waiving excitedly but froze in shock when we stopped for a quick photo.

Almost sunset in the eastern Congo (DRC).