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Gorilla trek [Journey to Rwanda]

November 17, 2011 |  2:16 pm

Sue Horton, Op-Ed and Sunday Opinion editor of The Times, is in Rwanda on a two-week Gatekeeper Editor fact-finding trip organized by the International Reporting Project. She is chronicling her trip on the Opinion L.A. blog.

We were outside the boundary of Rwanda's Volcanoes National Park when we spotted it: a mountain gorilla that had climbed over a stone wall separating the park from farmland to feast on eucalyptus saplings. We clambered down a steep hill and watched it from about 25 feet away as it tore apart the young trees to get at their bark and leaves.

Our one-hour allotment of time with the gorillas had begun.

Gorilla tourism is something Rwanda has nailed. The government has worked closely to develop its program with the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund, which continues Fossey's work of protecting and studying the mountain gorillas that live in the Virunga Mountains.  Only 64 gorilla-trekking permits are issued each day, at a cost of $500 a person for foreign tourists, and no one can go into the forest without a guide.

On the morning of the trek, we  arrived at the headquarters of Volcanoes National Park before 7 a.m., along with everyone else who had a permit for the day. We were put into groups of no more than eight and assigned to one of the gorilla groups in the park currently designated for tourism. Trackers that work for the government find the gorillas in the morning and radio in their whereabouts. Then each human group is taken to the entry point of the park closest to where its assigned gorillas have been spotted.  The hike in can be as short as 20 minutes or as long as several hours. Time with the gorillas is limited to one hour.

Only 800 of the critically endangered mountain gorillas remain in the world, in Rwanda, Uganda and the Democratic Republic of Congo. About 280 of them are monitored daily by researchers affiliated with the Fossey Fund or by park staff. The Fossey researchers we met with said they think it's crucial to continue monitoring the effect of tourist visits on the gorillas, but they're convinced Rwanda is doing things right.  "Without tourism," one of them told us, " these gorillas would be extinct."

If Rwanda has been good to its gorillas, the gorillas have been good to Rwanda too. Tourism is Rwanda's leading source of foreign revenue (other than international aid), and the gorillas are a leading draw for tourists. It's hard to reconcile the stark contrast between the tourists paying $500 to spend an hour with gorillas and the Rwandans living around the park in mud huts without electricity or running water. But the government has tried to ensure that the area's residents derive some benefit from the tourism. The park employs more than 100 trackers, along with other local workers, and the hotels serving the gorilla trekkers employ many more. In addition, the government gives 5% of its revenues from gorilla tourism to nearby villages, building schools and improving access to water and other necessities.

In one of the villages, the people we spoke with seemed relatively pleased with the arrangement, though it is clearly making only a small dent in their needs. Their biggest complaint about the park was that, despite the walls and trenches intended to keep wildlife inside, buffalo sometimes break through and ruin their crops.

The silverback (adult male) gorilla we saw outside the park later rejoined his group (the Sabyinyo group), and we found the whole group feeding in dense forest inside the park. The contrast between the carefully tended fields and young eucalyptus trees outside the park boundary and the rain forest inside was shocking. Suddenly we were in dense bamboo, overhung by tall trees, hacking our way through vines and stinging nettles.

We were told to stay 7 meters away from the animals, but the gorillas sometimes have other ideas. Several times one came so close that I could have reached out and touched it without fully straightening my arm. The hour we had with them seemed like 10 minutes, and then it was time to leave.


Sunday, Nov. 6: Journey to Rwanda

Sunday, Nov. 6/Monday, Nov. 7: Two views of President Kagame

Monday night, Nov. 7: First impressions

Tuesday, Nov. 8: Law of the land in Kigali

Tuesday, Nov. 8: Capital growth, for good and ill

Wednesday, Nov. 9: The master plan in action

Wednesday, Nov. 9: Genocide Memorial: Encountering the dead

Wednesday, Nov. 9: Rwanda's take on the Conrad Murray trial

Thursday, Nov. 10: Genocide survivors' testimony

Friday, Nov. 11: Rwanda's strengths and challenges

Tuesday, Nov. 15: Public health

--Sue Horton

Video care of Horton's colleague Tom Paulson of Humanosphere.

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