In a Family Way: One Amazing Hour With the Susas

By Sarel Kromer
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, March 5, 2006

We plowed through nettle fields, at one point crawling through the Rwandan foliage on all fours. One member of our armed escort went ahead to scout the path. Just as I was ready to collapse, a tracker hooted in the distance and two young silverback gorillas tumbled into view.

The duo began playing to their audience like a couple of hams in a vaudeville act: striking poses, gamboling with each other, posturing for us. We were supposed to remain at least seven feet away, but no one had told them. Their performance was a combination greeting ("Welcome!") and warning ("But we're in charge!"). They'd stop to eat -- tearing bamboo plants up by their roots and chomping them down in one or two gulps -- then turn a profile.

This was our first glimpse of the mountain gorilla, a member of the great ape family and an endangered species -- about 650 to 700 remain in the wild, half in Rwanda. They live high in the Virunga Mountains of northwestern Rwanda, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Uganda and migrate freely across the borders of these countries in search of food. Alas, their population has been decimated by a combination of deforestation, human-borne disease and poachers.

The animals are now protected, and while these problems have decreased, signs of poaching are still evident: One of our welcoming silverbacks had lost a hand to poachers as a baby.

This past August, my adult son and I spent time in Rwanda visiting American friends and studying the Rwandan legal processes, but our opportunity to visit the gorillas was what made the trip truly special. A cousin, also working in Rwanda, joined us to attend an AIDS conference in Ruhengeri, so we based ourselves there rather than at one of the hotels closer to the gorillas' habitat in Volcanoes National Park.

Our group of eight trekkers, ranging in age from mid-twenties to mid-sixties, was accompanied by soldiers carrying machine guns, who, we were assured, were there to protect us from mountain buffalo. Whatever the risks posed by angry bovines, there are legitimate security concerns while visiting this region -- poachers and border incursions from neighboring countries have been problems in the past. However, Rwanda and its neighbors are now at relative peace, and Rwanda in particular is rebuilding its economy and society after the horrifying 1994 genocide.

The government understands the value of the tourist trade to the nascent economy and was clearly taking great effort not only to protect tourists, but also to let us know that we were being protected.

* * *

Our day had begun at 5:15 a.m. for the 16-mile drive over the rutted road from Ruhengeri to the park. We hired our car (a Toyota Land Cruiser) and driver from the church group our friend works for in Kigali, Rwanda's capital. Though we'd expected the land to be teeming with wildlife, we saw few animals as we drove through the African dawn.

At the park office, the 40 of us with permits for that day's treks were assigned to groups of eight, each with one guide and three armed soldiers. The official language of Rwanda is Kinyarwanda and most people speak French (a throwback to the country's heritage as a Belgian colony). Our guide, Diogene, spoke excellent English, which he had learned from talking with tourists, and was teaching himself Japanese.

Before setting forth, the guides described the personalities of the gorilla family we were to meet. Gorillas are identified by their nose prints, each as distinctive to an individual as fingerprints are to humans. Five gorilla families currently reside in the park; the smallest, the Sabinyo group, has nine members and generally congregates less than an hour from the park office. Group 13, with 10 members, is likewise easy to reach and, according to park guides, is led by a very relaxed silverback.

We chose to visit the Susa group, the most active and farthest from the park office. Primate researcher Dian Fossey, who studied the family in 1967, famously sent supervisor Louis Leakey a telegram reading, "I've finally been accepted by a gorilla," after a young ape named Peanuts exchanged a glance with her. Today, trekkers hope to replicate the experience as they scale the mountains in her footsteps.

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