Humble in the jungle

Written by Liz Boulter, The Telegraph on Feb. 24, 2018

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Humble in the jungle: Meeting the gorillas of war-torn Congo

22 FEBRUARY 2018 • 12:27PM

The Democratic Republic of the Congo has a reputation, and it’s not a good one. The region was colonised by the Belgians then ruled by the infamous King Leopold in the late 19th century, when the local population was used as slave labour for rubber production. Independence in 1960 left the country riven with tribal conflicts, which a series of corrupt leaders were unable to quell. Then the war in neighbouring Rwanda in the early Nineties spilt over the border and sparked a war in DRC that has never really ended. To this day, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office advice is not to travel to the east, which includes the Rwandan border.

But I’m going to let you into a secret. I have just come back from the country alive and well, with only one thing damaged: my perception of the place.

Although I have been travelling to the African continent for nigh on 30 years, have witnessed the poverty, deprivation, and environmental degradation that goes hand in hand with its wondrous landscapes, its wildlife, its cultural richness, visiting the DRC always seemed slightly beyond my capabilities; just too dangerous. I was mildly obsessed with the country – but a girl can always dream. That dream became less nebulous thanks to a man called John Kahekwe. John grew up in the village of Miti in the hills above Lake Kivu, where the peaks of Mount Kahuzi and Mount Biega dominate the skyline. The village sits on the edge of a great swathe of forest given National Park status in 1970, thanks to the efforts of Adrien Deschryver, a Belgian photographer and conservationist.

The DRC's gorillas are its biggest draw CREDIT: JEZ BENNETT / WILD FRONTIERS

Kahuzi Biega National Park is 2,316 sq miles (6,000 sq km) of high altitude rainforest, bamboo forest, swamp and peat bog. It’s home to hundreds of species, including 349 species of bird – more than 40 of which are endemic – forest elephant, and 13 primate species including the animal that was to become Adrien’s life work, the gorilla. It was Adrien who discovered that the gorillas of Kahuzi Biega National Park were different from the mountain gorillas being studied by his contemporary Dian Fossey, just across the border in Rwanda. The gorillas of Kahuzi Biega were bigger, had shorter hair, narrower faces. And they turned out to be unique to the DRC. The largest living primate on earth: the eastern lowland gorilla.

John’s family were closely linked to the park. His aunt was married to Adrien, his father was a conservationist – and John saw his first gorilla when he was 19. “I was terrified. I couldn’t believe its size. My legs were shaking, but I couldn’t tear myself away. It was just so magnificent.”

The gorillas were to become his career. But although the park was officially protected it was under constant threat from the people living alongside it – John’s own community. Poverty, a lack of jobs and education drove them to come into the park to cut down trees for firewood or to make into charcoal to sell. They laid snares for antelope and bush pig, but snares are indiscriminate. The park’s gorillas were no longer safe.

So John set up the Pole Pole Foundation (pronounced Polay – “slowly” in Swahili) to help protect the park and support his community. The foundation provides education and vocational training and initiated a long-term, highly successful tree planting programme. The trees – predominantly fast-growing eucalyptus – are planted by the community and harvested for firewood and charcoal, which means they no longer need to plunder the forest and risk the heavy fines. It has won John international recognition and a number of awards, including the Prince William Award for Conservation in Africa, given by the Tusk Conservation Awards. His aim now is to bring back tourism, which before the war of 1994 brought jobs, opportunity and money into the area. Just over the border, Rwanda’s wildlife draws crowds and revenue – it now costs $1,500 (£1,080) per person to see the Rwandan gorillas. But few venture to the DRC; the park at the time of writing had just 75 visitors in 2017.

But very few venture to this land with a turbulent past CREDIT: JEZ BENNETT / WILD FRONTIERS

John contacted Jonny Bealby, founder of the British tour operator Wild Frontiers. Jonny’s company has a reputation for offering to take people to parts of the world few others would go. So when he emailed me asking if I’d like to go on a recce with him to the DRC, there seemed no good reason to refuse. We flew into Kigali and drove along Rwanda’s immaculate Tarmac roads south-west through the pristine countryside to the border. African land borders are infamous, and Jonny and I were resigned to hours of hanging about while people in frayed uniforms smoked and played with their phones while leaving our passports, unseen, on their desks. But we joined an orderly queue on the Rwandan side and before long we were at the window, handing over our passports, which were checked and stamped, and we were on our way. “Bet it won’t be like that on the other side,” said Jonny. But his fears turned out to be unfounded. And there was John, waiting for us. We transferred our bags to his car, crossed the river that forms the border by a rickety bridge – and we were in DRC.

Navigating the country is a challenge CREDIT: JEZ BENNETT / WILD FRONTIERS

Rwanda has gone through an astonishing transformation since the genocide of the mid-Nineties. It has a president admired by his own people and the international community, and has rebuilt itself as a model country, with excellent infrastructure. It is remarkably tidy. There is no rubbish anywhere and plastic bags are banned.

Things are different in the DRC. The road the other side of the bridge was deeply potholed, the cars battered and dented. There was seething mass of people, huge bundles being carried on heads and backs; I heard French, Swahili and a hundred different languages I didn’t recognise. There was an energy, and excitement, a vibrancy that was utterly infectious.

I felt a huge grin stretch across my face. This is the Africa I love. We were ushered into an office where we presented our passports to a neat man with round spectacles. He stamped them and wished us a good afternoon. And that was that. The car bumped and lurched its way to our accommodation, which again, I’d imagined would be pretty basic, with a faltering generator and an erratic water supply. But the Orchids Safari Club just on the edge of the bustling town of Bukavu and overlooking the glassy surface of Lake Kivu, with its graceful wooden fishing boats, sits in beautiful garden full of birds, has comfortable rooms, lashings of hot water and a bar abuzz with expats. Outrageous-looking cocktails and delicious food are served by the delightful multilingual staff.

Fishing boats on Lake Kivu CREDIT: GETTY

However, outside the unexpected comforts of the club, life for the locals is undeniably tough. They told me time and again that they feel forgotten and overlooked by the outside world. The DRC is stuffed full of resources the rest of the world wants, but none of that wealth finds its way down to where it is so desperately needed.

“The outside world has no interest in helping the DRC get back on its feet,” said John, somewhat bitterly. “Having a broken infrastructure and a poor, ill-educated population makes it all the more easy for the rest of the world to exploit our resources.” But one resource that is ripe for exploitation that in the future could benefit local people, is Kahuzi Biega National Park – and its gorillas.

Inside Kahuzi Biega National Park CREDIT: MARCUS WESTBERG / WILD FRONTIERS

Given the advisories against travel, it is hardly surprising that there have been next to no tourists visiting the park for the past 24 years. Still, support from international conservation organisations have contributed to the salaries of the rangers and trackers so that they can continue their constant monitoring of the 12 groups of gorillas that live in the highland section of the park. John escorted Jonny and me there, where we paid our fees ($400 each – less than a third of the cost in Rwanda) and were given an informative briefing over cups of tea.

The trackers had radioed in to say the gorillas were in the bamboo forest We drove into the park and after a short distance got out and walked along a narrow path through thick forest. Unseen birds called, butterflies flitted through the dappled sunlight.

“Look at this!” John stopped abruptly and pointed at a neat pile of discarded young bamboo leaves that had been stripped from the new shoots spearing through the forest floor: “Gorillas have been eating here.” Further on there were more piles and then John pointed out some fibrous, khaki-coloured droppings on the path ahead of us: “This is fresh.”

On the search for the giant primates CREDIT: JEZ BENNETT / WILD FRONTIERS

I’ve never seen gorillas in their natural habitat before, but from my years working at Longleat, I know what they smell like, and I caught a whiff of that unmistakable musky odour. Then there was a sound, the drumming of hands on chest.

“Are we close?’ I asked, breathless. “They are just here,” said John, pushing back a curtain of leaves. I gasped, through tears of sheer delight. “This is Chimanuka and his group,” John whispered. “It was his father that was the first gorilla I ever saw.”

"For an hour we sat in the leafy undergrowth" CREDIT: JEZ BENNETT / WILD FRONTIERS

Chimanuka is a giant of a silverback. Surrounded by his family of 19 – immature males and a lone female – he was laying, in a thick bed of leaves relaxed and seemingly oblivious to us. It was siesta time for the group and I sat just metres away from them, watching as they groomed and played, tussled and scratched. A youngster was curious, wandered over to inspect us, alert amber eyes taking us in, but the rest of them didn’t seem to notice we were there.

"I was mesmerised by these animals, entranced" CREDIT: JEZ BENNETT / WILD FRONTIERS

“How long does it take to habituate gorillas so they are this relaxed?” I asked John. “About five to seven years. And that is being with them constantly, even sleeping out in the forest with them.”

I was mesmerised by these animals, entranced. Struck, too, by just how closely related they seem to us; their gestures, expressions and interactions so in common with our own. For an hour we sat in the leafy undergrowth in the presence of these magnificent creatures, until thunder rumbled overhead and a few fat drops of rain fell. Chimanuka stirred, sat up and then, without a backwards glance, walked off into the forest. His family followed. “They don’t like the rain!” laughed John. Within seconds they had disappeared, swallowed up by the dense green undergrowth, leaving just their strong musky scent in the air.

It is hard to believe that these animals, which seemed so placid and so unconcerned by us, could behave in any other way, but that is the great privilege of coming here. Seeing any wild animal in its natural habitat is an increasingly rare treat these days. The human desire for ever more space and resources has come at a huge price for the world’s wildlife, but here, in this forgotten corner of a forgotten country, I had an unforgettable encounter with a truly remarkable animal – and hope that by doing so I was also helping a community that deserves to be remembered.

How to do it

The Foreign & Commonwealth Office (FCO) currently advises against all but essential travel to the towns of Bukavu and Goma and all travel to the rest of eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo, including Kahuzi-Biega National Park. For more information, see www.gov.uk/foreign-travel-advice. Be aware that standard holiday insurance does not