A date with the Silverbacks in the Congo

Coming face to face with Grauer’s Gorillas in the Congo is an unforgettable experience

My wife and I left early for the Kahuzi-Biege National Park, the home of the Silverback gorillas also known as the Eastern Lowland Gorillas or Grauer’s Gorillas. Our friends, the Kotechas, long time residents of the eastern town of Bukavu, on the banks of the Lake Kivu in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), had warned us that people on a visit to the Kahuzi-Biege National Park, have often had to return without a sighting of the Silverbacks.

The Park, 100 kilometres from Bukavu, has been designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The huge Silverbacks, which derive their name from the streak of silver or grey along their backs, are estimated to number around 700 and are in the ‘critically endangered’ category.

Having suffered large scale destruction of their natural habitats, war and genocides, poaching and hunting, several thousands of these gorillas are believed to have fallen victim to man’s greed and brutality. These gargantuan apes are the largest of the living primates on this planet, who are also believed to share an incredible 98% of a human being’s DNA.

A date with the Silverbacks in the Congo

The Park gets its name from two dormant volcanoes, Mount Kahuzi and Mount Biega. The Rangers, armed with machetes, daggers and a gun, briefed us about the dos and dont’s while inside the Park. We were given masks as the gorillas are sensitive to the sound of sneezing. Silence was to be maintained at all times and we were to closely follow the rangers.

The sun had come out in all its glory but the canopy provided by the equatorial rainforests including the large bamboo trees hardly ever allowed the sun’s rays to seep through. Although the Park, spread over more than 6,000 square kilometres, had several groups of gorillas, the most prominent among these was the one led by the 34-year old alpha male Silverback, Chimanuka. The Rangers told us that Chimanuka had a very prominent silver streak along its back and was a very patient and understanding gorilla. He was the patriarch of his 23-member family comprising four adult females and their children.

Wearing the mask and armed with a branch, we made our way through the foliage. Suddenly the lead ranger in front of us motioned us to be absolutely quiet. I knew we were on to something and it didn’t take long to find out what. Just ahead of us, not more than five metres away, in a small parting of the foliage sat this imposing gorilla.

The lead ranger whispered into my ears that this was Chimanuka, the subject of several documentaries. As far as Chimanuka was concerned, all of us might not even have existed, he didn’t even bother to give us a sideways glance. Partly excited though largely frightened, I had frozen. Although the huge ape’s body language didn’t suggest any aggression, I knew for him we might not even be a contest.

After what appeared to be an eternity, but could not have been more than 5-10 minutes, he slowly raised himself and sauntered off across the road into a clump of bushes. The lead ranger beckoned us to follow him into the bushes where Chimanuka had disappeared. After we had woven through several metres of entwined foliage, what met our eyes was indescribable. Ahead of us, at a distance of approximately three metres, lay Chimanuka resting alongside his entire family. Young gorillas were running all over him and he seemed to be very indulgent towards them. The lead ranger started beating his chest with both his hands, a sign we were told, to announce our arrival as friends. A couple of gorillas too followed suit in the same manner.

After a few fascinating moments of grooming and playing, Chimanuka decided that there were other engagements on his calendar. He got up and led the way. All the others in a show of remarkable discipline followed suit. Chimanuka had meanwhile taken his position below a huge tree while the youngsters and several others in his flock distributed themselves around nearby trees. It was meal time.

While the arboreal gorillas were creating quite a ruckus, the elder statesman Chimanuka, along with a few others, sat quietly allowing the youngsters to enjoy themselves. After a while, the gorillas marched off into the forests. They were now heading to nest before the evening arrived.

We were indeed lucky to have seen Chimanuka and his family, and for having been able to take photographs. It was indeed one of the high points of our stay in the Congo.

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Printable version | Jun 7, 2020 1:08:23 PM |

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