Trips Tips: Seeing mountain gorillas up close in eastern Congo

Jul 04 2014, 10:19 IST
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SummaryVirunga National Park, a World Heritage site in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), just might be the world's most spectacular, under-visited park.

was supported by the International Women's Media Foundation as part of a reporting fellowship in Congo's North Kivu province.

The journey from Goma to Virunga takes about two hours, but on Congo's dilapidated and unpaved roads it was a bone-rattling drive that only got worse on the last leg, when bumpy turned to downright rocky.

Two rangers met my group and set out the ground rules: stay quiet and wear surgical masks to protect the apes from human germs. One of the rangers picked up a gun and off we went.

The largest living primates, mountain gorillas were habituated to human contact some three decades ago, and from 1988 till 1993 up to 10,000 visitors came to Virunga every year.

But following the Rwandan genocide of 1994, violence crossed over into DRC and the region has moved from one conflict to another. More than 5 million people have died from war and an ensuing humanitarian crisis in DRC since 1998, making it the world's deadliest conflict since World War Two, according to the International Rescue Committee.

The animals also face threats from poachers, squatters and charcoal burners who destroy their forest habitat. Virunga's Gorilla Sector suffered repeated attacks in 2007 during which 10 mountain gorillas were killed.

The rangers who patrol the park have also paid a heavy price. Since 1996, 140 rangers have been killed.

Through it all, even the most intrepid travelers have stayed away and Goma has become synonymous with war and suffering.

Conservationists now worry about oil exploration. British oil company Soco International has begun conducting seismic tests in the region, over the objections of conservation groups.

JUST A FEW FEET AWAY

After three hours of hiking through dense forest, I almost slipped in a pile of gorilla dung. I then knew we were close.

A light rain began to fall and we could see flattened patches of bush where the animals had passed. I looked nervously right and left, half expecting an ape to step into my path.

We walked for about 20 minutes more. The rangers gestured that we should arrange our masks.

And suddenly, there they were. The gorillas were nearly camouflaged, sitting under a canopy of leaves, and it took some time to register their presence.

A ranger sounded notes of assurance and gestured for us to follow him to a clearing. And there, we found ourselves mere feet from a male gorilla three times our size, with nothing to shield us save for the musical

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