Of Gorillas & Kites

While working on the Enemies Project in Rwanda, I visited Volcans National Park to photograph the mountain gorillas. There are currently less than 1500 gorillas left in the wild.

Coming face to face with an animal so close to extinction is always an emotional experience, but what struck me on this trip was the intense contrast between dense forest in the park and the farmland surrounding it, and my memories are as much about the people as the incredible animals I went to photograph.

Here’s my story of visiting there – one of harsh realities and an almost magical moment of hope…

A Rwandan Girl with Kite

Extinction Tourism

When I visited the gorillas they were already a stop on the international tour list of charismatic endangered animals.

It’s an odd thing when a species that we have pushed to the brink of extinction becomes a tourist attraction. These habitats become a surreal place that exists between nature and museum. It is an important part of conservation, because sites like this help support a local economies, but it is odd nonetheless.

Tracking

The small group I traveled with was taken into the gorilla sanctuary by three local guides hired from nearby villages and trained by the park. It is a prized job – well paid to encourage the guards to value the animals they are hired to track. The guides carry rifles as protection, but their job is to know the animals that they track for the benefit of tourists who bring cash into their local economy.
The man in this photograph is one of the three guides that led our small group into the preserve to find Grupo Suso, one of ten families of gorillas living in Volcanoes National Park.

What is Wild?

Over the decades that I’ve been photographing and working in remote places, the reality of what constitutes wilderness has changed. There is nowhere in the world you can go now that is untouched by people. The gorilla sanctuary in Parc Nationale des Volcans is critical gorilla habitat, but it is a tourist wilderness now.

The forest is dense and filled with meter-high stinging nettle that will sting right through thin fabric. Even though hiking can be difficult and the dense foliage hard to see through, the guides track every family in the park almost every day so they know where to look. The park limits the number of visitors, but even so, enough people come to see the gorillas that they are used to being watched and barely look up when we approach.

Gorilla Emotions

Once you find them, the mountain gorillas are surprisingly easy to photograph. They mostly go about their business of eating plants or sleeping and pay little attention to the pesky creatures watching them not knowing that we are the ones responsible for almost wiping them off the planet.
I think what fascinated me the most was the emotions in their faces. They seem so human, which of course makes sense as they are so closely related to us.

The Missed Photo

There’s always a missed photograph. While I was photographing this young gorilla in a tree one of our guides tapped me on the shoulder. When I looked at him he pointed the other direction, and I turned my head just in time to see a juvenile gorilla running up to me. Before I could react, he slapped me hard on the thigh and ran off into the trees.
“He wants to play,” the guide said. Then after a moment, “Do not play with him.” And he smiled broadly at me.
Right.

Visitors have always been required to stay at least 10 meters from the gorillas, but there is little to be done in a situation where they take the initiative. And tempting though it might seem to play with a young gorilla, people present a serious risk of infectious disease to these close relatives, which is why today visitors are required to wear masks. Not to mention that a young gorilla could rip my arm off without trying too hard  🙂

Outside the Sanctuary

After an hour or so with the gorillas, we hiked the hour and a half back the way we had come through dense forest and stinging nettle from hell. When we got back to the farmland outside the park, we were greeted by a group of curious children.

I generally don’t like photographing poverty just to show poverty. The people I’ve photographed around the world have their own stories, and they are filled with the same emotions, families and desires as our own. These children were no different. They were excited to see someone new, and they crowded around to see my camera.

Then, out of the blue, the smallest girl in the bunch ran out into the field with a homemade kite. I took a few pictures, thinking it was adorable when suddenly this little toy of tattered cloth and sticks rose into the air on a nearly still day. And it just stayed there defying gravity above the girl’s unsmiling face.

It seemed amazing, miraculous almost.

The Kite Girl

My memory of that little girl and her kite are as strong as the one of being slapped on the thigh by a playful gorilla. I know just how difficult the future of the mountain gorillas is – the sanctuary in Rwanda is tiny and is completely surrounded by farms, not forest like they need to survive.

But even though it doesn’t make any sense, that little girl and her kite seemed like a ray of hope. It was one of those rare magical moments in a sea of challenges.