Up at 4.45am! Yahaya was on time too and after hurtling along the winding road in the dawn light, we arrived at Kinigi to find the car park bustling. The Chief Warden, Prosper, was expecting me and I was assigned to Group 13, along with an American honeymoon couple, an English couple and two blokes from Barcelona. The throng of people began to form clusters around signs, eight to each group, and the briefings began. Our guide, Edward, gave a bit of background to the park, the gorilla researchers over the years and began the basics of gorilla etiquette.
We drove a short way to the park boundary, had another briefing on how to behave in the forest, then squeezed between a gap in the buffalo wall only to meet a couple of buffaloes! They quickly moved off, but Edward thought it expedient for us to squeeze out of the park again and walk along the outside of the wall a ways. We passed a team of villagers repairing the wall (for free) where an elephant had recently damaged it. When we entered, I was excited to see huge washing-up-bowl-sized footprints in the mud where the elephant’s feet had sunk in deep.
The path we followed first was familiar to me as an old coffee-smuggling route (bags would be carried across the border in whichever direction led to the highest coffee price at the time) but we soon climbed over a ridge and dropped steeply down into a crater called Kibumba.
The gorillas were high on the opposite crater wall, and were still feeding when we reached them. I suggested we wait a while before beginning the allotted hour because trying to watch them while they were travel-feeding on a steep slope would have made for a very difficult time for all. Everyone was desperate to see their first gorilla, but understood why it was better to wait. When we eventually did climb up towards them, they were still feeding but not moving much, and a couple of infants delighted everyone by posing for the camera then wrestling gently.
We then witnessed what might be called the ‘bottom line’ of gorilla conservation, and I realised that some of my videos might need a PG rating, because Agashya, the silverback began mating with one of his females. I can tell you it was an unusual copulation, but I will save the more detailed account of this fascinating behaviour for an exclusive article in BBC Wildlife Magazine at the end of the year.
Briefly, they started above the tourist group, then slipped and slithered down the slope, with barely a break in his rhythm, ending up against a thicket 10 metres below, watched closely by the female’s two-year old infant. It certainly was the climax of our observations… groan… In fact, I thought we might get a few more hits than usual if we include the phrase ‘slithering sex’ in the key words for this blog!
We left them enjoying a post-copulatory snack of celery and slithered down the slope ourselves to the crater bottom where everyone recorded their impressions for the YoG Blog. It was a grand day out indeed, but there was one more pleasant surprise in store.
Edward had mentioned that some of the boys living around the park HQ were really interested in his work and would often ask him questions. I asked if he could round up a few for a YoG interview and he called over four delightful young lads who clearly saw him as a role model. On camera, two said they wanted to be gorilla guides and two said gorilla vets, and I couldn’t help but rejoice that in Edward, they had a better role model to follow than some…