A Visit to Kahuzi-Biega
The Kahuzi-Biega National Park is located in the east of the Democratic Republic of the Congo near the big city of Bukavu on the southern shore of Lake Kivu. It covers a total area of approximately 6,000 km², with about 10% covered by montane rain forest in the high-altitude part of the park. The low-altitude part of the park is far larger and consists of lowland tropical rain forest. It is connected to the high-altitude part only by a narrow corridor. The gorillas living in this national park are Grauer's gorillas (Gorilla beringei graueri), formerly known as eastern lowland gorillas.
The gorilla population in the high-altitude part of the park appears to be quite well protected at this time due to gorilla tourism, which takes place only here. However, the situation in the low-altitude part of the park is completely different. There are no recent data on the status of the gorilla population in this area, but numerous reports concerning illegal activities within the national park boundaries - gold and coltan mining and the spread of agriculture - do not promote optimism.
Even the gorillas habituated for the purpose of tourism in the high-altitude part of the park have been a favourite target for poachers in the past. In 1999, over two-thirds of all habituated gorillas in this area were shot, among them such well-known animals as the old silverback Mushamuka. Maheshe, a silverback whose picture was on one of the country's former bank notes, had fallen victim to poachers as early as 1994.
More than 18 years had passed since my last visit to Kahuzi-Biega, so I was anxious to see what was awaiting me. In November 2012, I had the opportunity to join a small private tour group led by Andreas Klotz from the Mondberge Project. We planned to visit three eastern gorilla populations: first in Kahuzi-Biega, then in the Volcanoes National Park in Rwanda and finally in the Bwindi Impenetrable Forest in Uganda. As the security situation in eastern Congo continues to be very unstable, the German Foreign Ministry has issued a travel warning, which is still in place. A trip there is not without risk. But we had confidence in our German tour leader, who lives in Africa, and the local agent’s up-to-date knowledge of the security situation.
Departing from Bukavu, we arrived at the Tshivanga headquarters at the edge of the national park in the early morning. I was delighted to find that the same guide who accompanied me on my first visit in 1994 would be taking us to the gorillas. In recognition of his loyalty to Kahuzi-Biega during all the intervening years, Lambert had now been promoted to head guide, for which he deserves the highest praise considering that this sort of work undoubtedly involved him risking his life during times of war. While the formalities were being seen to, we studied the exhibited skulls of numerous gorillas, forest elephants and other animal species that had fallen victim to poachers.
The permit for visiting the gorillas cost 400 US$. After Lambert had delivered an introductory talk to our group, we were taken to the starting point of the hike on the public road that goes right through the centre of the national park. We had been told that the gorillas stay mostly in the easily accessible bamboo zone of the park during the rainy season in order to feed on their favourite food, the juicy pith of bamboo stems. Nonetheless, we had not expected a walk of only 10 minutes (!) on level ground through dense vegetation, before we ran into the Chimanuka group, named after their leader. With utter calm, the silverback enjoyed one bamboo stem after another, while completely ignoring the photographers standing only a few metres from him.
Shortly before we arrived at the gorillas, we were provided with protective masks, covering nose and mouth, in order to prevent disease transmission to the animals. The very dense vegetation of the bamboo forest made it impossible to maintain the minimum distance of 7 m. It would even have been difficult to get out of the way if the gorillas had come any closer.
The oldest female of this group, 38 years of age, is well known to the guides as rather intolerant towards visitors she does not know. This time she limited herself to uttering some disapproving sounds aimed in our direction. We noticed that the eyes of this animal, which had an infant of about two years, oozed a whitish liquid.
When the few gorillas which we had been observing moved on, the guides cut a path through the incredibly dense vegetation with their machetes, and very suddenly, we were back on the road from which we had started. Standing on the road, which is used by humans, animals, overloaded lorries and motorcycles, we witnessed how alarmingly close gorillas are to people. Several gorilla females and their infants appeared at the edge of the forest, one after the other. They watched what was happening on the road for a while and then settled down for a sleep in a tiny clearing right at the forest edge. Without a care in the world, the young gorillas played with each other while the adults rested. Repeatedly, our guides had problems convincing lorry drivers stopping to look at the gorillas to move on – even for the locals, seeing gorillas in the wild like this is a very rare event.
Both our guides and Carlos Schuler, who worked on gorilla conservation in Kahuzi-Biega for many years and now operates a large restaurant in Bukavu, confirmed that the road that cuts through their habitat has never been a problem for the gorillas. It has always been there, and even when the road surface improved and permitted cars to go much faster than before, no traffic accidents with gorillas have ever been reported.
The conclusions from our visit to the Kahuzi-Biega National Park is that the population of Grauer’s gorilla in the high-altitude part of the park is stable or slightly on the increase, while the population of forest elephants has been almost extinguished due to poaching for their ivory.