Muhavura would be our last challenge
- October 23, 2014
- Posted by: Africa Safaris
- Category: Travel News
Muhavura would be our last challenge .Its 13,540-foot cone made it an almost perfect bookend to Karisimbi in the West. Fortunately, most of the Ugandan sector was covered with a recent lava flow that could not support gorillas, so we did not have to risk an encounter of the military kind. During our brief forays into the Ugandan sector we saw no sign of wildlife, though we did not have to risk an encounter of the military kind. During our brief forays into the Ugandan sector we saw no sign of wild life, though we did hear hunters using dogs with bells. Twice gunshots echoed from below. Hiking on Muhavura was not too difficult, its slopes were steep, but without any significant physical or vegetative barriers. Much of the mountain’s mass was above the tree line, where an open steppe like environment predominated. Northern double-collared sun birds flashed their Metallic green and purple plumage while brilliant red and green long-tailed malachite sun birds darted manically about this alpine moorland, their long, thin beaks adapted like those of humming birds to drinking nectar. Bushbuck browsed here, too, but quickly barked and bolted on sight.
Finding no gorillas one day, we decided to explore the summit. Near the top we were forced to crawl through a dense thicket of gnarled, moss-covered alpine senecio, a woody plant that grows over several centuries to a height of ten to twelve feet. This entangling complex extended for hundreds of yards in what seemed like the world’s largest natural jungle gym. Our reward for passage was a perfectly round crater lake perched on Muhavura’s summit. The lake was no more than twenty yards across, its surface reaching to within eighteen inches of the rim. Bill wondered if it ever over flowed, then giggled as he knelt to drink from the cold dark sources at the top of the world. Clouds came and went in seconds. During clear moments, we could see lakes far to the North in Uganda and the crowned fields of Rwanda to the South. With the return of clouds, a chill crept under our skins. We reluctantly left our watering hole with a view as the day drew to a close.
Our sole gorilla contact on Muhavura was also the last of the census. Late one afternoon we encountered fresh gorilla sign. We backtracked to make two nest counts, and then returned to contact the group and complete our count the next morning. We confirmed the presence of seven individuals: one silver back, two adult females, another unsexed adult, and three young gorillas.
Leading down slope, the fresh trail of compacted herbs would past the yellowed skeleton of a jackal, its foreleg still held in the death grip of a poacher’s wire trap. Nearby, we could hear the gorillas. Bill moved closer until he saw a hand reach into a bush barely twenty feet away. He then climbed a tree, revealing the face of an older female, sitting in a day nest eating gallium.
With a severe stare and a reddish brow….she stares back for nearly a minute, moving her head back and forth, giving time for a nose print. She then flees silently with others moving ahead of her……..by 13:10, fear dung is prevalent.
Silent flight and diarrhea were common reactions of wild gorillas when confronted by humans. They were also signals for us to leave them alone and complete our final nest counts.
For four more days we moved methodically counter clockwise around Muhavura, until we reached the open lava field near the Rwanda-Uganda border along its Eastern slope. We crossed and explored sixteen ravines in that time, several of which contained prime gorilla habitat. Yet we never saw another gorilla, nor any sign of other animals besides birds. We had seen the same sort of unoccupied habitat at the extreme western end of the park on Mt.Karisimbi. This meant that there was still room for the gorilla population to expand. But it also meant that these sectors far from the central park headquarters were killings fields where poachers ruled and where gorillas had been exterminated. On our last afternoon we walked out of the park and down to an old colonial estate at Gasinza, near the base of Mt. Muhavura. The house needed paint and the foundation was cracked, but its size, stone arches and panoramic views testified to a more glorious past. Now it was the home of Drs. Alain and Nicole Montfort. Alain and Nicole were Belgian ecologists with a deep love for the Akagera National park in Eastern Rwanda savanna-wetland complex with a warm, dry climate. Alain disliked the rude Virunga environment, but had worked to improve park management and security during his brief tenure in the North. As hosts, Alain and Nicole received the first un official census results and other news from the forest. But mostly we enjoyed good food, good wine and good company. After weeks of functional Swahili, Bill was happy to use his much richer French vocabulary.
SOLVING CONSERVATION PROBLEMS is like putting together a jigsaw puzzle for which there is no picture on the box, many parts are missing and there is too little time to examine all the remaining pieces. Our challenge was to fill in the most complete picture possible through a combination of biological and social economic research. The census provided the first pieces to the very complex puzzle of how to better understand and protect the mountain gorillas.
The hike home from Gasiza to Karisoke covered about twenty-five miles and took just over eight hours. It was ample time for reflect on what he had learned and what it might mean for the gorillas. Georgr Schaller had carried out the first Virunga census in 1959-60.A simmering civil war in Rwanda prevented him from surveying certain areas, but his combination of direct counts and estimates based on habitat characteristics produced a baseline total of four hundred to five hundred individuals. The next census was conducted by a team of Karisoke researchers over a three-year period between 1971 and 1973.Their findings showed a dramatic decline to 250 to 275 gorillas, with a parallel decrease in average group size and percentage of young. As he walked through farm fields along the park edge, comparisons with the current numbers churned in bill’s head.
The good news was that the population appeared to be stabilizing after its free fall in the 1960s.Our minimum count was 252 individuals, which would later be extrapolated to an estimated population of 260.Better yet, we had found forty-two infants under three years old, versus only thirty-three in the same age class only because the number of groups had declined from thirty-one to twenty-eight. The bad news was that gorillas were avoiding the Eastern and Western extremes of the park and concentrating in the center, especially around Mt.Visoke. On Mt Mikeno, where Schaller had counted more than two hundred gorillas, there were only were only eighty-one. Mts. Sabyinyo, Gahinga and Muhavura supported only thirty-four gorillas in five groups. Objectively, it was a mixed message at best. Emotionally, it was a great relief not to find further losses, especially after the bloody events of the past year.