observing unhabituated gorilla groups
- October 13, 2014
- Posted by: Africa Safaris
- Category: Travel News
To observe an unhabituated group for forty-two minutes was one thing to make visual contact with what would prove to be the entire family was completely unexpected and almost never repeated in the rest of the census. Bill was able to see eight of the individuals well enough through high powered binoculars to draw their nose prints. Most animals display some individual’s identifications such as the variations in zebra’s stripes or the marks on an elephant’s ear. The gorillas of group 4 and 5 were known to us at a single glance by their body type and posture. But to identify unhabituated and less well known gorillas, we depended on the unique patterns of deep lines that creased the skin above their noses. Sketches of these nose prints were kept at karisoke for the purpose of monitoring individuals who were not members of long term study groups. The value of this system was evident when upon our return to camp several days later, we were able to match four of the prints with those of three females and an adolescent from peanuts former group.
Viewing gorillas is informative and personally satisfying, but the heart of census work is the nest count. So with less than three hours of light remaining, Rwelekana and bill turned away from the gorillas and climbed back out of the canyon to look for the groups’ morning trail. Finding it less than a hundred meters up the ridge, we back tracked South West across a broad herbaceous slope and into the kujiua gorge. After just over an hour, we reached the nest site of the night before on the far rim. Twelve nests were counted, but none contained infant dung a disturbing finding for a group that probably had four to five breeding age females among its seven adult members.
Following a rapid return to the Grand Canyon, Bill and Rwelekana retrieved their packs and settled into the evening’s accommodations. The cave proved to be more of a recessed ledge in the canyon wall, perhaps six feet deep and no more than twenty feet long. The only sign of a leopard was some very old scat in one corner but the single steep entryway to one side and the sheer drop off before us made for interesting thoughts about a possible return of the chui, as the leopard is known in swahil.After sharing a pot of beans and rice, however we stretched our sleeping bags out on the Rockledge and fell quickly into a deep sleep.
The piercing screams that next ripped the nighttime stillness were of a kind and intensity that bill had never imagined possible. After taking stock of where he was and the limited options for escape he turned on a flashlight and saw that Rwelekana, too was awake. The screams returned, building to a terrifying crescendo. It was easy to imagine some poor creature being ripped to pieces and eaten alive, sinew by sinew, somewhere in the dark and brutal world beyond our cave. Was the leopard the killer? Would it drag the remains back here? Seeing Bills widening eyes, Rwelekana smiled and whispered ikoimperere. Bill recognized the Kinyarwanda word for the tree hyrax, but he couldn’t accept that the shrieks could emanate from a mammal the size and appearance of a hedgehog. Some scientists classify the hyrax as the closet living relative of the elephant. Others report that its banshee like vocalizations proclaim the hyrax’s territory and its readiness to mate. Before bill could rationalize either of these facts with his own perceptions, he fell back to sleep.
The next several days were less eventful, but nonethelessfull.Additional nest counts confirmed the total of twelve individuals and no infants in the first group. We found two more families totaling six and eight individuals on the North East slopes of the mountain. We dismantled an active poacher hut on the appropriately named anger Hill and destroyed a patch of marijuana near another poacher cave. Unfortunately we ran out of food and had to restock before we could finish all of Mt. Visoke. To save time if not effort, we took the most direct course back to Karisoke. This meant crossing a succession of ravines mid way up the mountain until we reached one of the research access trails. There we crossed a very fresh gorilla trail that we had to follow in case it revealed another unknown group minutes, we were face-to –face with a screaming ground-slapping silver back. Given the style and the setting –another claustrophobic tunnel of vegetation –brutus seemed the likely candidate. We confirmed this identification as he repeated his ambush act four more times while we tried to move down the ridge toward camp trail. There we parted ways, Rwelekana hiking down to his home off the mountain, while bill climbed the final half-hour to camp. From high above, brutus continued to vent his displeasure.
Bill‘s plan to return to finish the Visoke survey was delayed by another curious decision by Dian. She was quite keen to learn of bill’s findings and initially seemed encouraged that he thought there were more gorillas to be found on Visoke. It was disappointing not to find younger but the overall numbers were good. So bill was shocked to receive a note from Dian the next day stating that she would no longer be able to afford the cost of the census effort. At a maximum of $10 a day for two Rwandans and all the beans they could eat, expense was an improbable explanation. She was more likely concerned that the somewhat positive numbers would conflict with her public statements that the mountain gorilla population had continued to decline and was now below two hundred individuals. It was a dark view that increasingly matched her mood, for which she desired neither proof nor refutation.