The opportunity to see mountain gorillas in the wild is probably one of the most incredible wildlife experiences. In February 2019 I was lucky enough to travel to Rwanda to see the mountain gorillas in person. Mountain gorillas are a critically endangered species and efforts to protect them were started by Dian Fossey. Dian studied the mountain gorillas from 1966 until her untimely death in 1985. Dian developed the Karisoke center which continues to thrive today as part of the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund International. In 2010 there were only 480 mountain gorillas left in the world, today there are 1,004, a true conservation success story. Despite all of the successes of the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund, wild gorillas continue to face intense pressure from poaching and habitat loss. One of the ways funding for the conservations efforts continues is through conservation tourism.
Within the range countries of the mountain gorilla, Rwanda, Uganda and Congo, there are limited opportunities for conservation tourists to visit habituated gorilla groups. There are only 10 habituated groups and each group is allowed only one group of permitted visitors (limited to 10 people) per day. Once the gorilla group is reached within the National Park, time spent observing the gorillas is limited to one hour. This means that if you want good photographs of the gorillas, you must be prepared, there is no time for errors! As you can imagine, photographing gorillas in the wild is extremely challenging. It is very difficult to get a good image of a completely black animal in the middle of a dense jungle. Getting good images takes a little bit of luck and a lot of expertise. During my trek, the weather was rainy and overcast which was actually quite helpful and the gorilla group we visited decided to travel just outside of the park so they were in an open field. I set my camera (rented Nikon D850) to shutter priority and auto ISO so that I didn’t have to do any quick adjustments to deal with changes in lighting conditions and I could focus on the experience. It was a magical experience and incredibly awe inspiring to be in the presence of such magnificent animals.
Of course, no conservation effort is successful without the local community involvement. No trip to Africa could ever be complete without meeting the local community members. Rwanda is country with a tragic past but the people are incredibly resilient and have persevered. Rwanda is one of the most densely populated countries in the world, with a population of over 12 million in a country smaller than the state of Maryland. Culture and community abound and there is no shortage of photographic opportunities. In addition, being a fertile, biologically diverse land, a wide range of other African wildlife can be found. If you ever get a chance to visit Rwanda, take it, you will not be disappointed!