The magnificent primates of Rwanda

By Caroline Edmonds
Rwanda is a very special place. Sadly, most people will associate it with the terrible genocide of 1994, and this has left its mark on the country and its people. No one over the age of 33 was left unaffected. However, the story of Rwanda is one of hope, resilience and reconciliation.

Some things I learned about the country:

  • It is not only home to two of the great ape species – gorillas and chimpanzees – but also has many other primates including golden monkeys. The beautiful bush to the east of the country is filled with lions, elephants and game.
  • Rwanda is very clean and is one of the safest countries in the world. Since the terrible events of the 90’s, the people have gone through a process of reconciliation much like that in South Africa, and have a wonderful community spirit. Enshrined in the Constitution is the phrase “Everyone has the right to live in a clean and healthy environment”.
  • Umuganda (coming together in common purpose to achieve an outcome”) is a national holiday in Rwanda, taking place on the last Saturday of every month for nationwide community work from 08:00 to 11:00. However, it goes much further than this and you see people the streets every day, cleaning where they live and keeping the outside of their houses neat and tidy.

My trip was to see golden monkeys, gorillas and chimpanzees. The monkeys and gorillas are located in the Volcanoes National Park, in the 5 Virunga volcanoes area in the north west of the country.

The scenery is stunning. Both the trek to the golden monkeys and the gorillas takes you through the immaculately kept local farmland to the National Park itself.

The National Park is a triumph of government and community cooperation. The local people embrace tourism and benefit directly from it as the community receives 10% of the revenue from the permits. They work as trackers, porters and guides. Some guides are even ex-poachers who now dedicate their lives to protecting the gorillas.

Our trek to see the golden monkeys took about 40 minutes. Once they are located by the trackers you stay with them for an hour, which passes very quickly. Obviously you cannot touch or interact with the monkeys, but they are not fazed by people and swing by on the vines or and pass by you quite close.

The next day was the big one – gorillas. There are twelve gorilla families living in the Volcanoes National Park, which are fully habituated to tour groups, with a few others habituated solely for scientific research. The trackers initially reported back that our designated gorilla family were 30 minutes away on the lower slopes. However, due to harassment from a lone male gorilla, the family was on the move. So, a short walk turned into a three hour hike through difficult territory including a ravine! It was great fun and a wonderful way to see and learn about the forest. We stayed with the group for an hour. The gorillas know the guides well and they were calm and very interested in us. The adults spent their time napping or eating, but the little ones were bounding around and playing. It was an absolute privilege and joy to watch these beautiful creatures in their natural habitat.

At the latest count, there are approximately 1,000 mountain gorillas in the wild, with 604 in this area. At its lowest, numbers had plummeted to around 200, mainly due to poaching. Thanks to concerted efforts between the government, communities and NGOs, the population is slowly increasing. Every birth is important and is celebrated annually with a naming ceremony, Kwita Izina, which is modelled on the Rwandan tradition of naming babies in front of family and friends.
The chimpanzees live in the tropical forest of the Nyungwe region in the south west of Rwanda. Chimpanzees are fast and are always on the move so the pace has to be quick. This walk took 4 hours in all and was much harder than looking for gorillas. However, on the way we saw mountain monkeys, mona monkeys and olive baboons. Most of the chimpanzee sightings are glimpses of them swinging in the trees and on the move, but we were lucky enough to watch the alpha male sitting for about 5 minutes. My abiding memory is hearing them, the most incredible calls ringing through the forest.

I loved every minute of my week in Rwanda and would like to thank my guide Cameron Scott for his company, for sharing his knowledge and for taking a wonderful photos and videos of the chimpanzees which was well beyond my skill level.