African ranger leads visits to mountain gorillas

A baby mountain gorilla at Volcanoes National Park in Rwanda: The infants are tiny and their parents are protective.
A baby mountain gorilla at Volcanoes National Park in Rwanda: The infants are tiny and their parents are protective.

Emmanuel Harerimana, 29, is a guide/ranger at Volcanoes Park in Rwanda ( Emmanuel, who is from an area near the park, has been a ranger there for 31/2 years.

Q. A big attraction at your park is seeing mountain gorillas. How many are there?

A. Mountain gorillas live in many habitats in Rwanda and nearby in Congo and Uganda. In 2010 we located 480 living in our ranges; in Uganda there were 400. We’re conducting a census at the end of this year.

We normally lead 10 tourist groups a week, in high season and low season. In June, we usually have seven to nine groups.

Q. People come to see free-ranging gorillas. How do you know where they will be?

A. We have a special system. We have a team of trackers operating from 7 a.m. to 3 p.m.; they’ll have a good idea where the mountain gorillas passed the night. That gives us an idea of where the gorilla groups will be.

Q. How large are these gorilla groups?

A. The consist of families and friends. Some groups have 20 or 25 members, but the average is 12. There are groups of just two or three, but we don’t take the tourists to see them.

Q. How close can people get to mountain gorillas?

A. We try to keep them 7 meters away.

Q. That’s 23 feet – and those are large and powerful wild animals. How dangerous are they?

A. They’re safe. I come from this area, and have been around them since I was 4. They’re really peaceful. We don’t stop them. They’re very kind.

The juveniles, mothers and silverbacks (mature males) are different sizes. The silverback has a length of up to 1.7 meters (about 51/2 feet). They can weigh 100 to120 kilos – about 250 pounds. Moms are 90 to 150 kilos – up to nearly 330 pounds. The babies are really tiny.

Q. Are mountain gorillas more friendly or agitated at certain times of the year?

A. I’m with them every day. They don’t mind any season. The seasons are the same around here.

Q. So when you’re checking around looking for mountain gorillas, how can you tell if you’re getting near them?

A. You can see tracks and hear them. You can see where they’ve been passing through and how fresh that was. Most of the time you can hear silverbacks breaking trees. Within 100 meters (328 feet), you can smell them easily. They have a certain smell.

Q. How would describe that smell?

A. Ever smell someone who has been three days without a bath? It’s kind of the same.

Q. From your ongoing contact with them, can you tell them apart?

A. They’re all totally different and have unique marks on their noses – like the shape of a “W” or something. Even twins have different noses. Like humans, they’re of different sizes. Maybe they have something unique about their body – having once had a broken leg, for example.

All have different names from the naming ceremony. That used to be in June; now the babies are named in September.

Q. How closely have you personally gotten to mountain gorillas?

A. Five meters, sometimes (16.4 feet). It can happen if you’ve been around them a long time. At 8 or 9 years, they’re playful and may want to play. Protective parents? Absolutely. Some groups have two or three silverbacks; one group has five silverbacks.

With a new baby, the mom is always close to the silverback, who is very strong. Silverbacks are mighty. You meet silverbacks before the others – they’re the kings of the jungle.

We will communicate with a silverback. We’ll ask him – with a low hum – “Can we join you?” I’ll grunt – saying, “Can we be here?”

We wait for his answer. He will say two or three things in a row if it’s. If OK, no problem. We’re safe with close to those around him. If he answers with a laugh sound, that’s a warning that it’s not OK.

A male will rarely say completely no. Usually, he will will eventually say its OK.

Q. How do you learn this stuff?

A. You learn to imitate what they’re saying. To get close, you must be specially trained. Locals can get close: They tell us what they’re hearing from the apes. Then you practice.

Q. Do people live inside Volcanoes National Park?

A. Today, no one does. Just the animals. Golden monkeys are only found here. The park also has Dian Fossey’s grave; she’s the American famous for her research with mountain gorillas. She held them, which was OK at the time but researchers found out later that it wasn’t. So much depends on how well the gorillas know you – your face,your voice, your uniform. She became good friends with them.

We also have mountain climbing. We have five volcanoes and hike to four of them. There are nature walks and community activities around the park. And there are other parks not far from here.