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At Kahuzi Biega in Search of the Endemic Grauer’s Gorilla in DR Congo

Above: Life-size statue of Grauer’s gorilla at Kahuzi-Biega National Park, DRC. Copyright Rupi Mangat

Published: 13 July 2019

Part 2 of 2

While waiting for the great gorilla safari planned for the following day from Bukavu on the shores of Lake Kivu in the Albertine Rift, the taxi driver arrives for the chimpanzee sanctuary in Lwiro that is 50 kilometers away.

Rescued Chimpanzees at Lwiro Primate Rehabilitation Center. Copyright Rupi Mangat (800x600)

Rescued Chimpanzees at Lwiro Primate Rehabilitation Center. Copyright Rupi Mangat

The drive along the peninsula and over the farmed hills is scenic. The roads are being rebuilt with men breaking huge rocks into gravel by the roadside. Women carrying back-breaking sacks of charcoal make their way to town. The charcoal is from the great rainforest unfortunately.

Charcoal trade rife in the Kahuzi-Biega area in DRC. Copyright Rupi Mangat (800x600)

Charcoal trade rife in the Kahuzi-Biega area in DRC. Copyright Rupi Mangat

An hour later the driver halts by a pink-clad building – the most art-deco of buildings. It’s got Centre de Recherché en Sciences Naturelles (CRSN) painted on it. In English it translates into the Research Center for Natural Sciences (CRSN). Built in the 1940’s by the Belgian king – so tells our guide – it houses the scientific collections, which include the largest science library in the Great Lakes Region, skeletons and specimens of mammals and scientific maps that escaped the looters eye between the wars of 1990 and 2004 that ravaged eastern DRC.

Pools Inside Research Center for Natural Sciences (CRSN) near the primate sanctuary in Lwiro, DRC. Copyright Rupi Mangat (800x600)

Pools Inside Research Center for Natural Sciences (CRSN) near the primate sanctuary in Lwiro, DRC. Copyright Rupi Mangat

It’s a grand building filled with pools and fountains that no longer work, arches and massive hardwood doors that speak of a once opulent time.

The chimpanzee sanctuary is down the road and officially called the Lwiro Primate Rehabilitation Center (Centre de Rehabilitation des Primates de Lwiro, or CRPL). It was created in 2002 by CRSN and Institut Congolais pour la Conservation de la Nature (ICCN) during the second Congolese war between 1998 and 2004 when poaching increased drastically.

Espoir the guide at Lwiro Primate Rehabilitation Center. Copyright Rupi Mangat. (800x600)

Espoir the guide at Lwiro Primate Rehabilitation Center. Copyright Rupi Mangat.

At the centre we’re handed face masks before entering the safe-home for the apes and monkeys rescued from poachers or shipped out to fuel the horrendous pet trade. For every baby chimp or gorilla captured, whole families are killed.

Espoir the guide at Lwiro with his chimpanzee friend at Lwiro Primate Rehabilitation Center. Copyright Rupi Mangat. (800x600)

Espoir the guide at Lwiro with his chimpanzee friend at Lwiro Primate Rehabilitation Center. Copyright Rupi Mangat.

I’ve never seen monkeys like the ones in the cages. There’s the red-tailed with a white love-heart under the nose and the extremely rare owl-faced monkey. An albino porcupine scurries around near the olive baboons and finally the chimpanzees. There’s one even called Kenya.

The males are separated from the females to keep pregnancies away as this is not a zoo but a centre to send them back into the wild. The chimpanzees are excited to have visitors. They know their keeper and when he sits by the cage, one strokes his arm and looks for nits on him.

Bukavo town on Lake Kivu - Copyright Rupi Mangat (800x450)

Bukavo town on Lake Kivu – Copyright Rupi Mangat

Returning to Bukavu in the late afternoon, the gorilla researcher calls to inform that the trip has been further delayed.

I can’t believe it. Tomorrow’s the only day left before returning to Goma and crossing over to Gisenyi in Rwanda.

The taxi driver says it’s possible to do Kahuzi-Biega National Park but it’s much further and we will have to leave by 7 a.m.

This time l’m on my own with him.

The park is only half the distance away than the chimp centre but he’s charged me double. I soon realize he’s never been there when he stops to ask if we’re on the right track despite passing the enormous bill-board on the road that clearly gives the distance.

Poster near Bukavu en route to Kahuzi-Biega in DRC. Copyright Rupi Mangat (800x600)

Poster near Bukavu en route to Kahuzi-Biega in DRC. Copyright Rupi Mangat

By 8.30 a.m. we’re at the park headquarter where the statue of the Grauer’s gorilla stands facing the massive Congolese rain forest.

Park HQ at Kahuzi-Biega National Park, DRC. Copyright Rupi Mangat (800x600)

Park HQ at Kahuzi-Biega National Park on the edge of the great Congolese rain forest, DRC. Copyright Rupi Mangat

I take out my dollars. A hundred dollar bill has a slight tear in it. I can’t use it. I’m remaining with USD 200 which is what it costs to go in search of the endemic gorilla. I’m 1,500 kilometres from home. “I’m Kenyan, can l pay like the Congolese?” l ask. It’s USD 20 but Kenyan’s aren’t part of the central African fraternity.

I walk around and pay my respect at the graves of Pili Pili the first Pygmy tracker in the park and Adrien Deschryver who established the park in the 1970s. Then the skies open with a torrential rain which settles my dilemma to trek the gorillas.

I’m hoping the gorilla which is the largest of the four gorilla subspecies will amble out of the forest. No such luck. Like the mountain gorilla, the Grauer’s also known as the eastern lowland has suffered from the civil unrest in DRC. It’s listed Critically Endangered – a step away from extinct. In the mid-1990s there were 17,000 Grauer’s gorillas. Today the population is around 3,500 and Kahuzi Biega is the stronghold. The rangers tell me that the gorillas are safe with none poached in recent years. They are celebrating the birth of one born a day ago.

Rupi with life-size statue of Grauer's gorilla at Kahuzi-Biega National Park, DRC. Copyright Rupi Mangat (800x600)

Rupi with life-size statue of Grauer’s gorilla at Kahuzi-Biega National Park, DRC. Copyright Rupi Mangat

Next morning, we’re back on the boat – this time on the Kivu King. “Bonjour, you’re the same woman l sat next to,” says the gentleman placing his briefcase on his laps. It has a gorilla sticker on it. Dr Augustine Basabose of Primate Expertise is studying gorillas and chimpanzees in Kahuzi-Biega.  “I would have taken you there,” he exclaims when l recount my journey.

Sailng on Lake Kivu to Kahuzi-Biega National Park, DRC. Copyright Rupi Mangat

Sailng on Lake Kivu to Kahuzi-Biega National Park, DRC. Copyright Rupi Mangat

I have to return.

Fact File

Kahuzi-Biega national park is 30 km from Bukavu and four from Lwiro. You can do an overnight at Kahuzi-Biega at the beautiful campsite or stay at the World Bank financed bungalows. Log on to Kahuzi-Biega National Park for everything you need to know before getting there.

Goma Serena on Lake Kivu is soon to open in DRC – watch out for the date

 

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