BAM Safari

Susa Family at Volcanoes National Park

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My fifty years of wild life photography is not complete without photographing the Mountain Gorillas, the largest living primates, in the world. They are classified as critically endangered and it is in the red list of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN). The number in the world is less than 900 that lives at high altitude of 2500meters to 4000 in Uganda, Congo and Rwanda, while in Rwanda has at least over 30percent of it, living in the Volcanoes National Park.

It was in early February 2013, I planned to visit Rwanda to see the Gorillas but due to unavoidable circumstances I returned to Colombo from Kilimanjaro after completing safari in Serengeti but without going to Rwanda. After rescheduling I landed in

Kigali, the capital of Rwanda, on the 25th of August 2013 for six nights. On arrival, I was met by my travel guide/driver at the airport. It took almost three hours by road in a confortable jeep to arrive in Kinigi, the city close to the Volcanoes National Park (VNP) where the head quarters of the VNP is situated. I stayed at a lodge in Kinigi for two nights. The temperature goes less than 10 deg C in the night. Since the Gorilla has got a thick coat of skin, it can withstand the cold weather.

On the 26th, at 7am, we went to the park head quarters, which was 10minutes drive from the lodge. It was a requirement to obtain a gorilla permit before we enter the park. But due to high demand for it, my travel agent in Rwanda purchased the permit well in advance, which cost me USD750. When I arrived at the park office, I was surprised to see many tourists; at least over 100 had come to see the Gorillas. This justifies for obtaining the permit in advance.

I was made to understand that there is 18 gorilla families in the VNP of which ten are allowed for tourists to visit while balance are reserved for the researches. Tourists who came to see the gorillas were divided into ten groups with maximum 10 per group. I managed to get into a group of nine to visit the largest Gorilla family in the VNP of 41 called the “Susa family” with two new babies of one week and a month old. Our group had a tour leader/male guide and to assist him, a female guide. According to the female guide, the Susa family has got four Silverbacks together with two Blackbacks. Silverbacks mean that they are mature adult males when its hair at the back has been transformed from black to grey/silver with the aging of the animal. Usually, at the age of 12years they are matured. The leader of the Susa family is 39years old, named Kurira. According to the guide the gorillas lives up to 40- 45 years in wild, while it goes up to 50 in captivity.

We drove for an hour from the park headquarters towards the Volcano Mountain until the road access was impassable for the jeep. It was at an elevation of 2600meters above sea level. From there we were on foot. I engaged two porters to carry my camera equipment. Our group leader was in constant in touch with the guards of the park who had gone early morning to the Volcanoes Mountain in search of the Susa family. It took 15minutes walking to come to the entrance of the VNP. After entering the park, we trekked for two hours, through the bamboo forest followed by montane forest when the VNP guards communicated to our group leader that they had located the Susa family. For our luck, it was not far from our location. By the time we saw the gorillas it was at an elevation of 3100meters. We had climbed 500meters in two hours!

I was thrilled when I saw this magnificent mammal that was our closest living relative in the jungle after chimpanzees. We were told to keep a minimum distance of 7meters with the gorillas and one hour was the time limit given to stay with them. The first sighting was a juvenile named Imena and with her father (No-2- Silverback named Igisha). My camera was busy at a speed of 10 frames per sec. Later, I managed to see the mother (named as Ururabo) with her one-month-old baby. She was hiding the baby around her arms and therefore taking clear picture of both was

difficult. The adult male has an average height of 5ft 6in while the female is shorter.

We also managed to see the Susa family leader – Kurira lying under a bush, possibly weighing around 180kgs while the adult females are generally 90kgs. Most of them were scattered around the area and were busy in feeding on the celery, plant shoots etc found in the forest. Generally the gorillas depend on the water content of the plants they consume and hardly drink water. The mother- Sugira was hiding her baby of one week old in her lap and was impossible to be photographed. Although I managed to see at least 15 members of the Susa family, others were inside the bushes and were not accessible. It was around 1pm, the guide said the time to leave our friends in jungle. By the time we reached the car park it was around 330pm.

It was a great experience being with the gorillas for one hour, which I enjoyed every minute of it especially when I was photographing them. I heard that there were instances that the forest guards were sometimes unsuccessful in locating the gorillas in the day, when visitors had to come back empty handed.

On the following morning, I went to see the Golden Monkeys in the same mountains, but less trekking, and came back to the lodge for lunch.

I also visited Nyungwe National Park in the south west of the country where I stayed two nights at the Nyungwe Forest Lodge bordering the park, for its birds. During the stay, I was able to photograph 18 different bird species, including Mountain Masked Apalis, which was endemic to this region. Also, I photographed three species of monkeys, Blue, Angolan Black and white Colobus and L’Hoest’s that were not sighted before.

On the 31st August, I boarded a flight from Kigali to arrive in Johannesburg to join Lilani and my nephew, Indu, his wife, who arrived in Johannesburg from Sri Lanka on the same day to continue my African Safari in South Africa.

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