It started with reading Satyajit Ray. That when you earnestly wish for something it eventually becomes a reality is an element the Bengali polymath brought upon in his several eccentric sci-fi novels and fantasy short stories. It has remained tattooed on my brain since youth.
Although these stories dwell in marvels, tell me who does not want miracles? That is even more apt for field biologists who are often after rare and fantastic beasts; often after having a simple glimpse at them in the wild. So, last July, when a conference in Rwanda came up, gorillas started to romp back and forth in my imagination.
Gorillas in the mist
From the bird's eye view, Rwanda, a land of a thousand hills, resembles our Barind Tract, only bigger, cleaner and greener. Along the border with the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), the country gets more mountainous. There are volcanoes, but
luckily most are inactive. These volcanoes are in chains — the Virunga Mountains, peak about 10,000 feet high — form the famed Volcanoes National Park. The mountains with lush green coats, curtains of grey mist, and white helm of clouds, look formidable and grand. The shades of green are dark, the forests look primal.
And there are gorillas.
Gorillas are great apes, our close relatives. There are two species: the lowland gorilla and the mountain gorilla. Only mountain gorillas in Rwanda are somewhat well-protected and slowly recovering due to the legacy and sacrifice of the late conservation legend Dian Fossey. She was murdered in her cabin in the Virunga Mountains. Until death, she worked for gorillas.
No mountain gorillas are known to exist in any captive facility. All captive gorillas are lowland gorillas. To watch their mountain cousins, you must visit Rwanda, Uganda, or DRC.
The International Congress for Conservation Biology (ICCB) is a biennial aggregation of conservation professionals, organised by the Society of Conservation Biologists. The congress is to present and discuss progress in conservation. In the 31st chapter, bears, clouded leopards, dholes, otters, and hill forest carnivores of Bangladesh received an opportunity under the support of the Conservation Leadership Programme (CLP).
Watching gorillas comes with a price tag. The success of gorilla conservation largely wraps around a very systematically maintained conservation tourism. Any tourist wishing to join in a gorilla trek in Rwanda must pay $1,500, excluding the cost for any other itinerary. The money goes to the community engaged in the conservation activity. Considering the flipside, we planned for a golden monkey trail walk.
After the conference, I, and a team of six, decided on an extended stay by the Twin Lakes near the Virunga. The trail is at the periphery of the mountains; the Ellen DeGeneres Campus of the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund is also at the hills. These are important landmarks for the magic that unfurled later.
''Could there be any gorilla going through rehabilitation and/or re-wildling process? Gorillas are intelligent. They can be very accustomed to human presence and roam freely around the tourists.'' I guarantee my CLP colleagues will be smiling as they read this, and remember how many times I asked them about the chances of watching gorillas.
A stunt pulled off
The Akegera National Park, the only savanna ecosystem in Rwanda, can give off a picture of what many of us grew up watching in documentaries. Akegera in the past used to be a ranching ground; all large carnivores were wiped out due to colonial treatment. But like many astonishing feats already pulled off in Rwanda, Akegera is going through a rewilding process.
I noticed many participants going there. Feeling somewhat jealous and finding it very worthwhile to try, I decided to hop on a safari on 27 July, the very last day of the conference.
To manage it under budget, I needed to go in a group. Partly by sheer luck and mostly by the excellent communication facility at the conference, I managed a group.
It was a day trip. I went on with several colleagues who have already spent decades in Africa and, perhaps by nature, developed a somewhat indifferent eye to savanna wildlife. But it was my first tour of Africa. I will remember every split second for life; that is another story.
The odds against joining my CLP alumni friends at our pre-planned stay at Twin Lakes, on the other hand, were tremendous. The return journey between Kigali and Akegera is 350 kilometres. The distance between Kigali and Twin Lakes is 100 kilometres.
I needed to complete it all in a day, including the safari. I took this Akegera trip by cutting down a day from the Twin Lakes trip. My friend Nithin Divakar, a fellow CLP comrade, was kind enough to drag my luggage and let me head for Akegera with my gear.
If I had missed reaching there by 28 July, chances would be very slim for me to catch up with the pre-booked golden monkey trip. My CLP and safari colleagues were placing bets on it. Given my experience in managing fieldwork and academia, I knew this would be a manageable stunt. It was one in the morning of 29 July when I knocked on the cabin door.
The big gorilla statue caught our eyes
We started around 0500. From our place to the very festive-looking park entrance was a 30-minute ride. On our way there, we all noticed a huge stage with three bamboo-thatched gorilla statues, a papa, a mama and a baby, at the centre of a huge field.
We all decided to stop by here on our way back. I was more vocal about it. I still cannot figure out why I acted that way. I am not much of a photo person myself.
At the edge of the field was a treeline, separated by a wall. Beyond the statues was a very well-maintained grove. Lying between the trees, there was a diorama of the pre-colonial kings' palace — beautiful dome-shaped structures with low-lying walls.
The guide was briefing us. The stage is often used to name all newborn gorillas through a ceremony, I was told.
I was looking around, for birds, mostly. My camera was with me. At 1pm, I sensed something walking on the wall, a black-furry structure. I first thought of gibbons! Yet Africa has none! A teen gorilla was walking on the wall, munching on the leaves.
I took a short sprint, aligned myself face-to-face with the gorilla and started pressing the shutter. The gorilla saw me. Through my lens, I clearly sensed its eyeball had widened with surprise. It took a few steps back, then re-aligning itself face-to-face with me. It seemed like a reincarnation of the Night Fury-and-Hiccup first meet scene from 'How to Train your Dragon'.
I do not know how I kept myself steady with cameras. I thank all the bird photography trips I made. Birds are not human-friendly in Bangladesh and, thus, very good at training us about camera readiness.
The good, the bad, the ugly
Rwanda is what I picture as something of a paradise. The whole country is surprisingly plastic-free and truly safe to roam around. I often took midnight strolls and made cross-country bus journeys in the dead of the night.
The city and the colour, the culture and the nightlife, and mostly the commitment to conserve the humane spirit is unlike anywhere else.
Kigali is the safest city in Africa, way safer than many Western cities. As I am writing this I am far away from home, and yet I feel so thick-brained to understand why my countrymen feel so orgasmic about migrating out to the West. Kigali will always be a strong candidate.
From a biologist's perspective, I did not feel okay with the closer-than-expected encounters with the golden monkeys. Conservation tourism is okay. It seemed very systematic there. The guides were very knowledgeable, more than many professionals in Bangladesh. But I feel it is of little use and somewhat risky to let tourists take photos of monkeys with their phones. Often, there was less than a foot distance.
The thing that hurt most was that my colleagues could not take any photos of the gorilla. Their gears were in the car. They made a run for it. But the caretaker of the field came up and forbade us to take any photos.
By then, I was almost done. Our guide told me not to post the images on social media. Even worse, the caretaker shooed away the gorilla — still observing us. It escaped and jumped to the other side.
We were about 200 feet away from the wall. Our experience did not match with what we had with the monkeys, and other colleagues had with the gorillas in the mountains. The teen gorilla belonged to a wild band that was by chance near the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund compound — we were told.
I recalled one of our mates talking about some dark figures at the back of the compound. I did not pay heed, as I was so engrossed with the birds. Her observations were true. There were indeed more gorillas.
We did not pay for the gorilla trip, so we better not take photos — we were told. But we did not deliberately look for gorillas either. Perhaps we were mistaken as some sneaky tourists bypassing the protocol.
But the guide was well-informed. I found the whole act not aligned with Dian's spirit. She was buried beside her gorilla friends who were killed by poachers from time to time. The youth in conservation, bursting out in joy after watching a mountain gorilla — what else could be a better sight to behold?
I wish the way I got to see a gorilla was applied to the carnivores I work for in Bangladesh. I wish they could thrive in our little-known forests.