Following a dream to the land of the mountain gorilla

Silverback mountain gorilla at Volcanoes National Park, Rwanda by Rick LoBello

by Rick LoBello

All around the world people are working to save endangered species and our environment.  Many of them are inspired by their visits to zoos.  That is what happened to me when I was 4 years old and my mother joined me on a school field trip to the Buffalo Zoo.  Here at the El Paso Zoo and other zoos we like to measure the effectiveness of our conservation efforts, but some efforts are hard to measure.   Who is to say that the next Dian Fossey or Jane Goodall has already visited our zoo or is visiting today.  This week as we celebrate the 51st anniversary of Earth Day, let us work together towards a world in which we share the planet with other species rather that drive them into extinction.

Zoom Presentation with Dr. Alan Goodall, May 8, 2021, 11am Mountain Time
Zoom Presentation with Judy Chidester, June 5, 2021, 1pm Mountain Time

From El Paso to the heart of Africa

It was a February morning in 1989 and I was on the other side of the world hiking through dense rainforest while climbing one of the dormant Virunga volcanoes in Rwanda. My goal was a chance to see a family of mountain gorillas as my small group and our French speaking guide approached the border of the Democratic Republic of the Congo.  Soon we came upon Group 11, one of the first mountain gorilla groups in the Virungas habituated for tourism.

One day during my senior year in high school I visited the library and picked up a copy of the January 1970 issue of National Geographic.  Famed conservationist Dian Fossey and two baby mountain gorillas were on the cover. The image captivated my imagination and soon I found myself dreaming of going to Africa to study the gorillas and perhaps be one of Fossey’s research assistants. Unfortunately Dian Fossey was murdered during the Christmas holidays in her Karisoke cabin on December 26, 1985.   I was greatly saddened by how her life had such a tragic ending yet remained hopeful that someday I would go and see the mountain gorillas that she dedicated her life to.   That day finally came true when I was able to join an East African birdwatching safari to Kenya and Rwanda. 

Not being the kind of person who gives up easily on his dreams one September morning in 2002 I connected with Clare Richardson of the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund. I was attending my first Association of Zoos and Aquariums conference in Fort Worth and met Clare at the trade show. We had lunch and I told her about how I wanted to do something to help the mountain gorillas. She said that if I wanted to meet her staff at the Karisoke Research station in Rwanda she would make the arrangements so that I could visit and discuss ways to possibly support their education program.   A little over eight months later I returned to Rwanda in June of 2003.  I met with the education and research teams, but could tell that the genocide of 1994 was still on the minds of many and I was not able to accomplish as much as I had hoped.   Two years later Clare and I talked again and she asked me if I would be interested in writing an interpretive guidebook to the gorillas and Volcanoes National Park. Without hesitation I said yes and soon made plans to return.  Fortunately I was able to cover all of my expenses for both trips and in June of 2005 I spent several weeks talking with park staff, researchers, observing the gorillas and visiting important places like the research station high up in the Virungas where Dian Fossey lived and did her research at Karisoke where she is buried today.

My story and the story of the park and the gorillas is told in a 12-chapter book I wrote for the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund (excerpt at bottom of page). It is available on Amazon.com and Kindle and I am now working on a 4th revision, but I have bigger dreams than just another update.   I want to help establish a Mountain Gorilla Conservation Center here in El Paso.  The famous artist Jay Matternes who was a close friend of Dian Fossey has given me a copy of one of his gorilla art prints that Fossey had hanging above the fireplace in her cabin. It is now hanging in my office to remind me every day of this new dream. I believe that the wildlife conservation programs sponsored by the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund are some of the most successful in the world and could be used as a model for other important conservation projects.   A Mountain Gorilla Conservation Center could be a place to not only learn about the gorillas and other primates, but more importantly inspire and motivate people to duplicate the conservation strategies that are working in Rwanda today.

Dr. Alan Goodall invites you to join him on May 8, 2021 for a special informal presentation.

If you would like to learn more and perhaps get involved you can join one or both of the virtual presentations I have planned on May 8 and June 5, 2021.  Register online using the forms below.   I have invited two of my friends who helped me with my book to share stories and answer questions about their experiences with the mountain gorillas at Dian Fossey’s famous Karisoke cabin in the Virungas mountains.   On May 8 at 11am Mountain Time you can hear Dr. Alan Goodall, no relationship to Jane Goodall, live from his home in Allos, France.  When I was working on my book I needed help with photographs and Dr. Goodall was kind enough to let me use some of the photos he took during his time studying the gorillas.  In 1970 Dr. Goodall was the first scientist to work with the late Dian Fossey.  He became Director of Karisoke Research Centre from 1987-1989.   I am so looking forward to this presentation. More about Dr. Alan Goodall – websiteYouTube channel and book.

Judy Chidester

On June 5, 2021 at 1pm Mountain Time you can meet Judy Chidester.   Judy lives in Las Cruces, New Mexico not far from El Paso where we met at a presentation I did about the gorillas at the Las Cruces Natural History Museum.  Judy graciously met with me in her home where I interviewed her and learned about her time in Rwanda and how she met Dian Fossey.   Her amazing story of taking care of a baby mountain gorilla in Fossey’s cabin is included in my book. Judy joined the Foreign Service in 1960 at the age of 21. Her first tour was Amman, followed by Saigon and the capital of Rwanda at Kigali. She was hired as a cryptographer and finished her career as an Information Management Officer. She served in the Foreign Service for 35 years, with five tours in the Middle East

Here is an excerpt from my book on my first day with the gorillas:

I shall never forget the day I first laid eyes on a family of mountain gorillas. It was February 3, 1989 on a visit to see Group 11 at Volcanoes National Park. I had joined an East African bird watching safari on a two-week journey across Kenya and Rwanda. I like bird watching, but my main reason for joining the group was the opportunity to see the gorillas. My videotape of that day helps me to remember almost every moment.

As we approached a high ridge overlooking what was then called Zaire (DRC) our guide took us over to a small patch of trees. There, in great anticipation, a lifelong dream was finally coming true. My first wild gorilla was high in a tree. We had walked almost two hours through bamboo forest and thick vegetation. I imagined seeing a gorilla around almost every bend. At last the moment had arrived. First, I saw movement in the shadows. Soon a female and her baby came into view as they climbed down to where we could get a better look. The rest of the group appeared moments later including a silverback named Stilgar and his next in line rival, Ndume. I was completely caught off guard at how close we had approached. The gorillas were all around us and acted as if we were just another part of the natural landscape. I sensed no fear from the gorillas, just a little anticipation from members of my human group as the large black creatures walked by, interacting only with each other. During the hour that we spent in the shade of that little patch of trees the gorillas simply carried on eating, resting and playing. As our guide tried to communicate with the few English words in his vocabulary, he pointed out two silverbacks and called out “chief, chief”.

One silverback broke off a tree limb and with a branch in hand ran by the other as if to say “hey look at me, watch out!” Another ran by beating his chest. Suddenly we heard loud screams coming from the trees across the way. It sounded like a family fight. After about a minute of listening to loud screaming vocalizations two large black backs appeared out of the shadows and once again there was calm. As I watched the amazing family scene unfold, I kept thinking about how observing wild gorillas might compare to how life looked for a family of early humans. Today I find myself spending more and more of my time worrying about their fate. I also think about all the hate in the world and how people are killing each other in wars and in all kinds of other violent acts. Then I think back on the gorillas in the Virungas and how although their numbers have increased in recent years, their existence remains threatened by poachers, political unrest and diseases like Ebola. And I am reminded of Beston’s reflections on life, and in a small way I am comforted. The gorillas, magnificently designed to survive in a high elevation rainforest, are “other nations, caught with ourselves in the net of life and time, fellow prisoners of the splendor and travail of the earth.” Like I wish for my own kind, I wish the gorillas well.

From Guide to Rwanda’s Volcanoes National Park, Home to Critically Endangered Mountain Gorillas by Rick LoBello (2018).

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