Face-to-Face With the Largest, Rarest Primates on Earth
Deep in the heart of Congo, Virunga National Park is home to the last of the silverbacks.
With his machine gun, machete, and green army fatigues, our tour guide is more soldier than scientist. He’s leading us up the steep slopes of Mt. Mikeno, a 14,500-foot-tall dormant volcano in the middle of the African continent, hacking away the dense undergrowth with a 2-foot-long blade. He works quickly and silently, stopping occasionally to make radio contact with the trackers up ahead.
We’re only a few miles south of the equator, and the sun burns through the forest canopy above our heads. A swarm of insects buzzes by, and off in the distance, a double-toothed barbet sings for a mate. We’ve been climbing hard for more than an hour.
News arrives. We’re close. We push deeper into the jungle, and before I am ready, I see it: the dark outline of one of the last remaining mountain gorillas. He’s a silverback, named for the gray hair that falls from his broad shoulders. The trackers call him Maseka.
Mountain gorillas are the largest primates in the world—adult males grow to 6 feet tall and weigh as much as 480 pounds. All live in central Africa in the tri-border area between Uganda, Rwanda, and the Democratic Republic of Congo, in mountain forests at elevations of 8,000 to 13,000 feet. But habitat destruction, population pressure, and poaching have pushed the animals to the edge of existence. The World Wildlife Fund estimates that fewer than 900 remain.
Gorillas live together in “troops” that can include as many as 30 animals under a dominant alpha male. Although they’re able climbers, they spend most of their time on the ground feeding and nesting. Males will often challenge one another with displays of physical power, pounding their chest and charging, but otherwise these vegetarians live in peaceful harmony on a diet of plants, roots, fruit, tree bark, and pulp.
In contrast to its size and power—a silverback is roughly 6 to 10 times stronger than any human—this massive animal is generally calm and nonaggressive unless disturbed. If all goes well, Maseka will never leave the slopes of Mt. Mikeno.
From the cover of the undergrowth, we watch as he lies on his back, holding his feet in one hand and scratching his chest with the other, unconcerned by, or unaware of, our presence. He rolls over on his haunches and begins pulling down large green leaves and thick brown vines, munching contentedly.
We’ve been instructed to remain 25 feet away at all times, but, in an effort to clear the area for a better view, one of the trackers swings his machete too close. Maseka turns in our direction and gives an angry grunt.
He rises to his full height and lunges toward us, only about 15 feet away, punching the ground with fists the size of a bowling ball. We quickly vanish back into the jungle, and Maseka returns to his meal, satisfied.
Virunga National Park, in the eastern mountains of the Congo, is the oldest of its kind on the continent. Its 1.2 million acres are home to more than 700 types of birds and 220 species of mammals, the highest number of any protected area in Africa. The reclusive, endangered okapi giraffe lives in the northern section of the park, elephants occupy eastern areas, chimpanzees are in the south. And it’s one of the only places where the silverback still roams wild.
I first visited Virunga almost 10 years ago, in April 2007. I was making a 5,000-mile trek overland from Cape Town to Cairo and had heard tales of a mysterious volcano that could be climbed in the eastern mountains of the mythic Congo. I bought a short-stay visa at the Rwandan border post of Gisenyi and crossed over to find a national park on its knees.
The country had been in turmoil since 1996, when it was still called Zaire. That year, aging dictator Mobutu Sese Seko fled to his crumbling palace in the north of the country as a rebel army—led by Laurent-Désiré Kabila, father of the current president, Joseph—invaded from Goma, a city in the east.
A delicate peace accord in 2003 returned some stability to the country, but not in the east, and not in Virunga. The rebel armies that had been so successful in defeating Mobutu turned on themselves, splintering into a multitude of armed groups that have continued to fight for survival across eastern Congo and inside the national park.
I’d arrived during a lull in the fighting and paid a jittery park ranger $100 to guide me to the top of Mt. Nyiragongo, a steep stratovolcano that contains one of the largest lava lakes on earth. We camped out overnight at the top and watched it churn, glowing in the darkness. Four months after I left, the park closed when another rebellion took control.
The following year, the Congolese government promoted a charismatic Belgian prince named Emmanuel de Merode to run the park. Born in Carthage, Tunisia, in 1970, he spent much of his childhood in Kenya before going to boarding school in southwest England. Since then he’s dedicated his life to the DRC’s extraordinary but troubled national parks.
“When we started, it was in many ways a paper park,” De Merode says over breakfast at the Mikeno Lodge, a collection of spacious, beautifully designed bungalows built in 2011 on a forested escarpment at the park’s Rumangabo headquarters. “Personnel were completely dysfunctional, they were disarmed, they didn’t wear shoes. There was one borrowed vehicle for the whole park.”
In the early morning light on Mikeno Lodge’s terrace, it’s hard to appreciate the risks that De Merode and his team face every day. Over the past decade, more than 150 rangers have been killed, including two in March. De Merode himself was shot two years ago; the gunmen were never found. (These events were the focus of Virunga, a 2014 documentary that was nominated for an Academy Award.)
Eight years after his appointment, De Merode says the park has turned a corner. The gorilla population is growing, and Virunga boasts the best-trained national park force in the country. The park generated $1.7 million in tourism revenue last year, triple the amount from 2014, and that number is expected to rise an additional 50 percent this year. For adventurous travelers, staff at the lodge will create custom itineraries such as hiking the ice-capped Rwenzori Mountains in the park’s far north or staying overnight at a camp near the crater’s edge on Mt. Nyiragongo.
My wife and I had flown in from the steamy capital, Kinshasa, but most of Virunga’s tourists cross the border from Rwanda or fly directly to Goma with Ethiopian airlines, connecting through Addis Ababa. The Congolese government has relaxed its visa rules for park visitors who enter the country this way, and from Goma, the lodge at the park headquarters is a bumpy 90-minute drive north.
Inside, intricate Congolese kuba cloths, woven from raffia tree leaves, are draped over tables, and photographs of the park hang on the walls. For lunch, we’re served rabbit and Ugandan tilapia; dinner is a plate of osso buco, made with local Goma beef and paired with a South African pinotage.
After the sun goes down, we relax on canvas chairs and leather sofas on the terrace, exchanging stories with our fellow travelers, scientists, and national park staff. I talk with a silver-haired conservationist named Pierre-Jean d’Huart, who first worked at Virunga in the 1970s tagging migratory birds. He’s been coming back ever since.
Following dinner, we take the winding path back to our bungalow to find that the baboons and colobus monkeys that were playing in the trees have turned in hours ago. A wood fire has been lit in our room’s hearth, and the flickering flames lull us to sleep.
On the morning of our gorilla encounter, we leave Goma at dawn. Outside the colorful, ramshackle city is verdant farmland, and there isn’t a cloud in the sky—just a lone plume of smoke rising from the cone of Mt. Nyiragongo. Its imposing shape is just as I remember.
The road north is filled with farmers on foot heading out to tend their fields of manioc, a starchy edible root that forms the staple ingredient in the Congolese diet. A woman balances a wide hoe with a long shaft on her head as her children follow behind. Soldiers still make regular appearances, reminders of a more dangerous time, but the military checkpoints are gone.
Gorilla watching in Virunga is strictly controlled. There are eight silverback families in this section of the park that are tracked and allowed to be visited—about 100 gorillas total. Tourist groups can’t be larger than six people, and each encounter has a time limit of 60 minutes. Visits among the families are rotated, depending on where they are. We have stumbled across the Rugendos.
After our initial encounter with Maseka, we give him some space until he’s joined by five other gorillas. The dominant male, 20-year-old Bukima, reaches up and pulls down the overhead vines with both hands. He’s well over 400 pounds, bigger and broader than Maseka, who’s now shredding vines that crack as he chews.
Two baby gorillas chase each other up a bare tree trunk and back down again. The older one watches the younger, who spins around on the spot as if trying to make himself dizzy. Only 8 months old, he already seems perfectly adapted to his mountain home. His thick black coat almost shimmers. Their mother looks on, unmoved by their antics.
Later that day, we tour the sanctuary at the park headquarters. In 2007 five gorillas, including Maseka’s father, the dominant male Senkwekwe, were shot. They weren’t killed by poachers—the bodies weren’t carried away—but the impact was the same.
Two gorillas, Ndeze and Ndakasi, were orphaned in the attack and are now cared for at the sanctuary that bears Senkwekwe’s name. It’s the only facility in the world for mountain gorilla orphans, and the duo are a daily reminder that the families remain vulnerable. Ranger Andre Bauma has worked for the national park for 18 years and at the center since it opened in 2010. “The only enemy of the gorilla is man,” he tells me.
Back on the mountain, our hour seems to inch along as we watch, gripped by the intricate behavior of the family group—powerful, playful, and protective in equal measure. As we leave, I look back to see the outline of Bukima as he raises himself onto his knuckles, glances at us, and disappears into the trees.
Rooms at Mikeno Lodge start at $450 a night for two, including meals.