The problem was resolved after a trip to Kigali when ORTPN advisor Alain Montfort contributed $300 toward the census from a small Belgian research fund that he controlled. Within a month, a new team was back in the field. Big Nemeye took over as tracker, since the revised schedule no longer fit with Rwelekana’s commitments to farm. An occasional karisoke porter and tracker-in-training named Antoine Banyangandura was hired to guard our camp and keep the daily bean pot cooking. A Peace Corps volunteer named roger palm even contributed a few weeks for his vacation time to the effort.
On July 21,the reconstituted census team established a base camp at Ngezi, named for the small lake filled crater that jutted out from Visoke’s North Eastern flank. Our first task was to clean the fifth and litter left by poachers in an earlier short lived effort by Dian and a European friend to provide a camp for tourists far away from karisoke. The clean up completed, we took advantage of the waning light to relax at the lake’s edge before sun down. A pair of yellow-billed ducks paddled across a stretch of open water, breaking visoke’s reflection on its surface. From the thickets around the lake came the bell-like goong-goong of the reclusive buff-spotted crake, a small bird whose long feet enable it to walk on floating vegetation. A broad bowl of herbaceous vegetation just beyond the lake was marked with trails that indicated possible gorilla use. Far above, a soft glow briefly flourished, and then faded, as the sunset behind Visoke’s summit.
It would be the last relaxing moment on this trip, on the first day out we discovered two new groups whose composition clearly showed that we had not counted then before. The first group appeared on a ridge as bill and Nemeye were showing Roger how to count nets. When the gorilla group crossed a nearby ravine, we had a perfect view of a magnificent family of twelve individual’s two silver backs, four females with four infants and two other sub adults. As we watched the gorillas settled down to feed and rest in remarkable calm. Then came voices and a silver back scream. Then more voices, human voices from below. As the gorillas fled, five European tourists emerged from the bushes, shocked to find other humans instead of their quarry. They were in the company of a poorly dressed park guard, who looked as though he desperately wanted to be somewhere else. These were some of the few hardy tourists who paid a $5 fee, or an equivalent bribe for the chance to see wild gorillas in 1978.Though sanctioned by ORTPN, such forays were led by inexperienced guides who knew nothing about gorillas or how to behave in their presence. Few groups succeeded in actually observing gorillas, but these people had at least made vocal contact whether their guide wanted to push the experience any further was not at all clear.
Our team went on to confirm a count of twelve individuals in this group which we recorded as group 11 in the final census. We added a second group of six gorillas over the following days. This completed the survey of Visoke proper. We next moved out onto a broad plain bounded by a series of hills to the north of Ngezi located entirely in Congo, the area was covered with a thick scrub vegetation and had little to recommend it as likely gorilla habitat. Yet it had to be searched, we covered a large area in two days of forced ten –hour marches. Surrounded by a sea of Kibaba Nzovu-elephant nettles that packed a wicked twenty-four-hour sting-and exposed to the rare dry season sun with no surface water, the Virunga wonderland was transformed into green hell national a park. But these conditions didn’t keep other humans away. Fresh poacher trails crisscrossed the plain and we cut dozens of traps. At one spot Hyna prints overlay fresh duiker tracks, both of which were followed by the small bare foot prints of a pair of poachers, probably pygmies. We added our lug-soled boot prints to the mix and imagined the intriguing possibility of a group encounter.
But the sight of smoke pulled us off the trail toward a distant hill. Fresh duiker remains greeted our arrival at the smoldering fire. Inside one of two small huts, Nemeye discovered a plastic sack of a white powder used to poison elephants at watering holes. We also recovered wire traps and machetes before we destroyed the huts. Climbing the steep flank of Ngezi late on July24, Nemeye found and cut three fresher snare traps within five hundred yards of camp.
Arriving at the edge of Ngezi around 5.00pm that same day, we were exhausted but relieved to know we had finished the difficult plains section of our census. We would move onto the bamboo hills to the East of Ngezi with renewed hopes of seeing gorillas. Antoine was waiting as we approached the cabin. He bowed his head as he held out a note for bill in both hands. The watchman’s posture said to expect the worst.
Uncle Bert has been killed. We don’t know the other gorillas are or if they are alive. Please come back to camp as soon as you can. Dian.