Rwanda's Post-Civil War Hope? Gorilla Tourism

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Last Refuge

Mountain gorillas resting in Volcanoes National Park, Rwanda

This post is in partnership with Worldcrunch, a new global-news site that translates stories of note in foreign languages into English. The article below was originally published in Die Welt.

The sky is blue, and after a midday rain the air feels as if it had been washed. Just after landing, we're heading out — along astonishingly perfect roads, past glass palaces and office towers, villas and gardens, in the capital, Kigali — on our way north to Volcanoes National Park.

That's where the country's prize attraction — mountain gorillas — live. It's the only place on earth where the animals can be observed in their natural habitat. There are some 400 in all, living in this remote highlands in the northernmost part of the country.

The landscape, with its green hills and terraced fields, looks so idyllic it's hard to believe that in the mid-1990s members of the Hutu majority killed hundreds of thousands of minority Tutsis in Rwanda.

Jimmy, our witty driver, wears sunglasses and has an answer for everything. Or nearly everything. Asked how he injured his arm — he has a huge scar that extends from his shoulder to his hand — he doesn't answer, at least not directly. After a while, he says, "Everybody in Rwanda has their story. Mine isn't ready to be told yet."

We start the drive up mountain toward the park as evening sets in. We get there to find some excellently equipped lodges. European, Chinese and U.S. investors have been pumping a lot of money into Rwanda's tourism sector.

A tour-company staffer tells us that he can guarantee us, "100%," that tomorrow we will see gorillas.

At 3:30 the next morning, the collective wake-up call arrives. The heavy rains that fell during the night have stopped. Despite the ungodly hour, everyone is in the best of moods: hopefully that applies to our friends-to-be out there in the jungle.

It's cool, somewhere between 12°C and 15°C, as we arrive at an altitude of 2,500 m. Behind us lies an impressive chain of volcanoes, their peaks boring through the clouds — the Gahinga, Sabinyo, Bisole and the highest one of all, the Karisimbi (4,507 m). We're not far from the border with the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Anaklet, a small young man in the military-style uniform of a park warden, is our guide. He addresses us like a general talking to troops before the battle. "Never touch a gorilla!" is his first command. Then: "Respect the animal!"

The gorillas should never feel provoked — for example by a flash or somebody setting up a tripod. The senior male, or silverback, could feel threatened by that.

A breakfast surprise
Command No. 3: "Keep your distance!" Humans can pass viruses of all kinds to gorillas — that's how closely related we are. And finally the fourth order: "If a silverback looks like he's heading in your direction, just sit down and look away. The best thing is to look like you're just chewing and eating. That has a calming effect," says Anaklet.

We leave the lodge around 5 a.m. with our armed guide. Ape territory begins behind a stone wall. The earth is steaming; white fog mixes with the intense green of the hilly landscape. Anaklet says we're going to surprise some gorillas eating breakfast.

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