Seeing mountain gorillas up close in eastern Congo

Thu Jul 3, 2014 7:53pm EDT
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By Edith Honan

VIRUNGA NATIONAL PARK Democratic Republic of Congo (Reuters) - The mountain gorillas looked me over with what I took to be boredom, but the rangers leading me knew better.

When a male gorilla let out a low, two-note murmur, the rangers responded by making the same sound, as if to say: "We've come as friends."

A young ape sat high in a tree overhead, yanking down a feast of leaves, while a second was splayed out in the tall grass, slapping his head and kicking his legs playfully. But it was clear the male, an enormous animal with glistening white teeth, was keeping an eye on things.

Virunga National Park, a World Heritage site in the restive eastern region of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), just might be the world's most spectacular, under-visited park.

Stretching 185 miles (300 km) north to south and encompassing 2 million acres (81,000 hectares) of lush forest and savannah, it is Africa’s oldest national park, established in 1925 when Congo was still a Belgian colony.

It is also the only park in the world with three kinds of great ape - mountain gorillas, chimpanzees and lowland gorillas - and is home to many of the world's mountain gorillas, which are thought to number fewer than 800.

But Virunga, the setting for American conservationist Dian Fossey's 1984 book "Gorillas in the Mist," is difficult to get to and the security situation is perennially uncertain.

Two decades of conflict violence, hunger and disease have claimed the lives of millions of people in this central African country, once known as Zaire.   Continued...

A mountain gorilla is photographed in Virguna National Park located in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) April 4, 2014. REUTERS/Edith Honan