18 March, 2012
In 2007, while researching my book, ‘Among The Great Apes’ I crossed onto the eastern region of the Democratic Republic of Congo to journey to the Virunga National Park where just over one hundred of the last eight hundred mountain gorillas on earth lived on the slopes of forested volcanoes. Some decades before, Dian Fossey had made them world-famous, especially those living on the other side of the volcanoes in Rwanda.
Thousands of foreigners visited the Rwandan mountain gorillas in complete safety, but at that time none were journeying to the Congo gorillas because their habitat was swarming with thousands of rebels fighting the government troops.
So, I was alone with the Congo rangers who daily went up the volcano slopes to make sure the gorillas were safe and healthy.
I visited several families of mountain gorillas there, but my favourite was the Rugendo clan led by the imposing silverback Senkwekwe. He was six foot tall and weighed about 260 kg. He had four adult females with him and several babies, juveniles and adolescents, all his children.
I sat with them in their mountain forest watching their lifestyle, in so many ways like our own. Senkwekwe enjoyed munching on leaves, plants and root for much of the day, the adult females nursed their babies and three brothers enjoyed romping and mock fighting. There was the pugnacious two-year-old, Noel, and his bigger brothers, eight-year-old Kongomani and 10-year-old Mukunda.
I was the only journalist to visit them for many months because of the danger posed by the rebels. A couple of months later I was shocked when I opened the Sydney Morning Herald to see a large photo of Senkwekwe, shot dead, being carried down a hill on an improvised bamboo stretcher by several villagers. Another photo showed Senkwekwe lined up on the ground with his adult females. They had been shot dead. The photos shocked the world. No one knew who killed them.
I wondered whether the youngsters had survived the massacre. Usually, when a silverback and the adult females perished, the young scattered and usually died. Were Noel, Kongomani and Mukunda still alive?
A couple of months later the Congo gorilla sector of the park was taken over by a Tutsi warlord and his 20,000 rebels, and he banned the rangers from entering under pain of death. So, no one knew if any of the Congo mountain gorillas were still alive.
The warlord was overthrown the following year and the rangers returned, firstly to do a census of the gorillas. But there was no word of the fate of the three brothers.
Worry gnawed at me and with Tim Noonan, a Sunday Night, reporter/cameraman with whom I had teamed up as producer, we went back to the Congo to investigate whether Noel Kongomani and Mukunda were still alive.
We flew from Sydney to Bangkok, spent a couple of hours in transit and at midnight flew to Nairobi, stopped over for a couple of hours and then flew on to Kigali, the capital of Rwanda. From there we hired a car to take us to the Congo border, three hours away. So, the journey from Sydney took us more than 40 hours. Luckily, we had an overnight sleep on the Rwandan side of the border and then crossed into the Democratic Republic of Congo the next day.
Two days later, Tim and I, accompanied by a dozen rangers armed with assault rifles in case we were ambushed by rebels, trekked through heavy jungle to try and find the three brothers. It was one of the toughest treks of my life and took two days. We had to tramp through heavy mud for hours, thrusting aside the thick jungle foliage that slapped at our faces. A turbulent storm hit us and lashed us with heavy rainfall. That night, shivering with cold, we had to try and sleep by a small fire after a meal of canned meat.
The next morning the trackers told us that we were close. After two more hours, with me exhausted and struggling to take another step, we reached a bush area where the rangers said we’d find two of the three brothers.
It was one of the happiest days of my life. Little Noel had grown into a sturdy six-year-old but was just a cheeky as ever. Kongomani was now a huge silverback and he strutted about showing everyone how big and strong he was. I was excited and enthralled to see them and relieved to know they had survived by sticking together as a family with the two biggest brothers, Kongomani and Mukunda protecting the little ones.
But Mukunda was missing. The rangers told us that, just like many young silverbacks, he had become a loner, looking for a female or females who would join him to form his own family. Sometimes he had wandered down into a village and had to be darted and carried back to the forest. What I found most interesting was that he had attacked four men and bitten one severely on the arm. Mountain gorillas rarely attacked humans, but Mukunda had witnessed the massacre of his father and the family’s adult females. The only people he attacked carried rifles. He still remembered.