Into the Mist

Mountain Gorilla

During the past 18 months, I have been on an incredible journey throughout the Asian and African continents that has included many wonderful encounters with wildlife. From experiencing my first safari to diving with great white sharks, I have been very lucky. One might think that such a lifestyle would eventually grow wearisome, however, my desire to witness wild animals in their natural habitat grows stronger with every experience. Fortunately, I was able to further indulge my passion when I relocated to the small east African country of Rwanda last December. Aptly named “The land of a thousand hills”, Rwanda boasts a wide array of flora and fauna to be marvelled at. It is best-known among wildlife enthusiasts and conservationists for its high concentration of colourful birds and endangered primates.

Since moving to Rwanda, I have taken advantage of the many wildlife watching opportunities that this great land has to offer, visiting Akagera National Park and also travelling to the beautiful Nyungwe Forest to trek chimpanzees. There really is no other way to observe such spectacular animals than in their natural environment, as their behaviour and interactions with one another are in stark contrast to that when behind bars in a zoo. They were both truly amazing days that I will never forget. However, the magnitude of these experiences was overwhelmingly dwarfed by that of last weekend’s gorilla trekking.

Rwanda is one of three countries that are home to the critically endangered mountain gorilla. Surprisingly, it was as late as 1902 when these graceful beasts were first discovered by scientists, and since that day, mountain gorilla populations have been under serious threat of extinction. Poaching, habitat loss, disease and warfare have all contributed toward their decline and in 1981, it was estimated that as little as 254 mountain gorillas remained. Perhaps most horrifying of all, silverbacks were killed for their heads and hands which were sold to collectors. In addition, many protective parents were killed when their babies were taken away to be exhibited in zoos all over the world. Thankfully, recent years have seen large conservation efforts which have helped to ensure that these creatures have not become mere museum memories. It is now believed that there are at least 880 individuals wandering the hills of Rwanda, Uganda and the Democratic Republic of Congo.

A large contributing factor toward the recovery of the mountain gorilla population has been through ecotourism. Wildlife enthusiasts from all corners of the globe travel to eastern Africa to witness the glorious spectacle of the great apes roaming freely in their natural habitat. Visitors must book permits weeks in advance, as the number of people allowed to view the gorillas each day is very limited. Encounters with our primate cousins are also restricted to a single one-hour session per day, and so the $750 fee per permit may seem astronomical to some. In hindsight, I cannot put into words how insignificant the cost turned out to be.

I left the comforts of my hotel room at around six o’clock on a misty Sunday morning and shortly after I arrived at the base camp where I was to learn which gorilla family I would be trekking. My guide announced that we had been assigned to the Ntambara (fighters) group – a band of 16 individuals. I met with the six other trekkers who had been assigned to the same group and we all briefly introduced ourselves to one another. Soon after, we excitedly jumped into a jeep and headed off toward the foot of the mountain of which the Ntambara group were located. Around half an hour later we arrived at our destination, climbed out of the jeep and began our ascent up into the mist.

During the relatively effortless hike toward the national park, we made a few stops where our guide taught us about some of the flora in the area. It was interesting to learn about the local vegetation and it helped to make the 45 minutes it took to reach the border of the national park go by quickly. Before crossing through the park’s perimeter, our guide gave us instructions on how to behave when we came across the gorillas and ways in which to react to different situations that may occur. Shortly after, he received confirmation on his two-way radio that the trackers had located the Ntambara group. They continuously updated him on the location of the gorillas and it became clear to all in the group that he knew exactly how far they were positioned from us. My fellow trekkers and I were keen to learn how long we would be hiking before we found the gorillas to which our guide teasingly responded “less than five hours”.

As we climbed over the cobblestone wall which separated the surrounding farmland from the forest, it became very apparent that this was going to be an arduous trek. It had rained continuously throughout the past few days and we all found ourselves ankle deep in the thick sodden soil. We hiked for around half an hour on the main trail before we met with one of the trackers and veered off onto a completely new route. I began to grow excited as it became obvious that we were in close proximity to the Ntambara group.

We continued through the thick lush green forest for around 15 minutes before happening upon two other trackers who instructed us to stop. Within seconds I heard a noise that sounded very similar to that of bongo drums and instantly I recognised that it was the sound of a gorilla beating its chest. I could feel my eyes growing wider and an adrenaline rush like I had never felt before as the realisation set in that we were about to be acquainted with one of the greatest animals to roam the planet.

As we approached the area from which we had heard the chest-beating, a large and imposing silverback emerged from a nearby bush and slowly moved his way toward us. Members of our group began frantically throwing themselves off the trail to allow him the space to pass through. I had not imagined that I could have been within a metre or so of a wild animal with such immense power and lived to tell the tale. As he unhurriedly distanced himself from us, everybody breathed a sigh of relief as if they had believed that a strictly herbivorous creature had recently acquired a taste for human flesh. We continued on to discover more members of the Ntambara group which included two females, a juvenile and an even larger Silverback feeding in a small opening.

We spent the next hour almost entirely in silence as we observed the gorillas moving in all directions around us. As we gradually moved our way around the tranquil forest, we managed to locate other members of the Ntambara group including a few amusing adolescents. Unoriginal as it may be, though, the toddler provided the most enjoyment for me personally. Before encountering the gorillas we had been instructed that should any of the infants approach us, we should make every effort to back away in order to ensure that no complications would arise with their extremely protective parents. One of the hardest things I’ve ever had to do was distance myself from the juvenile that seemed intrigued by a fellow trekker and I. Nevertheless, I felt incredibly privileged to have been within a few feet of the curious little chap.

The enhanced elation I felt in contrast to my previous encounters with wildlife was undoubtedly down to the fact that I had spent less time behind the camera lens and more time simply observing. From previous experiences I have learnt that photographs are no substitution for enjoying the moment as it happens.

I honestly cannot find the words to express the wonder of sharing a short moment in time alongside such immensely powerful and magnificently intelligent animals. Magical perhaps, but the only way that one can really understand the euphoria surrounding even the briefest encounter with such glorious beings is to experience it for themselves.

A Colossal Pursuit

Photo: Shutterstock

Photo: Shutterstock

There is a small selection of our planet’s weird and wonderful creatures that almost seem to be mythical. Ask anyone if they have ever seen a blue whale and most will reply with something along the lines of “Does the model in the natural history museum count?” It seems that for most people, the idea of witnessing the glorious spectacle of the mighty blue whale breaching the ocean surface is about as likely as spotting a woolly mammoth or Big Foot. Indeed, despite claiming the title of largest creature ever to have inhabited our planet, the blue whale remains a rather elusive and mysterious beast.

Following huge efforts to prevent the extinction of the blue whale, their populations have been on the rise over the past 50 years or so. It was recently discovered that many of them currently reside in the warm waters based off Dondra Point in Sri Lanka. This finding, together with the recent ending of the 25- year civil war has led to somewhat of a tourism boom in the tear-drop shaped island nation. The high probability of spotting undoubtedly one of nature’s greatest creations coupled with the fact Sri Lanka’s Yala National Park boasts the highest concentration of wild leopards in the world was enough tempt me in.

After a journey filled with arduous hikes and lengthy train rides, I wanted to unwind for a few days in the tranquil beach town of Mirissa. Bountifully scattered along the white sand shores were a host of tour operators offering whale watching excursions. I put my faith in a small yet highly recommended company named Danushka and the Whales and went to bed that evening thoroughly excited for what awaited me the next day.

I woke at six-o-clock the following morning and after a quick breakfast, climbed into a tuk-tuk toward the harbour. After crisscrossing our way through a hoard of local fisherman, all frantically trying to make a quick Rupee off their morning catch, I arrived at the jetty and boarded the half-full boat in high spirits. Soon thereafter, we soon pulled out of the picturesque port and headed purposefully into the open ocean.

The swell was slight and the water crystal clear as we gradually distanced ourselves further from the palm covered coast. A few hours passed where nothing but seabirds and a lone flying fish were spotted. Just as all passengers on board were about to give up, we happened upon twenty or so whale watching boats, all congregated in the same small patch of deep blue sea. It quickly became apparent that something had aroused their interest, and as a result, excited passengers swiftly positioned themselves toward the bow.

As we entered the area of interest, the unmistakable sound of water forcefully spouting through the blowhole of a whale came from the starboard side. I turned toward the direction of the misty spray, and there, 20-feet away in all of its magnificence, was that most fabled of all living things – a blue whale. After standing motionless for a few seconds in complete awe and admiration, I quickly grabbed for my camera. Hurriedly, I captured snap after snap of the gigantic cetacean including the trademark tail fin shot as she began her descent into the deeper water.

It wasn’t until she appeared at the surface again, around a kilometer into the distance that I realized I had wasted the moment. I soon understood that to have initially been in such close proximity to the whale was a rare occurrence, and began to feel annoyed with myself for spending those precious few seconds behind the camera lens instead of fully embracing the encounter. As the gentle giant resurfaced every ten minutes or so, the growing number of boats would recklessly speed toward her and I increasingly began to feel disheartened. It saddened me to learn the tour operators’ desire to ensure a high-rate of customer satisfaction consequently led to the harassment of an animal that just wanted to be left in peace. It was less a case of “whale watching” more “whale chasing”.

As a wildlife enthusiast, I cannot deny my feelings of elation whilst encountering three blue whales that day. Nonetheless, I feel rather conflicted about the whole experience due to the obvious lack of ethicality. I appreciate the difficulty that tour operators have in finding the right balance between ethical practices and increasing their ratings on review sites such as Trip Advisor, but this predicament should not be to the detriment of any animal. More stringent measures need to be enforced, limiting the number of vessels and time spent with the whales. An excellent example to follow would be that of gorilla trekking regulations in East Africa. In Rwanda, limited permits are issued to tourists each day and trekkers are not permitted to spend any longer than one hour with the great apes. Furthermore, the sheer cost of each permit is enough to separate the serious wildlife enthusiasts from the general public.

Approximately 200 people were crammed together onto our boat the day I went to see the blue whales. Filtering out those who grew bored after five minutes of taking selfies, there were probably no more than twenty people interested in observing and learning about the whales. It would seem that by following Rwanda’s example, there is already a tried and tested solution for ensuring that genuine wildlife enthusiasts have the opportunity to experience once-in-a-lifetime opportunities with nature, without causing any major distress to the subject.

The Beginner's Guide to Birding in Akagera!

Rich in biodiversity with jaw-dropping landscapes, Akagera National Park is one of Africa's best kept secrets. With lions reintroduced in 2015 and plans for the return of highly endangered black rhino, the Rwandan government are working hard at bringing back the area's big-five status.

Ornithologists and bird enthusiasts have long known about Rwanda's abundance of birds. The country boasts 728 species, with at least 525 of those residing in and around the lakes, woodlands, and savannas of Akagera.

Of that astounding number, there are a wide-variety of birds that come in all different colours, shapes, and sizes.  In this article, I have highlighted some of the most common species you might see on a one-day safari in Akagera. There are certainly other species -not least the highly elusive and prehistoric looking shoebill - that are equally if not more impressive than those on this list. But I've attempted to compile a guide to the species that the average tourist safari-goer has a 50% or greater chance of spotting.

African Fish Eagle

With its contrasting white/brown plumage, the African Fish Eagle is similar in appearance to the American Bald Eagle. This spectacular and aggressive fishing bird is perhaps the most commonly spotted eagle in Africa . The chances of observing this beautiful raptor are very high and expect to find pairs nesting close to water sources. They also have a very distinct call.


Village Weaver

Of all the birds on this list, the Village Weaver is the one species you're guaranteed to see. That's because you'll find many of these birds nesting in the trees in and around the visitor centre (where you will need to sign-in before entering the main park). Easily identified by their bright yellow colour, big red eyes, and black hood.


Lilac-breasted Roller

One of Akagera's most vibrantly coloured birds, the Lilac-breasted Roller will not go unnoticed. Despite its name, the Lilac-breasted Roller is most identifiable for the electric blue plumage it possesses on its under parts. Bold and beautiful, they drop onto ground prey from prominent perches such as roadside poles. This species, like all rollers, is renowned for its rolling flight display.


African Jacana

Widespread and common residents of freshwater ponds and lakes, the African Jacana is a long-legged, long-toed waterbird which walks and feeds on floating vegetation, especially water-lilies. Also known as the "Jesus Bird" for its seeming ability to walk on water, the African Jacana has a striking chestnut and white plumage with a powder-blue bill and frontal shield.


White-browed Coucal

Bulky, with a dark crown and face separated by a long white eyebrow with pale streaking extending onto a brown-rufous back. Often found around water in a wide range of rank vegetation, thickets, bushed and wooded grassland. A conspicuous bird and a cuckoo relative (though non-parasitic), the White-browed Coucal also has a variety of harsh kak notes.


Fork-tailed Drongo

A small and inconspicuous glossy-black bird with bright orange eyes. Best distinguished for its forked tail, this species of drongo is common and widespread at forest edge, open-wooded country, and semi-arid bush. As featured in David Attenborough's Africa series, the Fork-tailed Drongo has been made famous for its mischievous ability to mimic other animals including large birds of prey and meerkats.


Saddle-billed Stork

In contrast to the other stork on this list, one of the more aesthetically pleasing birds. The Saddle-billed Stork is a very large black and white wader with a long tri-coloured bill. The yellow part of the bill resembles a saddle, hence the name. Often solitary but sometimes found in pairs, this beautiful bird can be found mostly around Akagera's wetlands.


African Grey Hornbill

The most commonly spotted of all the hornbill family in Akagera. Pairs and groups are widespread and common residents in woodland, bushed and wooded grassland. Like most hornbill species, they exhibit dramatic courtship displays in which they rock on perches, point their bills skywards, and flick open their wings. Females have a purplish-red tip to their long curved bill.


Long-crested Eagle

Possibly the second most commonly spotted eagle in Akagera (after the African Fish Eagle), this bird is easily identified for its bright yellow eyes and long crest of feathers, which often wave around in the wind. You'll most likely spot the Long-crested Eagle perched at the top of roadside poles and trees, waiting to swoop on unsuspecting rodents.


White-faced Whistling Duck

A long-legged, long-necked duck that is well-named since they frequently attract attention with their loud far-carrying whistling. They appear largely dark in flight but it is easy to spot the chestnut coloured neck and distinct white face at a closer glance. The White-faced Whistling Duck is a gregarious species with small to large flocks gathering around Akagera's great lakes.


Woodland Kingfisher

A beautiful little bird with dove-grey, black, and bright blue plumage in addition to a striking red and black bill. Contrary to the latter part of its name, the Woodland Kingfisher is often found well away from water, frequenting wooded areas where it preys upon insects, lizards, and, on occasion, smaller birds. Singles and pairs are widespread and common.


Palm-nut Vulture

Along with the African Fish Eagle and Osprey, the Palm-nut Vulture is one of three fish-eating raptors that can be found in close proximity to Akagera's lakes. Very different in shape to other vulture species with a bold black and white plumage, it will often perch on tree branches with a hunched appearance. They have long bills for fishing and a large area of bare-pinkish skin around the eyes.


Cattle Egret

Not everyone's favourite but an interesting bird nonetheless. A short-legged heron with mostly white plumage and a buff-orange wash on the head, back and breast. The Cattle Egret is a classic game-hugging bird that is often seen hunting for small animals flushed out of the ground by larger mammals including elephant, hippopotamus, and buffalo. It is not uncommon to see one of these birds perched upon their symbiotic companions.


Little Bee-eater

Pretty little birds with mostly green plumage and a yellow throat. Little Bee-eaters have a short, narrow blue stripe just above the black eyemask and again over the throat patch. When perched, they sit in a fairly upright position with slowly wagging tail. They prey mostly on insects, snapping them up with an audible click. Pairs or family groups are common in bushed and wooded grassland.


Marabou Stork

Enormous stork and commonly thought of as the ugliest bird species not just in Rwanda, or Africa even, but the world! They're easily identified for their naked pink-reddish head and neck with scabby black spots. The Marabou Stork is massive in flight with one of the largest wingspans of all birds. They'll also eat just about anything from small mammals to carrion.


Grey-crowned Crane

An attractive and very conspicuous bird, the Grey Crowned Crane is the national bird of Uganda. This species is mostly grey with dark-chestnut, black and white wings, but is most notable for the bristly golden crown on its head. While this large crane will range well away from wetter areas to feed, the best chances of observing this impressive bird are around lakes and inundated grasslands.


Helmeted Guineafowl

The Helmeted Guineafowl is a distinctive spotted gamebird easily identified by an upright bony casque on top of the head with electric blue face and red-tipped wattles. This comical species has been known to stop traffic, with its stubbornness over making way for vehicles. Commonly spotted on the ground and in large flocks, they frequent a wide range of grassland, bush country and woodland.


Bare-faced Go-away Bird

These charismatic birds are the open country relatives of the vibrant turacos. The Bare-faced Go-away-bird is so named for its loud onomatopoeic calls. Quite slender with black face, white neck and breast and a tall grey crest, they are commonly found in pairs and often confide in open woodland and bush country. 


Goliath Heron

At 152cm (60") high, this is the world's largest heron and is a common resident of Akagera. Aside from its massive size, this leggy bird is easily recognizable for its spear like bill and warm chestnut head and hindneck. Singles and rarely small groups are widespread. Despite their size, they can remain relatively unnoticed to the inattentive eye.


Spur-winged Goose

Spur-winged Geese frequent mostly around freshwater sources and are easily distinguished by size and plumage. A large long-necked goose, but not particularly attractive with a bare warty red face. In their slow and laboured flight, they display a long white bar along the leading edge of the wing. Their flight call is a repeated variably rapid double wheezy note, almost like a hiccup.


Other commonly spotted species:

  • African Darter

  • African Wattled Lapwing

  • Blue-cheeked Bee-eater

  • Common Squacco Heron

  • Crowned Lapwing

  • Eastern Grey Plantain-eater

  • Great Egret

  • Grey-backed Fiscal

  • Hamerkop

  • Lappet-faced Vulture

  • Little Egret

  • Long-tailed Cormorant

  • Osprey

  • Pin-tailed Whydah

  • Red-billed Firefinch

  • White-backed Vulture

 

Big thanks to Shelly Anne Rosen and Paul Karemera of Intore Expeditions for sharing some of their beautiful photos for this blog post. Those without watermark are Copyright © Leigh Woods 2017 with all rights reserved.