‘We Have To Get Out Now’: Kyle Hammons Photo Safari Becomes Escape From The Congo

There was no time to ask questions; we took off at a sprint to our bungalow overlooking Virunga National Park in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. We packed our bags as quickly as possible and loaded into a large transport vehicle to begin our evacuation from the park.  Led by a truck loaded with six armed rangers, our convoy raced away from park headquarters down the bumpy dirt roads past villagers who just stared at the foreigners fleeing the scene.  Along the way, the park’s tourism director, Cai Willink, calmly explained that a rebel army of 1,500 men under the command of Bosco Ntaganda (known as “The Terminator) had entered the park during the night and crossed a detachment of Congolese soldiers, sparking a violent confrontation and forcing our immediate evacuation. 

(C) Kyle Hammons

The park rangers led the way clutching their AK-47s in their hands while our convoy raced down rugged roads towards the town of Goma on the DRC-Rwanda border.  We could only sit back and watch the chaotic scene unfolding before us.  Congolese locals lined the roadsides in a desperate attempt to evacuate their families.  With no vehicles to transport them, they grabbed whatever they could carry and they walked.  It was more than 20 miles to the border at Goma and the entire distance refugees lined the roadsides.  Necessary items were stuffed into bedrolls carried upon their heads.  Everyone carried a load, including the elderly and children, having abandoned their homes and not knowing when they might return.

Soon, we came upon a village where hundreds of people crowded in a field while trains of refugees departed in both directions, fleeing what could become the center of conflict.  It was in this open field that the UN soldiers had gathered.  There were large convoy vehicles, armored tanks, trucks fitted with machine guns, and even a helicopter, all displaying the unmistakable blue letters representing the United Nations.  Other troops had set up a perimeter around the field, their blue helmets visible even as they crouched among high grasses.  The military’s presence was alarming, for though we had seen UN soldiers in the area, their sheer numbers combined with the amount of heavy artillery suggested that a war had just begun.

(C) Kyle Hammons

Just five days before we had crossed from Uganda into the Democratic Republic of the Congo.  For several months, the southern sector of Virunga National Park had been considered safe with an average of 250 tourists visiting the gorillas and Nyiragongo Volcano each month.  Most travelers reach the park from Rwanda, crossing the border at Gisenyi into Goma, the capital of North Kivu, and continuing approximately 25 miles to the park headquarters at Rumangabo.  Alternately, the park can be reached via the border town of Bunagana, Uganda and making the approximately three-hour trip to Virunga National Park.

Situated at the heart of the Albertine Rift in the eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo, on the border with Uganda and Rwanda, Virunga National Park is the oldest and most diverse national park on the African continent.  Extending 186 mi (300 km) north to south and 14 mi (23 km) east to west, the park is comprised of savannas, swamps, forests, lakes, lava plains, hot springs, active volcanoes, high altitude glaciers and even ice fields.  Virunga also contains one of the greatest concentrations of wildlife found anywhere in Africa, containing more bird, mammal and reptile species than any other protected area on the African continent.  Along with 200 of the world’s critically endangered mountain gorillas, the park is also home to savanna and forest elephants, buffaloes, giraffes, antelope, okapi, lions, chimpanzees and Eastern lowland gorillas.

(C) Kyle Hammons

Virunga National Park is often said to be Africa’s most beautiful national park; ironically, it has long been one of the most threatened.  In July 1994, in the course of just a few days, nearly two million refugees poured across the border into the DRC (then “Zaire”) fleeing the massacres in Rwanda.  Five refugee camps were constructed along the borders of the park and in the years that followed the management of Virunga was dominated by the urgent needs of 750,000 refugees.  Deforestation became rampant with up to 80,000 people a day entering the park and cutting firewood.  Other problems brought on by the camps included cutting of bamboo, poaching, dumping waste, general disorder and anxiety, collapse of tourism revenue, and the shortage of natural resources for local communities.

Remarkably, Virunga National Park has survived thanks to the steadfast dedication of a remarkable staff made up locals and foreigners alike, in particular Park Director Emmanuel de Mérode and the 274 park rangers under his command.  Mérode, a Belgian by birth, grew up in Kenya before receiving his doctorate in biological anthropology at University College London where he wrote a thesis about food security and the illegal bush-meat trade in northeastern Congo.  He began working full-time at Virunga National Park in 2001, training rangers for the Zoological Society of London,before being appointed Director of Virunga National Park by the Congolese government on August 1, 2008.  Mérode possesses a unique understanding of conservation and cooperation from years of living and working in DRC that has allowed him to work with local communities, government officials, and rebel groups to maintain Virunga National Park even as forces all around the park threaten to tear it apart.  Undoubtedly, he would give much of the credit to those who deserve it most- the brave rangers who risk their lives each day to protect Africa’s oldest national park.

(C) Kyle Hammons

These are no ordinary park rangers.  In the last twenty years, over 150 rangers have been killed protecting Virunga National Park, with 11 killed in just the first 7 months of 2011 alone.  It is difficult to imagine a park where rangers risk their lives each day in order to defend against ambushes, poachers, illegal charcoal producers, and various armed militias.  Yet, despite the inherent dangers, a remarkable group of local men have come together to form a well-trained and organized, military-style unit that secures and protects the park and its precious wildlife from the many elements that threaten Virunga National Park.

One such ranger, named John, led us on a trek to visit Virunga’s famed mountain gorillas, just a few days before our evacuation.  A second-generation ranger with over 15 years experience in the park, John has worked closely with the mountain gorillas and can identify them by name.  He explained that we would be visiting the Rugendo family, the same group of gorillas that was infamously attacked in 2007, killing seven of the 12 members in a story that made headlines around the world.  John shares a great affection for this family of gorillas and became visibly choked up when talking about them.  It would take about an hour and a half walking before we would reach the gorillas, he explained, and then we would have one hour to spend with them.  During that time, we were told to keep a distance of 23 feet (7 m) and wear a surgical mask to help prevent transmission of disease.  Eating, drinking and smoking would not be allowed and flash photography is prohibited as well.

(C) Kyle Hammons

We left the beautiful setting at Bukima Camp with three rangers:  John, our guide; another who carried my bag and cleared the trail with his machete; and a rifle-toting ranger who brought up the rear.  A maximum of eight people are allowed on each trip, but it would be just Rachel and I, as we had seen no other travelers in the DRC.  At first, the trail was wide, climbing into the lush green forest where wild orchids bloomed all around us.  The sky was heavy with clouds and I feared rain might spoil our trip.  The humidity in the jungle had me sweating and rolling up my sleeves, but with each step we grew closer to the gorillas and I noticed less the moisture soaking my clothes.  We continued the gradual climb to a fork in the path and then John led us into the thick of the forest.  Hacking away the brush before us, he cleared the narrow trail while the forest seemed to swallow us more with each step.

After almost an hour, we arrived at the gorilla’s nest and John told us they were just twenty minutes away.  Trails were almost non-existent now, but our guide continued to clear the way.  Step by step, our anticipation grew and I was not sure whether the humidity was to blame for my sweaty palms anymore.  I could feel my heart beating faster as my eyes scanned the forest searching for the animal we had traveled halfway around the world to see.  Then, I spotted it.  It was just a black spot in a sea of green, but it was the sign that our visit had begun.

(C) Kyle Hammons

The rangers passed out masks and I retrieved my camera, making sure that my pockets were stuffed with everything I needed, including extra batteries and memory cards.  Together we followed John closer to the gorillas, pushing through thick brush and bamboo until we found ourselves standing 15 feet from a 500-pound silverback gorilla.  There are moments in your life that you will always remember, but never be able to adequately explain- such is the feeling when you come face-to-face with one of the few remaining mountain gorillas left in the world.  At first, we could only stand and stare.  The huge, powerful animal was so close that we could smell his musty fur and giggle at his gas.  His chiseled chest bulged with muscles that could tear us apart, but the expression on his face showed only his indifference to us.  Our guide stepped within feet of the massive creature and removed a branch that blocked our view, showing no sign of fear as he told us this gorilla, named Bukima, was the largest silverback at Virunga National Park.  As our cameras fired away, the gentle giant just sat like a bored child suffering through his parent’s picture-taking.  A once-in-a-lifetime experience for us was just a familiar daily disruption for this highly-evolved animal.  Having been habituated to the presence of humans after many years and untold number of visits, Bukima and his family of mountain gorillas took little notice of us while they went about their daily routine.

Having grown tired of having his photo taken, Bukima rolled into a big hairy ball and covered his face, a sign for us to move on and let him rest.  We found ourselves an open space from which to observe and photograph a female mountain gorilla named Rubutu who was perched in a tree above us with her baby, Mastaki, on her back.  The little fuzzy ball of fur clung to her mother, snatching and eating the leaves around her.  Then, to our delight and amazement, Rubutu climbed down the tree and walked right past us, so close that we could have reached out and touched the adorable wooly baby on her back.  Of course, it is important not to make contact with the gorillas and to respect the required space, but often it is the curious gorillas that will come within just feet of their astonished admirers.

(C) Kyle Hammons

Looking back on my life and the experiences I have enjoyed, it is difficult to think of another hour in my life that was more precious than the one I spent with the Rugendo family of mountain gorillas.  The minutes ticked away in a timeless flash of memories so unforgettable and compelling that it seems like we must have spent hours with the gorillas.  But, in fact, it was only a collection of experiences so seemingly impossible that my mind can only comprehend it as a dream.  For how could I have actually sat just a few feet away from one of the world’s few remaining mountain gorillas and listened to the crunch of bamboo as he feeds; or to have smelled the musty odor of a female gorilla and her baby as they passed right next to me; and to have felt the absolute fear and fascination that comes with meeting the stare of a 500-pound silverback gorilla that could tear a human apart, but instead offers a tender and curious gaze.  For that experience, I will be forever grateful to the remarkable people at Virunga National Park who have dedicated and risked their lives to protecting one of God’s most glorious creatures.

(C) Kyle Hammons

Just a few days after our evacution, the Gorilla Sector was overrun and occupied by armed rebel forces.  For weeks, our friends at Virunga could only watch and listen as the war raged all around them, each day growing closer to the park headquarters at Rumangabo.  By late May, patrols were dispatched to the Gorilla Sector to check on the gorillas, but each time they were ambushed with heavy fire from rebel militias.  Faced with the worst fighting since 2008, park officials were eventually forced to evacuate all ranger families and staff to a camp outside of Goma.  By late July, the fighting was literally on the doorstep of park headquarters and Rumangabo was under rebel control.

Despite the violence and the chaos of battle, both government and rebel forces have been remarkably respectful of the parks’ staff and its installations.  An agreement was made in late July to allow a team of Virunga rangers to conduct a search for the gorillas and within days they had located four of the seven mountain gorilla families, including the Rugendo family.  Rangers described their first contact with the gorillas in the months:  “Members of the Kabirizi family circled them, he said, and most wanted to touch and smell them. One small juvenile shyly reached out its hand to touch Innocent’s boots, and another came up from behind to touch his back when he wasn’t looking.”

(C) Kyle Hammons

Today, Virunga National Park remains closed to tourists as conflict continues to rage in the eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo.  Park rangers continue to come under attack from armed rebel militias and park officials are working round-the-clock to ensure the safety of park staff, the local community, and also the park’s wildlife.  It is an incredibly difficult time for Virunga National Park, but with our help, they can continue the remarkable work they have been doing for decades working to protect Africa’s oldest national park.  So please follow the links below and help us share the plight of Virunga in order to create greater awareness and to assist in much-needed fundraising that will protect both the park and the brave rangers working to save it.

For more info: http://gorillacd.org/

Kyle Hammons is a photographer and writer who travels the globe in search of vivid imagery and compelling stories that capture the essence of the places he visits. His photography and writing is born out of a life-long love of nature and fascination with the world around him. When he’s not bouncing around the world on ramshackle buses, overcrowded trains, or on the back of a rickshaw, you can find him in Nevada City, California eagerly planning his next adventure.  

Kyle has traveled across nearly all fifty states and more than thirty countries abroad, much of it alone.  His inspiration for traveling, writing, and photography came from his first trip overseas when he was invited to spend several weeks living in a traditional Fijian village.  Though he had come only for the adventure, Kyle had discovered a way of life that would open his heart and mind to the world around him and the lay the groundwork for a lifetime to follow.

Kyle is an award-winning photographer whose writing and photography have been featured in books, magazines, newspapers, advertisements, catalogs and exhibitions, both in the United States and abroad. His photographs are also featured as corporate art at a number of businesses throughout the United States and abroad, as well as many private collections.

Kyle’s website: Kylehammons.com

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