The Virungas are the last outpost of the endangered mountain gorilla, and their lush slopes provide an appropriately dramatic natural setting for what is perhaps the most poignant and thrilling wildlife experience to be had in Africa.
Nothing can prepare the visitor for the impact of encountering a troop of gorillas munching bamboo in their unfenced natural habitat. The sheer physical presence of an adult male silverback – three times as bulky as the average man, yet remarkably peaceable and tolerant of human visitors – defies verbal description. Nor are there words to convey the thrill of recognition attached to staring deep into the liquid brown eyes of these gentle giants, who share some 97% of their genes with humans.
That mountain gorillas survive today is largely thanks to Dian Fossey, who is buried at Karisoke, her research centre in the Virungas, alongside some of the animals to which she dedicated her life. Fossey became a household name following the release of the biographical film Gorillas in the Mist, which was set in the Parc National des Volcans, and shot on location there.
Critical and public acclaim ensured that Gorillas in the Mist also served to raise international awareness of the plight of the mountain gorilla, whose numbers have increased from an all-time low of 250 in the 1970s to almost 400 in 2001. Roughly half of the world’s mountain gorillas are resident on the Rwandan slopes of the Virungas, where four habituated groups – ranging in size from seven to 37 individuals – can be visited by up to 32 tourists daily.