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May 20, 2010

Rwanda Mountain Gorillas

Filed under: International,Rwanda,Travels — stephane @ 1:02 pm

Guhonda, Sabyinyo SilverbackI’m back from a short visit to Rwanda from May 8 to May 13. The main objective was to photographs mountains gorillas in the Volcanoes National Park. I could not get more people to join for planning reasons, so only Ludovic could join the fun.

For me, it was about 20 years since I went to see gorillas in Rwanda. At that time I was around 15 and living in nearby Burundi and we came there a couple of years after Dian Fossey’s murder. Since I did not have any visual evidence but only a (fading) memory of a very close encounter I was keen to go back and organize a trip there to try to bring some shots that I will keep for the years to come.

Organizing a trip to see mountain gorillas first mean to secure permits to do so. Gorilla Permits are scarce and definitely not cheap nowadays. In Rwanda, it is possible to visit up to 7 groups of gorillas, and only a maximum of 8 people can join, which makes up to 56 permits a day available. A permit cost USD500 and allows to stay with the gorillas for only an hour. This is obviously to limit the interaction and not disturb them too much.

For this trip I wanted to secure 3 consecutive days of permits so that we could enjoy maximum photo opportunities and visit different groups. Season plays a big role in the availability of permits, most of the permits in june/july/august/september are booked up to a year in advance and while it is possible to get a spot left here and there, this is not really possible to get 3 days in a row for several people. In my case I took advantage of going during the end of the rainy season and I had a lot of choice in term of dates while I did the booking in April. The other advantage of the rainy season is that gorillas are not high up in the mountains but come lower, so treks tend to be shorter. In our case we barely had to trek an hour in the forest to see the Sabyinyo, Group 13 and Kwitonda groups. The exception seems to be the Susa group which tends to be very far away and can easily require 4-5 hours of trek at 2500-3000m in dense forest. Incidentally Susa is also the largest group, boasting up to 33 individuals.

Youngster with curious look

Overall we were pretty fortunate on our trip and had really amazing interaction, including seeing a newborn gorilla just 1-day old. On our second trek to go visit the Group 13 with 22 individuals (and plenty of youngsters playing around), we were only the 2 of us to go. Photography wise this was pretty tough due to the dark and wet conditions. In anticipation of this trip I bought a Nikon D700 as I knew my old D80 would not be enough. I was using at first a Sigma 70-200 f/2.8 and then switched to a Nikon 70-300 f/3.5-5.6 VR. Most of the pictures were taken at very high ISO, up to 3200. I was also constantly having -2/3EV to make sure to not have the camera being fooled by the dark fur. During the 2nd trek, youngsters gorillas were pretty active, so cranked up minimum shutter speed to 1/400. (which I unfortunately forgot the next day while gorillas were more lethargic and thus shot at higher ISOs than what I could have). The camera did a pretty good job and I was happy I had the D700 for this.

You can view some of the gorillas picture on my Flickr Rwanda set.

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