In the early 1980s I was designated by the Kahuzi-Biega National Park authorities to approach the gorillas for the tourism. My unforgettable date is the 1st of October 1983 at the age of twenty when a park guide Serundori held my hand for the first time to track the gorillas. We led an English- Australian group of tourists from the Guerba Expeditions, a tour operator.
It took us 2 hours to find the group of Maheshe, a son of Casimir who was the first silverback gorilla whom my uncle Adrien Deschryver habituated for the very first time in the wild.
As any inexperienced young man, my heart beat a lot when I saw the beautiful bamboo forest but I had a lot of ambition to be doing as I watched my uncle did to Casimir when I was eight years old. Serundori and some trackers belonging to Batwa tribe led our group to where the Maheshe group was taking a day rest. I heard some noise “pok pok” in the distance before we could find them.
We saw some babies and juveniles climbing on trees watching us and beating chest while playing among themselves. Suddenly I saw the big King Kong who was Maheshe, the silverback male of the group, sitting in the middle of some females. Some females groomed their offspring and one groomed the leader male. I was a bit frightened to see his massive body. I said to Serundori “I don’t think I need to be a gorilla guide.” and I was moving backward. He laughed and stopped me behind and said “We all started like you and were scared like you are now but later on we got accustomed to the familiar creatures.
The Guerba Expeditions group exceeded 24 people and, adding ourselves, the group reached about 35 people in front of the gorillas. It was when the park gorilla regulations were not strict and didn’t limit the number of tourists to the gorillas for a day. They filmed them and used flashlight, too. I have been told by Serundori to translate into English for the tourists “Please. If the gorilla charges, do not run. Rather stand still and take a photo”. When Maheshe made a noise “GRUUUUUUM” I warned the tourists to stand still but actually I was the first to be running away and shaking my heart.
After spent an hour with the gorillas, the tourists were happy. On our way back from the gorillas to the road where our vehicles were parked, the man at the top of the trackers’ queue met a bush antelope caught on a snare and dead. They arranged themselves to tell me secretly about it and also told me that we must hide this from the tourists. They told me to say “Sorry, dear visitors, here are ants. Let’s avoid them. Turn around and go quickly because ants can bite you.” Immediately, we made another queue and went aside. I saw trackers stay behind to grab the dead antelope and carried it at the end of our queue.
By the road, the couple of Gordon and Joy Blackie, the leader of the Guerba’s Bedford truck, enjoyed very much how we pleased their group, and they gave us tips as reward. I wondered why the trackers could not show the dead antelope to the visitors while it is common that poachers are everywhere in a protected area. I was thinking the whole night that somehow I could see the big King Kong and how this has definitely became my job.
On the second day with the same team, we walked for only 20 minutes and met the Maheshe group. It was at 9:00 AM. The members of the gorilla group were scattered in its each path just for breaking the bamboo shoots. My heart did not beat as it did on the first day. I started feeling as normal as other trackers do in the team. We were able to see only four members: the silverback male, two adult females and two babies.
We spent an hour and returned but visitors enjoyed very much. As no antelope was caught on the snare that day, there was no warning to avoid ants by our trackers leading ahead of the group. Each of us was paid tips as the tourists were too happy.
I went down to my little native town Miti at 7 km from the Park and bought a dozen of candles, a kerosene lamp and a whole bottle of kerosene. I decided to writing daily about anything I could observe on the fauna and flora during my trips in the forest. Slowly, slowly, it was the beginning of my “Long Term Records”(LTR) data collections on the gorillas.