Hairy Friends
January 2009

by Paul Taggart

They're kind of stinky, they're real hairy, super strong, prefer to roll around rather than walk, spend most of their days doing just that, and sadly, there are only a few hundred of them left on our planet: the mountain gorilla, or more specifically, the mountain gorillas living in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC).

© Paul Taggart
Jean-Marie, a Virunga Ranger, back on patrol with other rangers in Virunga National Park after living in an IDF camp, Dec. 6, 2008, Democratic Republic of Congo.
One family of these gorillas are some of my favorite folks on the planet. The silverback Kabirizi and his family live near the volcanoes in the Mikeno sector of Virunga National Park hugging the Rwandan border in Eastern DRC and I got the amazing opportunity to go say hi this month after they went missing for more than a year due to the ongoing conflict in the region.

I first visited Kabirizi and the rest of his family back in the spring of 2007 while working on a story about the Advanced Force team of the Virunga Rangers. These are the heavily armed men that bear the lofty responsibility of trying to protect this endangered species along with the rest of the animals in one of the most violent and volatile places in the world. They are one part in a larger series I'd been working on about extreme conservationism. The year 2007 was turbulent for the mountain gorillas: early in the year three were found dead and by the summer a total of 10 gorillas had been killed. With their population just over 700 in three countries, when 10 are killed it sends tremors around the globe reigniting the fear of their possible extinction in the wild. By September 2007 the fighting in Eastern DRC had gotten so violent that many of the rangers in Virunga were pushed from their posts and many were displaced with their families to IDP camps near Goma leaving Kabirizi and the other families of Mountain Gorillas without protection for more than a year.

© Paul Taggart
One of ICCN's (Institut Congolais pour la Conservacion de la Nature) Advance Force Ranger team on a patrol in Virunga National Park in April 2007, North Kivu, Democratic Republic of Congo. The ICCN runs Virunga National Park.
When fighting intensified in eastern DRC and FARDC soldiers went on a rampage in Goma this fall, I flew down to cover the developments and to work on a few feature stories and assignments. The situation on the ground was dire, with hundreds of thousands of displaced people living in some of the worst conditions I've ever seen, and continued fighting often near vulnerable IDP sites. I had hoped that at some point during my time working in Congo I would be able to do some follow-up on my ranger/gorilla story, and was particularly interested in seeing how the fighting had affected some of the rangers I hung out with back in 2007. After a month in Congo I finally met up with some rangers who were unfortunately living in an IDP site with their families rather than on patrol in the park. At an IDP site in Bulengo about 20 km (a little over 12 miles) west of Goma I met up with Jean-Marie, a second-generation Virunga Ranger that had introduced me to the Kabirizi family in 2007. Jean-Marie sat outside the skeletal structure of his half-built tent where he and his family had been living under a tarp for nearly a year. The sight was horrific and amplified for me because this was someone I had seen at his best in his uniform working with the gorillas. He's a passionate man with an unwavering love for the mountain gorillas that have been part of his family for two generations. Jean-Marie is one of the few people who can recognize and identify the different gorillas within the families. An infant gorilla was recently named after his father.

© Paul Taggart
Member of the Kabirizi family of mountain gorillas in the Virunga National Park on Dec. 6, 2008, near Bukima, Democratic Republic of Congo.
After doing a few more follow-up pictures and interviews with other rangers at the IDP site I went back to covering other assignments in Congo as it was still much too dangerous to try and track down the gorillas with no rangers working in the gorilla sector of Virunga. Then a few weeks later as I was poised to leave the country, the rangers negotiated safe passage through the rebel's front line and into the gorilla sector to return to their posts. Thrilled by the news I headed up to Bukima with some park employees in a truck full of supplies. In the rain we made our way through the front line and passed the large CNDP rebel base and finally to the Bukima site on foot since our Land Cruiser gave out at the end of the trail. With our packs on our backs and the rain in our faces we met up with the rangers at their post. With volcanoes looming in the background and the silhouettes of the drenched rangers in their hand-me-down green uniforms, a tall proud man walked up to me and as I looked closer it was Jean-Marie, who of course would be one of the first rangers to make their way to the gorillas. He went on to tell the story of returning to the camp a week earlier and going to visit his old friend Kabirizi and how it made him too happy for words.

© Paul Taggart
ICCN's Advance Force Ranger team on a patrol in Virunga National Park in April 2007, North Kivu, Democratic Republic of Congo.
The next morning I headed out with Jean-Marie and a few other rangers and hiked into the park to track down the family of gorillas I had first met over a year before. Once Jean-Marie had found them we got to spend one glorious hour making pictures of my hairy, stinky, jaw-droopingly beautiful friends. With the hell-storm of inhumanity and horror that surrounds much of eastern Congo it was with these monumental apes that I witnessed so much humanity and somehow believe that if these fragile creatures have survived maybe, hopefully, so can we.

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© Paul Taggart

Paul Taggart is a photojournalist working primarily in the Middle East and Africa for such clients as L'Express, Newsweek, National Geographic Adventure, UNHCR, Business Week, Figaro, Le Monde, The Daily and Sunday Telegraph, Times of London, and The New York Times. He has been represented by WpN since 2003. Taggart is presently working on a long-term project documenting conservationists who put their lives on the line under extreme circumstances to save our planet in places like Antarctica and the Democratic Republic of Congo.

To see more of Taggart's work, read his November 2008 Dispatch, "Back in Georgia,", or his previous Dispatches:

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