Learning about gorillas, without borders

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Two area residents recently traveled far from the comforts of suburbia to a war-torn landscape to see something very few people have witnessed.

Travel agent Valerie Sewell and Dave Lorenz, South Suburban Parks and Recreation executive director, joined a small contingent on a trip to Africa to get a glimpse of migrating mountain gorillas, a critically endangered species. There are only about 800 of the animals in existence — up from only around 250 in the 1980s — and none in captivity.

All of them live in national parklands in Africa, surrounded by the Democratic Republic of Congo, Rwanda and Uganda. Visitors pay $750 to spend an hour with the gorillas, but the proceeds go toward their preservation, so Sewell said it’s worth it. They sat nearly within reach of the groups they saw – one of 26 gorillas, another of 11.

Sewell, speaking to Littleton Rotary on Jan. 29, said she nearly canceled the trip upon hearing rebels had attacked a town less than 10 miles from their destination shortly before they were scheduled to leave. The area has been plagued by war and unrest for decades. Of recent notoriety is Joseph Kony in Uganda, who is alleged to have kidnapped up to 30,000 children and forced them to fight in his resistance army.

“We saw lots of troops and trucks going to the border,” she said. “But they need the tourism, so they’re good at trying to keep peace on the border.”

Of course, the gorillas sometimes get caught in the middle of battles. Normally fairly docile, Sewell said they often learn to emulate the violence they witness.

“The gorillas are actually fighting each other,” she said. “I think what needs to happen is peace.”

Following the Rwandan genocide in 1996, the area has been somewhat more peaceful. Sewell said this actually has been a problem for the gorillas — as people return, they encroach upon the animals’ habitat. Sometimes they get caught in snares meant to catch food. Sewell showed a photo of a young gorilla that lost an arm that way. Also, farms operate right up to the park borders, providing what the gorillas consider a food source.

“The gorillas, they have no borders,” said Sewell. “It’s going to end horribly.”

But you wouldn’t know it by watching the creatures, according to Lorenz. The males can get up to 400 pounds, and the adults mostly just relax, eat and sleep. The youngsters, though, are much like human children.

“It was like watching my kids play,” Lorenz said. “They’re wrestling and tossing each other around.”

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