Trekking deep into Volcanoes National Park in search of rare mountain gorillas, Kimberly Rosbe investigates Singita Kwitonda’s habitat restoration initiative to save Rwanda’s endangered primates.
Venturing from the exclusive haven of Singita Kwitonda Lodge, gaiters guard my every step from stinging nettles as I navigate primordial forest in the high-altitude mountain gorilla sanctuary of Volcanoes National Park.
By sheer luck, I secured the last gorilla trek permitted before Rwanda closed its borders.
Since disease could decimate the scarce species, rangers temporarily suspended all hikes the next day to safeguard the primates against human transmission of COVID-19.
An agile tracker catches my falling backpack while I clamber up mud-slick Sabyinyo, the towering volcano where Rwanda, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Uganda converge.
Ascending through a white wall of opaque mist, my mind wanders as I vanish into the cloud forest.
Twenty-seven years ago, Rwanda plunged into chaos, enduring a 100-day genocide that claimed nearly one million lives. Guerrilla forces commanded by militia leader Paul Kagame ended the slaughter, ushering the country into an era of sustained peace.
With visionary President Kagame at the helm, ethnic reconciliation and prosperous rebirth have overshadowed Rwanda’s dark past. Today, it’s one of the safest countries in Africa, emerging as a model of economic and social recovery.
How Singita Kwitonda Lodge was born
Flying over ‘The Land of a Thousand Hills’ in President Kagame’s helicopter, Singita’s founder Luke Bailes zeroed in on the site for his latest property. “It was a five-year journey,” he says. One that began with Kagame asking Bailes to build a high-end lodge on the edge of Volcanoes National Park. The park is in the Virunga Mountains, sheltering rare mountain gorillas endangered by deforestation.
Given Singita’s renowned advocacy of conserving Africa’s wild spaces for future generations, Kagame and Bailes united to elevate Rwanda’s success story through responsible eco-tourism and wildlife preservation. “From the beginning, we felt a spirit of partnership,” Bailes tells me.
Opened in 2019, Singita Kwitonda Lodge is affectionately named after a legendary local silverback known for his benevolent nature. Eight sustainably-built villas with hand-fired terracotta brickwork and the lavish four-bedroom Kataza House dot volcanic rock pathways along 72 hectares of the park’s perimeter. Free-flowing steel and glass designs capture the jaw-dropping peaks of Sabyinyo, Gahinga and Muhabura volcanoes hovering in the mist.
Surrounding Singita’s property, jungle-covered terrain blankets a chain of eight ancient volcanoes home to more than 50 per cent of the world’s remaining mountain gorillas. The animals find refuge hidden among ferns, bamboo and lobelias, which for centuries cloaked poachers hunting the gentle giants to the brink of extinction.
In the late 1960s, American primatologist Dian Fossey published diaries in National Geographic detailing habitation of mountain gorilla groups in Rwanda. Clippings from Fossey’s handwritten notes adorn Singita Kwitonda’s Conservation Library wall.
By the 1980s, rampant poaching dwindled numbers to 250 until Fossey’s 1983 memoir Gorillas in the Mist brought widespread awareness. The 1988 movie adaptation starring Sigourney Weaver garnered further international attention to the gorilla’s plight after Fossey was brutally murdered, likely by poachers, in her research cabin in the Virunga Mountains.
Singita conservationist and wildlife specialist Charles Nsabimana has also dedicated his life to the survival of these majestic animals, having grown up near the present location of Singita Kwitonda Lodge. “At six years old, I would climb trees and wish I was a gorilla,” he tells me. Fossey’s work inspired him to pursue a career as a gorilla champion.
In 2008, Nsabimana filmed a BBC documentary with Weaver about snares, revisiting locations from Gorillas in the Mist. After 35 years of selfless commitment to patrolling, scientific research and gorilla monitoring in Rwanda and Uganda, silverback ‘Charles’ was named after him – the ultimate honour.
A new threat
Today, mountain gorillas in Rwanda, Uganda and the DRC total 1,063, heralding a promising comeback. Although poaching has decreased in recent years allowing populations to increase, a new threat has emerged.
“Ensuring gorilla protection requires habitat expansion,” Nsabimana explains. When the 20 groups of gorillas on the Rwanda side get too close to others, they inevitably fight to kill. The only way to reduce conflict is to augment territory.
Addressing this challenge, Singita established its on-site Akarabo Nursery. As part of a vast reforestation initiative to restore more than 2,800 hectares of land to a protected park area, Singita has joined forces with Rwanda’s government to plant 250,000 indigenous saplings, broadening the gorillas’ natural ecosystem and supporting their future.
Face to face with a mountain gorilla
A silverback’s unmistakable warning grunt shakes me back to the present. After four hours following my tracker, hacking a machete path through impenetrable vegetation, we find ourselves a mere few feet from Agashya, a 90-kilogram silverback blocking his 25-member family. I freeze.
Behind the patriarch, youngsters playfully tumble while a female calmly cradles her month-old baby in a shaft of sunlight. Agashya’s penetrating gaze never leaves me. Locking eyes with this human-like creature, Singita’s vision to preserve Rwanda’s captivating primates comes clearly into focus.