This blog was written by MGVP volunteer Matt Marinkovich, a veterinary medicine student at Cornell.

Last weekend, Claire Welsh and I, both volunteers this summer with MGVP, accompanied Dr. Jan to Rumangabo, the headquarters of Virunga National Park in DR Congo, to check up on the park’s bloodhounds and the orphan mountain gorillas.  We departed early from the MGVP headquarters in Musanze, Rwanda, and ventured southwest, passing the shores of the picturesque Lake Kivu before crossing the border into the city of Goma, DRC.  Upon crossing the border the changes are striking and instant: everything takes on a new face in the DRC, from the style of dress to the quality of the roads. The Congolese women, in their flamboyant dresses and head wraps, seem to glow in contrast to the black, crumbling lava roads on which they walk.

View of Nyiragongo volcano and Virunga National Park.The drive from Goma to Rumangabo is a beautiful one. The road hugs the perimeter of Virunga National Park for a distance before entering its lush forests.  The stark contrast between the natural beauty and the hardships that have plagued the Congolese for decades are shocking and evident.  The road leaving Goma feels as if it’s from another time, with homes built atop a blanket-like swath of black, rugged lava rocks, leftover from Nyiragongo volcano’s catastrophic eruption in 2002.  The constant sightings of UN vehicles and barbed wire are a reminder of the political instability Congolese have been forced to live under for decades.

Flash flood on the road to Rumangabo.

During our drive we experienced a different form of instability altogether: thunder storms in the surrounding mountains suddenly funneled heavy rain onto the dirt road. Our nerves worn thin as we contemplated how effectively our car would function as a boat.  Impressively, our Congolese driver never showed any sign of hesitation as he navigated us effortlessly to drier ground.  I’m sure inside he had a laugh over our poorly-masked worry.

Park headquarters.

Rumangabo is truly a beautiful place.  Situated within the national park, it is surrounded by towering trees and vistas of the neighboring volcanic peaks.  Black and white colobus monkeys scurry in the canopy above while brightly colored reptiles soak up the sun on rocks below.  Nestled within the forest is the historic headquarters for Albert National Park, Africa’s first national park, created in 1925. It is now known as Virunga National Park.  At park headquarters, the Virunga National Park staff manages the Senkwekwe center, home to the four orphan mountain gorillas. Just outside the center is the kennel for the bloodhounds we had come to examine.

Matt examines Stella.

The bloodhounds are currently being trained by the park staff to serve as tracking dogs, eventually to be used to find poachers in the expansive Virungas.  Carla, Stella, Lila, Sabrina, Lilly, and Dody were all very cooperative patients as they each received a thorough physical exam. 

Ranger Christian with Carla.

Carla and Stella were particularly brave when facing the needle for their vaccine boosters.  The dogs were all in good health and I was impressed with the level of care the park staff has provided for them.

Ndeze enjoying her new home.When we finished examining the dogs, we made the short walk over to the Senkwekwe Center, home to the four orphan mountain gorillas, Maisha, Ndeze, Ndakasi and Kaboko.  It was amazing to see them frolicking among the foliage of their giant enclosure.  The four were together when we arrived but upon hearing us, Ndakasi wanted to show off and climbed to the top of one of the biggest trees in the enclosure.  Dr. Jan looked on nervously just as a mother watches her child play on a jungle gym, but Ndeze moved about the tree effortlessly and soon returned safely to the forest floor.  It was moving to watch the four gorillas wander about while knowing that before coming to this center, they all had experienced a degree of trauma that we cannot comprehend.  Even more inspiring, however, was seeing them now, together, and in an environment where they seemed truly content.

Ndeze high in the trees at the Senkwekwe Center.Before leaving we were able to see Emanuel de Merode, the tireless Chief Park Warden of Virunga National Park.  Hearing him speak of the work and challenges confronting Virunga National Park, I was able to leave the DRC with a deep appreciation for the efforts of those individuals and organizations, like Virunga National Park and MGVP, working on the ground to save a fragile species and their beautiful habitat.

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