Virunga National Park in Democratic Republic of Congo stole my heart for so many reasons. And considering that the documentary, Virunga, which highlights both the beauty and struggles of the park, is up for Best Documentary Feature in tonight’s 2015 Oscar awards — I thought that sharing my personal journey to this far away place would be perfectly fitting.
I’ve talked about Virunga several times before, but actually visiting and experiencing this incredible, mystifying place was so much more than I dreamed it could be. The park is stunning and completely alive. As we sat on the large deck in the mornings with our coffee, we could hear so many species of birds in the forest beyond. Monkeys, huge groups of them, feasted away at the plentiful, fruit-filled trees above our heads. The jungle was dense and completely green, full of every type of insect and bug known to man. It’s hard to believe that such a peaceful, untouched place has been considered to be one of the world’s most deadly conflict zones.
One afternoon, we decided to visit Virunga’s Congo-hounds, famous for their sense of smell and ability to follow a scent trail. Virunga has an amazing program to train these dogs, which is meant to better protect the park’s critically endangered mountain gorillas and other wildlife from poachers.
To showcase the incredible ability of one of the bloodhound’s, a trainer challenged Brittany to take a ten minute hike somewhere completely out of sight and “hide”. All he took from her was a pair of sunglasses she’d been wearing, which would be the dog, Sabrina’s, scent-article. After Britt was long gone, the trainer gave Sabrina an opportunity to smell Britt’s sunglasses. And the moment he commanded it, she was off. We had to jog to keep up with her as she followed Brittany’s scent through the forest to where she was hiding. Sabrina proudly jumped on Brittany upon finding her, wagging her tail with pride.
Perhaps the most special part of our time spent at Virunga’s Mikeno Lodge, was visiting the gorilla orphans at the Senkwekwe Mountain Gorilla Center. It is the only facility in the world that cares for mountain gorilla orphans, and each of the gorillas currently living at the center was victimized by poachers or animal traffickers and lost family members to them. Fortunately, these gorillas are now living in safety, in a huge forested enclosure where they eat lots of fruit, climb trees, tease one another, and fight for the affection of their human caregivers. It was incredible to witness.
I’m so thankful for the opportunity to experience a park that boasts two-million acres of Africa’s most diverse ecosystem. We gawked at chimps, gorillas, and bloodhounds, and grew so in love with this awe-inspiring, forested retreat in DR Congo.GO BACK