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A day in the life of a Fossey Fund gorilla tracker

February 24, 2015

A day in the life of a tracker

Trackers (top left, clockwise): JD, Fidele, Conseiller and MugiranezaWild buffalo charges. Powerful, sweeping rivers. Two-hour hikes to work, each way. It’s not your typical commute! But then tracking gorillas for a living is not a typical job, nor an easy one!

We asked four Fossey Fund trackers how they prepare themselves for their daily gorilla monitoring and what they and their equipment go through over the course of a day. They have some incredible stories.

The trackers:

  • Jean De Dieu Iyamuremye aka “JD”—tracker since 2008
  • Fidele Habimana—Fossey Fund tracker since 2009, head tracker since 2013
  • Francois Xavier Ndungutse aka “Conseiller”—tracker since 2001, field data coordinator since 2015
  • Mugiraneza Fidele—tracker since 1995

Getting there

Each morning trackers wake up between 4:30 and 5:30 a.m. to dress in their full uniforms: jackets, socks, caps and boots. They then pack a bag with a water bottle, notebooks, pencils, pens and extra rain equipment for the day ahead of them. Upon arriving at the Bisate tracker station, trackers eat breakfast and pack any additional equipment, such as GPS devices, radios or weapons, they might need for the day, depending on the time of year and the distance they must travel to reach the gorillas. Some trackers have had close calls with the brutal weather and extreme landscape of the park, while others cite run-ins with poachers.

Fidele: I wake up at 4:30 a.m. My walking starts much earlier than going to see the gorillas. I walk two hours to reach the Bisate trackers post where I join the others for breakfast.

JD: After I take my breakfast and other materials, I go to the edge of the park, which takes 30 minutes to 1 ½ hours, based on which entrance we use. Reaching the gorillas from there can vary between taking 10 minutes (during bamboo shoots season) and six hours (during the dry season). The walk is generally hard, sometimes encountering ravines, nettles, pathless ways, or other obstacles: buffalo, heavy rain or extreme cold in the high altitudes. To cope with it, I always go with my rain equipment and warm clothes, but sometimes it is not enough to keep us warm. Fortunately it doesn’t rain every day.

Fidele: Rarely, heavy rain or obstacles, such as ravines, do not allow us to reach the gorilla group. Even buffalo traces, if mixed with the gorillas’, can make it impossible for us to distinguish the right path. The weather is cold up on the mountain and rain can be severe; we can’t work without rain gear and appropriate equipment, but what is needed the most is positive thinking to allow us to cope with all this.

Mugiraneza: I’m particularly scared of rivers because I had a serious accident back in September 2007 when I fell in a river. The water was running fast and it transported me far away, down on rapids, hitting rocks, and I lost consciousness. A boy from a nearby village found me. Later on I learned about the effort by military and my colleagues who spent hours looking for me thinking I was dead—and I almost was. I survived miraculously and was moved to the Ruhengeri hospital, where I spent many weeks. I still feel the pain of that accident, but I’m alive and I’m happy. After that I was transferred from tracking Pablo’s group, which ranges very far away, to closer groups.

JD: We sometimes find poachers whom we have to report to authorities and anti-poaching rangers. The poachers can have different reactions to us and we have to be careful because sometimes they have machetes.

Being with the gorillas

Once trackers locate and arrive at their respective gorilla groups, they record the group’s GPS coordinates and begin data collection, remaining with the gorillas for a minimum of four hours. Many trackers have favorite individual gorillas and know their behaviors very well.

Conseiller: I take the location coordinates (GPS), I check to make sure if every gorilla is there and fine. If a gorilla is not fine or, even worse, if he is not in the group, I communicate with my superiors to decide what to do. I also have to record demographic changes (births, deaths and transfers). Then I choose one individual as my focal animal to be followed for 50 minutes. I have to follow four focal animals each day. I observe the focal animal and collect behavioral data on him/her and his/her interaction with the rest of the group.

Mugiraneza: My favorite gorillas are Bukima, because I sympathize with her—she lost many infants and is very kind—and Keza, because she is quiet and calm. The best silverback is Cantsbee, who I know very well from my time in Pablo’s group. He is kind and responsible.

Conseiller: My favorite gorilla is Cantsbee. I have worked in Pablo’s group for many years, and I got to know him very well. He is kind with people but also very, very strong! When we have to coordinate veterinary interventions in Pablo’s group, I’m always there because I know Cantsbee and all other silverbacks of the group, and I can predict and contain if they charge at us.

Coming back

After monitoring and protecting the gorillas, trackers make the downhill trip back (which they all say is easier to manage than the trek up to the gorillas) to the tracker station, where they fill out a daily report, return borrowed equipment and head home to be with their families.

Mugiraneza: When I am leaving the field, I feel tired and hungry, but it is harder to walk to the gorillas than returning back. I think about what I will be reporting with my colleagues and where the gorillas will be tomorrow. We do the report of the day, I eat my lunch and I go home (at 5:00 pm). Once I’m home, I shower, talk to my family members and assist my children with their homework.

Fidele: I feel tired but happy, especially when the work was well done. I go back thinking about tomorrow’s work. When I return home at 5:30 p.m., I take a shower, I talk to my family, we share supper, I play with my daughter and I go to sleep at 8:30 p.m.

We value the time, dedication and physical commitment our trackers put forth every day to help save mountain gorillas. If you would like to help support our trackers and show your appreciation too, click here to donate to our equipping campaign.

We wish to thank the Milton and Tamar Maltz Family Foundation, Zoo Atlanta, and Gorilla Trades for helping us save gorillas. Funding provided by these generous sponsors supports our gorilla protection and research programs as well as our community health and education programs, to ensure that gorillas will survive for generations to come.