The Block Island Times

An encounter with the great apes of Africa

By Judy Tierney | Apr 12, 2013
Courtesy of: the Perfidos Leonard and Ruth Perfido stand just feet away from one of the great apes they visited during a recent trip to Rwanda.

Ruth and Leonard Perfido describe themselves as “inveterate travelers.”

They’ve visited all seven continents, as well as the Galapagos, southern New Zealand and China. They have been to Africa three times. It is Africa where they experienced their most recent adventures.

Ruth Perfido said she loves “the peace” that Africa and its plains provide, the open land where giraffes, zebras and the great cats live. Ruth said she was intrigued to be in the land of “survival of the fittest.” The Perfidos wanted to see the ape population, ever endangered, always fascinating.

Their tour took them to Kenya and Rwanda. At the Volcano National Park in Rwanda, they made a climb to see the great apes, which the late zoologist Dian Fossey studied and wrote so eloquently about.

Tourist visits to the great apes reserve is limited. Fossey, Ruth Perfido said, was not in favor of tourism; however, visitors to the region have helped the Rwandan economy.

Rwanda was engulfed in a war between its two main tribes, the Hutus and the Tutsis, in the mid-1990s. More than a million people were killed. “The country was destroyed, and many [people] went to Uganda and Germany. When the war ended, the country regrouped. The current President, Paul Kagami, was vice president in the first post-war government. He has a ‘no corruption’ policy and runs a relatively corruption free government,” Ruth said.

The Perfidos and the friends with whom they traveled hired a guide to take them on their route through Kenya and Rwanda. To go to the great apes’ preserve, they needed a permit from the Rwandan government. The permit is good for two days and tourists are allowed one hour with the animals each day.

The guerillas, Leonard Perfido explained, live in family groups. There are eight groups in Volcano National Park and all travelers must choose which family group they wish to observe. The Perfidos and their group requested to see a family that lived on the lower heights of the mountain, so they were assigned to follow the 12-member Sabyinyo group, which included: a silverback male leader who weighed more than 500 pounds; a younger adult male; three females; two babies and five teenagers. The apes are vegetarians, Leonard Perfido said, and the great silverback must eat bamboo leaves for eight hours a day to have enough food.

The tourists stayed overnight on the edge of the preserve and were brought to a meeting place early in the morning at an elevation of 7,500 feet. There they were met by porters. “One of our porters was known as a poacher, one of the biggest,” Ruth Perfido said. Asked what he poached, she replied, “rhinos and elephants.”

Ahead of their group, three trackers had set out to locate the Sabyinyo family. The hike up the mountain was arduous, narrow and muddy. Rocks needed to be scaled. They met their trackers, after a 90-minute hike, where the trail ended at a bamboo forest. The trackers had to machete their way through the thick jungle.

They hiked until the trackers told them they had reached the point at which they’d seen the guerillas earlier. “We heard rustling,” Leonard Perfido said, “and there were two [guerillas] in the bamboo above us. The next thing we knew, we were in the middle of them.”

“I was amazed,” Ruth Perfido said. “At one point, we were separated from our friends a bit and the guide said, ‘There is a guerilla coming toward you.’ She [the guerilla] walked between us, brushing everybody.” The animals are not dangerous, she explained, because they are habituated to human beings. The guerillas ate and played, despite the presence of the humans nearby. “They do look at you, and our guide said sometimes they’ll hit you in the back, with a punch, to get you out of their way.”

Leonard Perfido voiced the same emotions. Though he had been scared of being among the animals before he went, once in their midst, he realized they wouldn’t bother him.

“It is quite something,” he said, “to think there are no weapons and you are standing there with these incredible guerillas who don’t mind you are there.”

Walking among the great apes was an experience they will never forget, even when they move on to the next destination on their bucket list, Japan.

See more photos of the Perfidos' trip here.

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