Humans are both the biggest threat and the greatest hope for Rwanda’s real-life gorillas in the mist.

Cradling the northwest border of Rwanda, Volcanoes National Park is a treasure trove of natural splendor in the volcanic Virunga Mountains. Lush tropical forests climb misty peaks, providing the ideal habitat for a diverse array of wildlife that includes golden monkeys, spotted hyenas, buffalo, elephants, antelopes, dozens of species of birds and, of course, the critically endangered yet widely revered mountain gorillas.

With 11 million people living in Rwanda to the gorilla population’s mere 300, it’s no wonder that the great ape’s mystery and intrigue reaches far beyond the African continent. It’s also no surprise that humans are both the magnificent mammals’ biggest threat and their greatest hope for long-term survival.

Dian Fossey’s Lasting Legacy

Poaching, deforestation, civil war and human diseases as mild as the common cold have all threatened the gorilla population over the past several decades. When American primatologist Dian Fossey started her research in the Congo in 1967, she left an incredible legacy with her unwavering conservation and protection efforts, leading to greater awareness about mountain gorillas’ risk of extinction. Today, the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund has helped the Rwandan gorilla community grow to 300—with a total of about 880 wild mountain gorillas thriving worldwide, representing an increase that is far from insignificant.

Gorilla trekking in Volcanoes National Park is a thrilling experience that not only transforms the lives of those fortunate enough to participate, but also supports ongoing preservation of the majestic creatures with whom we share 98% of our DNA.

A Rare and Life-Changing Encounter

To minimize impact on the unspoiled environment, only eight people per day are granted permits to trek among each gorilla family, making this extraordinary opportunity available to a limited elite. A two to six hours’ guided hike at elevations of anywhere from 8,000 to 13,000 feet guarantees wildlife hikers a sighting of one of 10 habituated groups living in the park, each led by a noble male silverback.

Solid muscular builds, smooth shimmering backs and measured looks of concern characterize the legendary silverbacks—adult males who prefer being the sole leaders of their troops. Reaching heights of up to six feet and weighing up to 400 pounds, silverbacks are often thought of as intimidating chest beaters. While they will demonstrate their power when challenged by other males, those encountered daily by carefully guided tourists are nonplussed, safe and more than worthy of admiration and respect.

Putting Names to the Faces of a New Generation

Gorilla tourism has become such a vital part of conservation—not to mention the Rwandan economy—that a baby naming ceremony known as Kwita Izina is held annually for thousands of attendees at the foot of the Virunga Mountains. In 2017, some 14 baby gorillas, known as blackbacks, were given symbolic Rwandan names. Five adult females who joined groups in Volcanoes National Park from other locales were named at the event as well.

Breathtaking beauty and awe-inspiring animal encounters are worth the trip to Rwanda alone, but the knowledge that you’ve helped the mountain gorilla community is an added bonus to this transformative land extension to AmaWaterways’ Africa cruises. As Dian Fossey wrote before she passed, “When you realize the value of all life, you dwell less on what is past and concentrate more on the preservation of the future.”

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