A Life-Changing Trip With Conservation International
By Nancy Morgan Ritter| August 25, 2011 |
A mountain gorilla, photographed
during the 2011 Conservation
International Sojourn to East Africa
Nancy Morgan Ritter resting at a
picnic site after a visit to a Maasai
village in Tanzania
Dr. Mittermeier with a
mountain gorilla at Parc
National des Volcans in
Yurts at Nduara Loliondo Camp in
northern Tanzania, where Morgan
Ritter and fellow CI Sojourn guests
stayed while on safari
FROM LEFT: Hiromi Tada, John Locke, Karen Locke, Carly Ritter, Nancy Morgan Ritter, Tetsuji Ida, Michael Mittermeier and CI president Dr. Russell A. Mittermeier in Rwanda
My life changed 21 years ago when I accompanied my three children to a local Brentwood School fair to see exhibits designed by a young visionary organization called Conservation International (CI). I responded immediately to the nonprofit’s focused and achievable goals and knew I wanted to learn more. Their leaders had targeted priority conservation areas around the world that were both rich in biodiversity and under grave threat. Since that time, CI has achieved a measurable success beyond anything I could have imagined.
I have been lucky to travel with the CI Sojourns program, which provides unforgettable wildlife experiences in the most threatened, remote and remarkable places on earth, such as the lemur-filled forests of Madagascar and the tangled Eden of the Amazon jungle. We learn firsthand about local conservation strategies, meet community leaders and bear witness to the threatened species that depend on healthy habitats and natural resources for survival.
A Trip to Tanzania
In March, my daughter, Carly, and I joined close friends on a CI Sojourn to Tanzania’s Serengeti, then to the Virunga Mountains of Rwanda—home of the mountain gorillas first made famous by Dian Fossey in the 1960s. Led by the intrepid and knowledgeable founder and VP of CI Sojourns, Dr. Roderic Mast, and accompanied by world-renowned primate conservationist and CI president Dr. Russell A. Mittermeier, we witnessed Rwanda’s great conservation successes.
After a history of poaching and a loss of habitat due to deforestation, mountain gorillas were at the point of extinction. Gorilla families were killed, infants were stolen for private zoos and, in some cases, the animals’ hands were cut off and sold for ashtrays. Political warfare also had a devastating effect on the species. When Fossey began her work, approximately 260 mountain gorillas remained. Today, through her efforts and those of countless Rwandans, Ugandans and Congolese, that number has grown to about 360—a 46 percent increase in population. Rwanda has created the premier site of gorilla visits in the natural forest setting, making primate tourism among the largest foreignexchange earners for the country.
We were expertly guided through the forest and allowed exactly one hour with the gorillas. We were told to remain quiet and humble, to obey the guide’s instructions without hesitation and to not cry out should the powerful presence of these animals cause us to feel emotional, as that may disturb the gorillas and stimulate them to mount a defense.
For 23 hours every day, these magnificent animals live completely undisturbed. The one quiet hour of observation provides funds for the protection of their forest habitat and pays for guards to keep them safe from poachers. My sense was that they were not much bothered by us, judging by the playing, nursing and sleeping that continued while we sat watching. We all agreed we were forever changed by this extraordinary experience.
As I passed through immigration upon leaving Rwanda, a shy young man stamped my passport, asked me the dutiful questions and then looked up and sweetly said, “Tell America Rwanda says hi!” I smiled and said I would.