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June 9th, 2008
06:18 PM ET

Looking at 25% of the mountain gorilla population

Neil Hallsworth
CNN Senior Photojournalist

Today I’m covered in mud, wet and frankly….exhausted. I just trekked for over 3 hours up a mountain to see the critically endangered mountain gorillas. It was special sight – the gorillas we saw are known as a “research group” – they’ve never been seen by tourists, and very rarely by anyone but the scientists who study them.

Our journey started with an hour-long drive up an endlessly rutted and muddy road. At one point we got stuck and everyone had to get out and help push…except me! (I was filming – call it the benefits of being a photographer!) We finally broke free, drove 15 more minutes, then the hard part began….

The trek starts uphill and doesn’t change – 1 hour of fast hiking, following the park rangers. We finally catch a rest at the entrance to the park and our head researcher Veronica explains the gorillas are not used to people and may charge us, maybe even grab the camera. PIP executive producer Charlie Moore asks how we get the camera from the gorillas if they get their hands on it, but the answer is less than comforting: “if it feels like the gorilla’s pulling hard then let it go,” but “you’re welcome to try and rip it back if you care to give it a go.” I’m not sure I want to be the first CNN Photojournalist to have their camera smashed by a 400-pound gorilla (note: we do have a history with this sort of thing: PIP producer Mary Anne Fox had to request a new BlackBerry after it was crushed by the foot of an elephant).

As soon as the briefing is finished, the researchers get word that the gorillas have been spotted and are on the move – so are we. We clear the stone wall that marks the park’s border, and I quickly realize the walk to the wall was nothing compared to what’s behind it. The jungle is dense and the paths are slick. The sunlight shoots thru the forest canopy making the light for solid footing very tricky. As if walking wasn’t hard enough, I’m trying to film under these conditions.

TWO –hours later, we reach the spot where the gorillas are SUPPOSED to be – but they’ve moved further into the bamboo…completely off the trail. We immediately plunge down what seemed to be a 40-degree slope, and push father into the brush. We find the bamboo shoots left by the gorillas, then we reach a clearing and the hike PAYS OFF – there before my eyes are more than 40 mountain gorillas lazing in a clearing. There are just over 200 of the primates left in Rwanda so I’m looking at nearly 25% of the entire population here. The family is know as the “Pablo Group” – named after the silverback that just two years ago lost his dominant position but still commands respect (400 pounds of pure muscle will do that).

Time with the gorillas is precious because researchers want to make sure they don’t receive too much human exposure, which might make them susceptible to disease. One hour flies by and we say goodbye to Pablo and his family, then it’s back into the jungle. At least this time, IT’S DOWNHILL!

Out of the forest, we make the 2-½ hour drive back to Kigali, where I write this blog post. Next stop Cameroon – better get back to my gin and tonic elixir to ward of the Malaria!

Editor's note: You can read about this and other Planet in Peril stories here.
Neil and the rest of the Planet in Peril: Battle Lines crew are currently in Kigali, Rwanda, identified on the map below.

Beat 360°

soundoff (24 Responses)
  1. TS

    The above vomit inducing comments are why this blog is mocked internet wide.

    June 10, 2008 at 8:51 am |
  2. Michael, NC

    Neil, thanks for the update. I know that me and my roommates are pretty pumped about your findings, and can't wait to see them on tv.
    Best of luck in your travels, keep the gin and tonics rolling, they help the time go by faster.

    June 10, 2008 at 3:04 am |
  3. Julliet

    Nice blog Neil, you are excellent at what you do. Do keep the notes coming in. I enjoyed the hiking details and probably aside from the great job that you guys are doing there, you can shed a few pounds too. laughs ha! ha! ha!. Keep safe and keep blogging.

    June 10, 2008 at 12:18 am |
  4. lpfoong, Malaysia

    I think it's only fair to be allowed to have a good strong drink after such an arduous journey.
    I just read Anderson Cooper's blog and he commented that it was a 'cool' experience. Didn't sound like the both of you were on the same trip at all and you didn't have to get off to push the car or truck...you are so lucky! The priviledges of a cameraman.
    As for the gorillas, it's great that all of you believe that their stories need to be told and their plight not forgotten.
    And please give them your camera if they really want it....it's just a thing though an expensive one but really...you wouldn't want them to take you instead and make you their 'boo'.
    Looking forward to more PIP2 coverage.
    Take care. Cheers.

    June 9, 2008 at 11:59 pm |
  5. EJ (USA)

    Hi Neil & Anderson.. why doesn’t Erica go with you guys?.. be safe. see u.

    Erica has a little baby. I don't think she's crazy enough to be out there with those gorillas, lions, tigers, & bears.

    Is that a scratch on you forehead? Too much hiking or too much gin and tonic?

    He probably got into a fight with one of those gorillas.

    June 9, 2008 at 11:41 pm |
  6. CaseyJPS - California

    Neil-I really enjoy reading your blogs. They're compelling and authentic. Thank you. Please keep it up. It's a great way for "us" to stay connected with the reality of the story.

    June 9, 2008 at 11:21 pm |
  7. Lorie Ann, Buellton, California

    Hi Neil,
    I enjoy reading your blogs. So you had a muddy long drive, and a long hike for a meet and greet with gorillas. I'd hazard a guess that this kind of day is not a typical one for most of us. But I could be wrong..I look forward to the footage, if your camera survives the mighty hands of a curious gorilla. What does a 400 lb gorilla get? Anything he wants..Take Care.

    Lorie Ann, Buelllton, Calif.

    June 9, 2008 at 10:45 pm |
  8. deborah, OH

    Thank you for blogging again, Neil.

    And you hard work is appreciated–the pics are wonderful.

    Keep up with the good work–take care & be safe–all of you.

    Can't wait to hear & see more from you.

    June 9, 2008 at 10:43 pm |
  9. Sharon from Indy

    Neil:
    I don't see you as a prima donna for not helping with the push out of the mud. I mean, someone has to record the incident.

    I am enjoying your blogs with Planet in Peril 2 journey with AC360.

    June 9, 2008 at 10:36 pm |
  10. Ruby

    Hi Neil & Anderson.. why doesn't Erica go with you guys?.. be safe. see u.

    June 9, 2008 at 10:24 pm |
  11. Bren from Atlanta

    Hi Neil & Anderson,
    Safe travels! So blessed to hear you were able to reach the gorillas. Such gentle giants in such a ravaged land! So many are being poached and killed. Last year a full family of five was found murdered in a clearing, babies and all. I am so happy that you are able to document these beauties for us to see. Burundi was as close as I've been able to get to Rwanda with MSF (Doctors Without Borders). Safe journey and bon chance mon amies!
    Bren in Atlanta

    June 9, 2008 at 10:23 pm |
  12. Rekha Joy Raman

    Hi Neil,

    That is a lot of hard work and walk up the hills. I'm glad your pack was rewarded by that rare sight. Thank you for your blog. Thank you and the entire AC360 team for their dedicated and sincere efforts to bring us the best in journalism. I wish I could contribute some energies to your physical labor, but some day I can imagine myself trekking through the mist to get in touch with the gorillas. Stay safe and have a safe trip back home.

    June 9, 2008 at 9:23 pm |
  13. anne-newfoundland,canada

    Neil:

    hope you are all staying safe out there.

    I really think Charlie should be more worried about a gorilla grabbing HIM,or one of YOU,than that camera!

    If he DID grab it,I think he could keep it,if it were me!

    Am looking forward to seeing the report on the program tonight,and
    it is great to see you blog again as well.

    I hope we see more blogging from ALL members of the PIP team soon, INCLUDING your executive producer!

    I enjoy reading the "behind the scenes" stories involved in bringing a program like PIP together,and cannot wait to see the new one.

    June 9, 2008 at 9:13 pm |
  14. Annie Kate

    Neil

    What a wonderful account of your trek into to see the gorillas. 40 gorillas at one time – that much have been amazing. And I bet the hour you got to spend with the gorillas flew by on wings. I'm really excited to see some of the footage.

    Good thing you got out of having to push the vehicle out of the mud but I bet lugging all the camera equipment over that hike and filming at the same time more than made up for it. Sounds like you need two gin and tonics – one for enduring the trek and the other for warding off disease. Just stay safe and take lots of pictures!

    You didn't say – did a gorilla try to grab your camera once you got there?

    Annie Kate
    Birmingham AL

    June 9, 2008 at 9:04 pm |
  15. Neema

    Nice blog Neil!
    I was born and grew up right next door to where you guys are, Tanzania. After a long day in the mountains i advice you to get your shower and your dinner should be "Ndizi matoke" (cooked green banana dish) with "Sangara fish" frm Lake Victoria, that goes so well with a glass of Cultured milk, and a piece of avocado on the side, and may be a few beers later for desert ,and you are in Paradise.
    Looking to see U on the program shortly, and please have fun.
    Rehema.

    June 9, 2008 at 8:49 pm |
  16. Megan O. Toronto, ON, Canada

    oh my goodness I can just picture the blackberry getting stepped on. Must of been the few minutes Mary Anne was not using it

    June 9, 2008 at 8:12 pm |
  17. Tammy, Berwick, LA

    Call me a pacifist when it comes to Mum Nature, but the Mountain Gorilla could have whatever he or she wanted. Isn't that why CNN pays for insurance? I am happy to know some of the animals aren't tourist attractions but instead simply research groups whose study will help them and us. Although I do plan to be one of those tourists watching one day...Sounds like another occasion for more gin and less tonic. Cheers.

    June 9, 2008 at 7:30 pm |
  18. Jo Ann

    Dear Neil,

    Thank you for your informative, yet humorous blog! The artistic “process” is almost as important as the final product; I appreciate the details you shared. Knowing how difficult it was to get to the gorillas only adds to my appreciation of the footage that I am anxiously waiting to see. By the way, how heavy was that equipment you were carrying?

    You are certainly a dedicated photojournalist! I know that you would have valiantly defended your camera! I am just glad that none of the gorillas thought about grabbing Anderson and running off with him, but if they had I know you would have gotten the shot for us!

    Good luck in Cameroon. Take care of yourself!

    Jo Ann
    North Royalton, Ohio

    June 9, 2008 at 7:12 pm |
  19. Betty Ann, Nacogdoches,TX

    Hi Neil!
    Is that a scratch on you forehead? Too much hiking or too much gin and tonic? ahh, both. I thought that might be the case~
    Thanks so much for filming the magnificient endangered gorillas.
    Steer clear of the elephants! (donkeys are much safer;-)
    Anywho, take care of yourself and I am looking forward to seeing what you and Phil shot today~
    Cheers!

    June 9, 2008 at 7:07 pm |
  20. EJ (USA)

    You are so privileged to be able to see these beautiful animals.

    Well, I personally think they're crazy but to each his own. I would enjoy them more watching them on TV where they can't kill me. But I understand, I was born with different genes...

    June 9, 2008 at 6:47 pm |
  21. EJ (USA)

    You all better be careful. It's dangerous there.

    (note: we do have a history with this sort of thing: PIP producer Mary Anne Fox had to request a new BlackBerry after it was crushed by the foot of an elephant).

    That is scary! She could have been crushed along with her blackberry.

    I love the story and the pictures, but whew - just be careful. I hope it's all worth the risk. And take care of Anderson for us. If not then CNN will have to change the name of the show. We can't have that. (and oh- of course we don't want Anderson to get hurt :))

    June 9, 2008 at 6:46 pm |
  22. Lilibeth

    So you got out of pushing the car because you’re the photographer, eh? Great excuse! Good work, Neil!

    Hmmm…let’s see…if a 400-pound gorilla got hold of my camera…I think I’ll let it go…

    Take care, Neil, and take it easy on those gin and tonics…if you want variety, I hear that white russian works well for malaria too…LOL!

    Lilibeth
    Edmonds, Washington

    June 9, 2008 at 6:34 pm |
  23. Cindy

    Neil,
    Thanks for blogging again. Love hearing from you. Man...you are an excellent writer along with photographer. Keep the blogs coming!!

    Seems as though you all had a great adventure today. Would have been worth it to me to see the gorillas..OK...and to see Anderson having to push a truck out of mud and make that long trek. LOL Hope he wasn't too much trouble for ya! LOL I mean...we all know how those anchor types can be! LOL Just kidding!

    Can't wait to see your footage tonight! You all please stay safe. And see ya in Cameroon I hope!

    Cindy...Ga.

    June 9, 2008 at 6:30 pm |
  24. Missy

    Neil, this is fascinating. You are so privileged to be able to see these beautiful animals. We cannot wait to see.

    June 9, 2008 at 6:28 pm |