food / travel

Mingling With Gorillas In Rwanda

Northern Rwanda is the only place in the world where mountain gorillas can be observed in their natural habitat. It is a boon to tourism in a country healing the scars of a brutal 1990s civil war.

Getting close to our primate cousins (derekkeats)
Getting close to our primate cousins (derekkeats)
Werner Bloch

KIGALI - The sky is blue, and after a midday rain the air feels as if it had been washed. Just after landing, we're heading out -- along astonishingly perfect roads, past glass palaces and office towers, villas and gardens, in the capital Kigali -- on our way north to Volcanoes National Park.

That's where the country's prize attraction -- mountain gorillas -- live. It's the only place on earth where the animals can be observed in their natural habitat. There are some 400 in all, living in this remote highlands in the northernmost part of the country.

The landscape, with its green hills and terraced fields, looks so idyllic it's hard to believe that in the mid-1990s members of the Hutu majority killed hundreds of thousands of minority Tutsis in Rwanda.

Jimmy, our witty driver, wears sunglasses, and has an answer to everything. Or nearly everything. Asked how he injured his arm – he has a huge scar that extends from his shoulder to his hand – he doesn't answer, or at least not directly. After a while, he says: "Everybody in Rwanda has their story. Mine isn't ready to be told yet."

We start the drive up mountain towards the park as evening sets in. We get there to find some excellently equipped lodges. European, Chinese and American investors have been pumping a lot of money into Rwanda's tourism sector.

A tour company staffer tells us that he can guarantee us, "One-hundred percent," that tomorrow we will see gorillas.

At 3:30 the next morning, the collective wake-up call arrives. The heavy rains that fell during the night have stopped. Despite the ungodly hour, everyone is in the best of moods: hopefully that applies to our friend-to-be out there in the jungle.

It's cool, somewhere between 12 and 15°, as we arrive at an altitude of 2,500 meters. Behind us lies an impressive chain of volcanoes, their peaks boring through the clouds: the Gahinga, Sabinyo, Bisole and the highest one of all, the Karisimbi (4,507 meters). We're not far from the border with the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Anaklet, a small young man in the military-style uniform of a park warden, is our guide. He addresses us like a general talking to troops before the battle. "Never touch a gorilla!" is his first command. Then: "Respect the animal!"

The gorillas should never feel provoked – for example by a flash, or somebody setting up a tripod. The senior male, or silver back, could feel threatened by that.

A breakfast surprise

Command number three: "Keep your distance!" Humans can pass viruses of all kinds to gorillas -- that's how closely related we are. And finally the fourth order: "If a silver back looks like he's heading in your direction, just sit down and look away. The best thing is to look like you're just chewing and eating. That has a calming effect," says Anaklet.

We leave the lodge around 5 a.m. with our armed guide. Ape territory begins behind a stone wall. The earth is steaming; white fog mixes with the intense green of the hilly landscape. Anaklet says we're going to surprise some gorillas eating breakfast.

This should work. Generally, when a gorilla family gets up in the morning it doesn't move much, no more than 600 to 1000 meters from where it spent the night. So the guides chart where the clans settle down to sleep and can thus guarantee visitors sightings the next morning. We're going to see the Hirwa clan; "hirwa" means "luck."

The jungle gets denser as we walk, and our knapsacks catch on the bamboo, which is what gorillas like to eat best. Just when we're wondering how long it's going to take to get to the gorillas, two little ones appear, romping around. Their mother sits nearby, breast-feeding a baby gorilla.

There are cracking – and grunting -- sounds all around us: that's what gorillas sound like when they're eating breakfast, as they break off and bite into bits of bamboo and wild celery. They prefer to do this lying on their backs, looking at the sky.

Now the silver back, Muninya, puts in an appearance: a pack of muscle with a well-groomed blue-black pelt. He's the only male in the whole park who's ever managed to get two females away from other clans on the same day, to add to his harem, Anaklet says.

The animals appear undisturbed by our presence. In fact keeping a distance from them is impossible: we try, but the gorillas couldn't care less. A small ape of about 3 years of age comes scampering through our group, and is fetched by his laid back mother, who comes to scoop him up.

When the silver back appears to get a bit irritated, our guide makes a weird kind of gargling noise – and this produces a calming effect.

It's now time to head back: visitors are only allowed about an hour a day with the gorillas so the animals don't get disturbed. But before we go, the highlight: Muninya the silver back organizes the clan, big and small apes alike, and marches them right through our group as if leading a holiday parade. We're so astonished we forget all about taking pictures. And then they march off.

That afternoon, we go to visit the "Village of the Ex-Poachers." "All the men here are now wardens at the National Park," says Manzi Kayihura, local head of Thousand Hills Expeditions. "And we have tourism to thank for that."

When the massacres came to an end in Rwanda, the policy of reconciliation that followed made it possible for the country to welcome tourists too quickly. Tourism has since become the country's biggest source of revenue -- bigger even than tea and coffee bean farming. The ex-poachers nod in agreement when Kayihura the tour organizer says: "Tourism is the best way to heal our wounds."

On the last day, Jimmy, the driver, tells his story. A refugee in Congo, he became a rebel fighter: hence the scar on his arm. But now he has a good job. He believes in Rwanda. Tourism will help him.

Read the original story in German

photo - derekkeats

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Running of the Bulls in Tafalla, northern Spain

Anne-Sophie Goninet, Jane Herbelin and Bertrand Hauger

👋 Здравейте!*

Welcome to Monday, where an apparent coup is underway in Sudan, Colombia's most-wanted drug lord gets caught, and Michael Jordan's rookie sneakers score an auction record. We also focus on a report that the Thai government is abusing the country's centuries-old law to protect the monarchy from criticism (lèse-majesté) to target pro-democracy activists and protesters.

[*Zdraveite - Bulgarian]


• Developing: Sudan leaders arrested amid military coup reports: Soldiers have arrested several members of Sudan's transitional government as well as civilian leaders, and Prime Minister Abdallah Hamdok has reportedly been put under house arrest, in what the information ministry called a military coup. Pro-democracy protesters have taken to the streets of the capital city Khartoum where there are reports of gunfire and clashes.

• Colombia's most wanted drug lord to be sent to U.S.: Colombia's most dangerous drug trafficker, known as Otoniel, was caught after a joint army, air force and police operation and faces extradition to the U.S. He led the country's largest criminal gang, and was on the U.S. most wanted list for years.

• Xi speech marks China's UN anniversary: China's President Xi Jinping marked the 50th anniversary of Beijing's entry into the United Nations with a speech calling for greater global cooperation, adding that issues like climate change, terrorism and cyber security needed multilateral solutions. Taiwan was not mentioned.

• German ISIS bride jailed for crimes against humanity: A German court has sentenced a German woman and former member of the Islamic State to 10 years in prison for letting a 5-year-old Yazidi enslaved girl die of thirst in Iraq. The case is one of the world's first trials to prosecute a war crime against the Yazidis.

• COVID update: The Beijing marathon scheduled next weekend has been postponed until further notice as China seeks to stamp out Delta variant outbreak and return to zero cases ahead of the Winter Olympics next February. Meanwhile, coronavirus cases in Eastern Europe have surpassed the 20 million mark as the region fights against its worst outbreak since the pandemic started and vaccination efforts lag.

Goodbye, Gunther: U.S. actor James Michael Tyler, best known for his role as the barista Gunther on the TV show Friends, has died at 59 of prostate cancer.

• Sneakers record: A pair of Michael Jordan's white-and-red Nike shoes, which he wore during his rookie season with the Chicago Bulls in 1984, sold for $1.47 million — a new record price for sneakers at auction.


"The end of a boss," titles Colombian daily El Espectador, reporting on the arrest of drug lord Dairo Antonio Usuga, known as Otoniel, who had led Colombia's largest criminal gang and had been on the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency's most wanted list for years. He was captured in a raid and will be extradited to the U.S.



A Georgia man is being prosecuted for wire fraud after spending most of his business's COVID relief loan to buy one Pokémon trading card for $57,789.


How Thailand's "Lèse-Majesté" law is used to stifle all protest

Once meant to protect the royal family, the century-old law has become a tool for the military-led government in Bangkok to stamp out all dissent. A new report outlines the abuses.

👑 Thailand's Criminal Code "Lèse-Majesté" Article 112 imposes jail terms for defaming, insulting, or threatening the monarchy, with sentences of three to 15 years. This law has been present in Thai politics since 1908, though applied sparingly, only when direct verbal or written attacks against members of the royal family. But after the May 2014 military coup d'état, Thailand experienced the first wave of lèse-majesté arrests, prosecutions, and detentions of at least 127 individuals arrested in a much wider interpretation of the law.

🚨 The recent report "Second Wave: The Return of Lèse-Majesté in Thailand," documents how the Thai government has "used and abused Article 112 of the Criminal Code to target pro-democracy activists and protesters in relation to their online political expression and participation in peaceful pro-democracy demonstrations." The investigation shows 124 individuals, including at least eight minors, have been charged with lèse-majesté between November 2020 and August 2021. The new wave of charges is cited as a response to the rising pro-democracy protests across Thailand over the past year.

💻 The more than a century-old law is now largely playing out online, where much of today's protest takes place in Thailand. Thai student activist Juthatip Sirikan says people are willing to go further on social media to expose information such as how the king intervenes in politics and the monarchy's accumulation of wealth, information the mainstream media rarely reports on them. Not surprisingly, however, social media is heavily monitored and the military is involved in Intelligence operations and cyber attacks against human rights defenders and critics of any kind.

➡️


"Children are going to die. People are going to starve."

— The United Nations warns that Afghanistan verges on a "total breakdown" as millions of Afghans, including children, could die of starvation unless urgent action is taken by the international community. The agency calls for the release of frozen assets to avoid economic and social collapse, despite concerns over the Taliban government. A recent report said that about 97% of Afghanistan's population may sink below the poverty line, and World Food Programme (WFP) Executive Director David Beasley warned that more than half of Afghanistan's population of 39 million were facing acute food insecurity and "marching to starvation" in comparison to 14 million two months ago.


Dutch cities have been secretly probing mosques since 2013

At least ten Dutch towns and cities have secretly used a private agency to probe mosques and other local religious organizations, Amsterdam-based daily het NRC reports in an exclusive investigation.

The clandestine operation — funded by NCTV, the National Security Services, the Netherlands' leading counter-terrorism agency — was prompted by the social unrest and uncertainty following multiple terror attacks in 2013, and a rise in Islamic radicalization.

The NCTV, which advises and financially supports municipalities in countering radicalization, put the municipalities in touch with Nuance by Training and Advice (Nuance door Trainingen en Advies, NTA), a private research agency based in Deventer, Netherlands. Among the institutions targeted by the investigations, which came at a cost of circa 500,000 euros, were the Al Mouahidin mosque in the central Dutch town of Ede, and the Nasser mosque east of the city of Utrecht, according to NRC.

Unlike public officials, the private agency can enter the mosques to clandestinely research the situation. In this case, the agents observed activity, talked to visitors, administrators, and religious leaders, and investigated what they do and say on social media.

All findings then wound up in a secret report which includes personal details about what the administrators and teachers studied, who their relatives are, with whom they argued, and how often they had contact with authorities in foreign countries, like Morocco.

It is unclear whether the practice is legal, which is why several members of the Dutch Parliament are now demanding clarification from the outgoing Minister of Justice and Security, Ferd Grapperhaus, who is said to be involved.

"The ease with which the government violates (fundamental) rights when it comes to Islam or Muslims is shocking," Stephan van Baarle, member of the leftist party DENK, told De Volkskrant, another Dutch newspaper.

Leaders of the Muslim organizations that were secretly probed say they feel betrayed. Hassan Saidi, director of one of the mosques investigated, said that the relationship with the local municipality had been good. "This puts a huge dent in the trust I'd had in the municipality," he told the Dutch public broadcaster NOS.

✍️ Newsletter by Anne-Sophie Goninet, Jane Herbelin and Bertrand Hauger

Are you more Chicago Bulls or running of the bulls? Let us know what the news looks like from your corner of the world!!

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