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Couple's wild time with rare gorillas

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Critically endangered: a gorilla at Virunga National Park in the Democratic Republic of Congo (Photograph supplied)

Nicolas Plianthos does not like zoos. It’s the animals that put him off.

“They don’t belong there,” he said. “They belong in the wild. You should not be able to go to Florida and see a lion. If you want to see a lion, lions exist in Africa.”

Documentaries about animals on the brink of extinction confirmed his convictions. Then he paid a visit to Virunga National Park.

“I’m a fairly educated, knowledgeable person — I knew nothing,” he said after visiting the haven for critically endangered mountain gorillas in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

“I knew nothing about Virunga, the fact that it’s the oldest national park in Africa, that it contains the last remaining mountain gorillas, that it has the last lava lake in the world. I knew none of these things.”

The South African made the trek last month with his Bermudian fiancée Karen Jones.

While there, the couple gave $1,855.50 to the widows of rangers who died trying to conserve the world’s last mountain gorillas.

The money came from a fundraiser Ms Jones held here after watching the film Virunga, which follows the rangers’ efforts.

When Elephants Fight, which looks at the unrest caused by conflict minerals mined in the DRC, also encouraged the couple to journey to the African nation.

“I knew that the Congo had been through terrible wars but didn’t understand exactly why,” Mr Plianthos said. “You watch all this and you’re helpless. What are you going to do to make things better?

“I’ve thought about it and the little contribution that I think all of us could make is going there and supporting the park and supporting the people of the Congo.

“In a way, I’m a sort of socialist. I hate the fact that we live in a world where I’m an accountant and you’re a journalist and you get paid ten bucks and I get a thousand. It’s totally wrong.

“My mom’s a teacher; Karen works longer hours than I do for far less reward.

“If you’ve seen the film When Elephants Fight, these huge conglomerates have profited from these conflict minerals and when measures are put in place to stop that from happening, they fight it. I don’t like the idea of one company having a more profitable GDP than an entire country, especially when that country is suffering a great deal.

“I’d lived in South Africa my whole life [before moving to Bermuda eight years ago]. Even though we have townships and shanty towns, I’ve never seen the type of poverty that we saw in the Congo. That was a big eye-opener.”

Roughly 400 gorillas live in Virunga National Park, a biologically diverse area of more than 3,000 square miles.

“It has savannahs with elephants, lions; it’s got the largest hippo population — 25,000 of them — and the lava lake,” Mr Plianthos said. “The idea was to go there and book out the entire accommodation and be there and experience it with friends. At the end of the day, the only people that were prepared to come with us were our mums.”

The 34-year-old and his companions spent an hour with a family of gorillas, trekking through two-and-a-half hours of farmland for the privilege.

“There is no flat part to the Congo,” he said. “Everything is up and down.”

A highlight of their experience was making contact with a couple of Silverback gorillas.

“[A ranger told us] ‘Stop, look up in the trees’,” Mr Plianthos said. “It was actually a Silverback gorilla swinging down the tree — a 500lb gorilla. He comes towards us and for a few brief moments actually does a little charge.

“They briefed us on this: If a gorilla charges, you look away, make yourself small. Don’t challenge it. It was a fleeting moment. And then he chilled out.”

A second Silverback snapped a tree in half with a single grab as they watched. According to Ms Jones, poachers are a major problems.

They target the elder animals, orphaning the infant gorillas to sell on the black market. If recovered, they are placed in an orphanage.

“What really struck a chord with me was here you have these gorilla orphans,” she said. “Their entire family has been slaughtered.

“They need a family community to sustain themselves so they are now sentenced to a life imprisonment.

“The gorilla has to spend his life in prison and what happens to the poacher?”

Her fiancé took a slightly different view. He said: “The poachers are trying to survive,” he said.

“The real problem is the source of these things, the people who want to spend $50,000 on a baby gorilla.”

Ms Jones confessed that she had also hoped to “better the Mzungu image” by presenting the widows with the funds raised through her Cash Trash Bash initiative in June.

“You think of the history of DRC and even today,” she said. “What must they think of white people pilfering their country?

“I wanted to show an image of giving.”

Animal haven: Virunga is the oldest national park in Africa with the last lava lake in the world. Above, Nicolas Plianthos and his fiancée Karen Jones on a trek with a park ranger
Nature lovers: Nicolas Plianthos and Karen Jones learn about Virunga from one of the park rangers (Photograph supplied)
Wonder of nature: Mount Nyiragongo lava lake (Photograph supplied)
Safety precaution: Nicolas Plianthos and Karen Jones had to wear masks as gorilla's DNA is 98.2 per cent similar to humans, so are susceptible to the same communicable diseases (Photograph supplied)
Goal-den girl: Karen Jones donated footballs to children living in Goma, Democratic Republic of Congo (Photograph supplied)
Happy to help: Karen Jones and her mother present a cheque to the rangers (Photograph supplied)
Meet and greet: Karen Jones visits the widows' workshop (Photograph supplied)
Family trip: the pair took their mothers to Virunga (Photograph supplied)
Getting around: transporting goods on a chukudu (Photograph supplied)
Making a living: the widows' workshop (Photograph supplied)
Rare sight: Mount Nyiragongo lava lake (Photograph supplied)
Busy spot: Lake Kivu (Photograph supplied)
Rare occurence: Mount Nyiragongo lava lake (Photograph supplied)
Jumping for joy: Karen Jones with children in Goma (Photograph supplied)