In 2003, Mary Anne McDonald visited Rwanda together with her husband and spent the big part of their precious holiday in the Volcanoes National Park, taking photos of mountain gorillas.
McDonald has since trekked gorillas in Rwanda 91 times, and intends to hit the 100-mark before end of the year.
“The reason we have been coming to Rwanda is because we are wildlife photographers and we have been doing photography on mountain gorillas because they are endangered species,” she says.
The McDonalds are professional wildlife photographers, and they have traversed the world for the last 30 years practicing what they “love most”.
They sell their images to magazines and calendars.
“My husband is now in Brazil photographing jaguars, something different, and hope he will be attending the gorilla naming ceremony next time,” McDonald says. “We do a lot with children’s magazines, and natural history magazines. I have actually written 29 natural history magazines for children, not on gorillas but may be next.”
When they first came to Rwanda, the apes were so endangered at that time and very few in numbers, and to be able to see even one was a special moment, she says.
“The gorillas were so rare in the park then, to be able to experience being with them was so special. We have seen numbers increasing wonderfully; it is so encouraging to see the success of conservation through Gorillas,” McDonald says.
She said what they have seen in Rwanda is a testament that conservation efforts work for the better.
“We have seen positive things in the communities around the area—we have seen clean water, paved roads, children going to school, and now poachers becoming trekkers and tour guides and excelling in conservation. It is just wonderful,” McDonald enthused.
During the interview with The New Times, last week, McDonald seemed to hint that her “thirst” for trekking gorillas is not quenched just yet.
“We love Rwanda; we love the people here that even after our 100th trekking time, we will still come. We have never gone to the Congo, My husband has been to Uganda but, honestly, we feel it’s much better to trek gorillas from Rwanda; it is safe, the guides are more educated and kind—they help you to understand what you are seeing, so we think they do the best job,” she says.
But what has made McDonald trek Gorillas a record 90 times?
“Every time is a different experience,” she says, “we can go see a group every day, for five times but you will still find something different. So the dynamics are different, the habits might be different.
“Seeing them 90 times; I have seen little babies are now Silverbacks—they are now strong with their own group. I photographed Cyusa when it had the first set of twins that survived, and they were two months old. It is such treat to watch baby gorilla growing, even in 200 times you can never get bored.”
About the dynamics of visiting gorillas, McDonald explains that you never know what to expect every time you trek.
“There could be a new Silverback, you see a new female being accepted in the group, you may see a new baby being born, and you may see two different groups meeting. Seeing two silverbacks in the park facing off each other and only once they actually fought but they didn’t hurt each other, but to let others know that they were the biggest,” says the gorilla trekking enthusiast.
“I also think gorillas watch us just as much as we watch them, they are equally entertained and the babies just love to play with you because they may come up on the bamboo and then run down and hit you a bit in the head… and it’s as if they laugh and run away. It’s so much fun and entertaining that you can never get bored.”
McDonald was among the 22 people who last Friday gave names to baby gorillas at the colourful annual Kwita Izina ceremony in Kinigi, Musanze District.
She was the fourth to name, and chose to name the baby gorilla ‘Ntamupaka’, which loosely translates as “beyond borders.”
She says naming a baby gorilla is such an honour and a new motivation to venture into bigger conservation campaigns.
“It is humbling. It is such an honour to be able to finally name a baby gorilla. And I am actually going to name one that I photographed last year right after it was born, so I am naming one that I have seen. In future when I bring groups, I can say that’s my baby gorilla.”