Dallas Zoo’s vice president of guest experiences, Sean Greene, blogs about his recent journey to Africa with friends and supporters of the Zoo.
My travels through the colorful and diverse landscape of Tanzania and the beautiful mountains of Rwanda were some of the best experiences of my zoological career. Equally special was sharing this journey with 13 other animal enthusiasts and friends of the Dallas Zoo.
Our trip was the Zoo’s first Wild Earth Adventure photographic safari, a precursor to many more travel experiences the Zoo will offer in the years to come. Our Tanzania safari took us through the national parks of Tarangire, Lake Manyara, and the Serengeti, as well as a memorable trip through the Ngorongoro Crater. Each day we were blessed with fantastic weather, top-notch guides and accommodations, and magnificent animals. We also saw first-hand the wildlife conservation efforts the Zoo proudly supports in Africa.
After breakfast each morning, we set out from camp in three safari vehicles. Each day yielded incredible photo opportunities of lions, leopards, elephants, rhinos, hippos, Cape buffalo, and the amazing wildebeest migration. We witnessed thousands of wildebeest spread across the grasslands of the Serengeti, elusive leopards high up in the acacia trees, prides of lions searching for their next meal, and herds of elephants trumpeting through the marshlands. We spent wonderful evenings in the Northern Serengeti alongside the Mara River, relaxing in comfy folding chairs with a beverage, watching hippos splashing while a beautiful sunset dropped along the horizon. Although this was my third trip to East Africa, it still felt like my first safari, as you never know what might unfold on any given day. It’s one of the things that makes Africa so intriguing, and after two weeks it was hard to say goodbye to the people and wildlife of Tanzania.
Our post-Tanzania excursion took us to Rwanda for two memorable days of hiking with endangered mountain gorillas. We were accompanied by researchers from the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund International, a conservation group with which the Dallas Zoo collaborates in an effort to protect one of the most endangered animals on the planet. To put the uniqueness of this experience into perspective, there are fewer than 900 mountain gorillas left in two main regions of Africa, the Virunga National Park (includes Rwanda, Democratic Republic of the Congo, and Uganda), and the Bwindi Impenetrable National Park in Uganda. In Rwanda, there are fewer than 500 mountain gorillas, and only 10 habituated families that tourists can visit on any given day. At a maximum group size of eight, only 80 people in the world have this special opportunity to spend one hour each day with these incredible animals.
Standing 10 feet away from a 400-pound silverback gorilla at 8,000 feet in elevation on Mount Sabyinyo may seem like a hair-rising experience, but the expertise of our guides and trackers, coupled with the gorillas’ acceptance of us, made it feel remarkably safe. On both days, we hiked to see the Hirwa family group, comprised of a dominant silverback, a young set of twins, and more than a dozen gorillas total. The steep elevation climbs through bamboo forest, the muddy embankment slides on our backsides, and the hours of hiking through thick rainforest vegetation were worth every minute that we were privileged to spend with some of the rarest mammals on Earth.
Ernest Hemingway said, “I never knew of a morning in Africa when I woke up and was not happy.” It summarizes how we all felt about this special trip, and as the Dallas Zoo expands our Wild Earth travel program, more people will get to share in these incredible wildlife experiences.
Check out this video from our expedition. (Special thanks to Zoo visuals specialist Chelsea Stover for adding her editing skills.)