- Associated Press - Saturday, May 9, 2015

COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) - Loann Crane could have reached out and touched the mountain gorillas that loped around and above her in the Rwandan rainforest.

No barriers stood between them. The massive animals showed no fear- or aggression -toward the humans who stood in their tropical home, alternately staring and snapping photographs. Every once in a while, a gorilla would crash down from the trees and wander off.

“I wasn’t at all afraid, just in awe,” Crane said last week as she recounted her trek in March to see a gorilla tribe in the mountains of Volcanoes National Park in central Africa.

Crane will turn 90 on May 8, and her daughter, Tanny Crane, thought the trek would be the perfect present for her well-traveled mother. No one that old had ever gone on Rwanda’s famed gorilla treks, organizers of the trips said.

For the past several years, Jack Hanna and his wife, Suzi, have invited a small group of people, many from Columbus, to accompany them to Rwanda to see the gorillas. Hanna, director emeritus of the Columbus Zoo and Aquarium, had mentioned the trip to Tanny Crane last year, and she decided to make it a family affair for her siblings and their spouses, as well as their mom.

Rwanda has had a special place in Hanna’s heart for years. He first saw the gorillas there in the 1980s, just a few years after the country began encouraging tourism as a way to improve the lives of its people and save the rare gorillas.

By the early 1990s, the zoo’s Partners in Conservation program was sponsoring fundraisers to support a Rwandan orphanage, a mountain-gorilla veterinary project and other efforts to help the country’s residents preserve their environment and their livelihood.

The group expanded its work after 1994, when more than 800,000 people died during a 100-day civil war.

“It shows what people can do when they put their heart into it,” Hanna said. “We’re so proud of the work because we’re not just helping the gorillas, we’re helping people who experienced one of the worst genocides in history.”

About half of the estimated 1,000 mountain gorillas in the world live in the Virunga Mountains of Rwanda, Uganda and the Democratic Republic of Congo. They’re the gorillas that the late primatologist Dian Fossey lived with in Rwanda for 18 years and wrote about in her 1983 book, Gorillas in the Mist.

Fossey was killed in 1985, but her work and her notoriety brought attention to the gorillas’ plight.

They’re endangered because of poaching and loss of habitat, Hanna said, so visits to them in Rwanda are strictly controlled. Each day, only one group of eight people can visit each of the 10 tribes that have been acclimated to humans by 24-hour guards.

Groups visiting the gorillas stay in mountain lodges 8,000 feet above sea level and then hike up steep, barely-there trails to an altitude of 10,000 feet.

Two teams of four men carried Loann Crane up the uneven trails on a fabric litter held up by four poles. She walked about an hour into the jungle with the rest of the group to see the gorillas. They were able to stay with the gorillas for an hour and watched the male silverback, the babies and the nursing mothers eat and play just feet away.

“They’re so much like us it’s uncanny,” said Tanny Crane, president and chief operating officer of the Columbus-based Crane Group. “It was like watching a human mom who has her kids at the park.”

The rest of the group trekked to see the gorillas twice, but Loann Crane stayed behind the second time.

The 11-day trip, which included visits to a tea plantation, schools and another rainforest, was the best present her family could give her mother, Tanny Crane said. “Half the fun was getting ready and seeing how excited she was, even though she likes to keep her emotions in check.”

Loann Crane, who values her independence, said riding up the mountain on the litter made her feel “like a freak”- until she found out that other gorilla-trekking tours use litters regularly for visitors much younger than her. She joked that the litter ride gave her the chance to practice and perfect “the royal wave.”

Her trek caught the attention of the Rwandan news media, and stories about her appeared in newspapers and on television while she was there.

“I was a sensation,” she said, laughing.

Hanna admitted that he worried about taking Loann Crane on the trip. Getting there takes more than 20 hours of plane and helicopter flights and bumpy jeep rides over dirt roads.

“She never complained one time,” he said. “She lived her dream, and I can’t tell you the joy I had in seeing that.”


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