His tongue was dry and hanging out. His breath was coming in short gasps and the harsh sun bouncing off the Mojave desert was piercing through his sunglasses, hurting his eyes. Kyran Young was tired and thirsty, having walked nearly 15km across one of the most inhospitable stretches of desert in Utah, US, and was glad to see a desert spring in the distance.
In desperation he began to jog towards it. ‘It was then that I heard a subtle rasping sound,’ says the 19-year-old British student. ‘I’d heard it before and knew what it was – a rattlesnake.’
Freezing in fear, Kyran looked down and saw an almost metre-long rattlesnake, right in front of him. One of the most poisonous reptiles on earth, its venom is considered to be the most debilitating and potentially deadly of all North American snakes.
Within seconds of a bite, victims start going blind and have difficulty swallowing and speaking. Without treatment – an antivenin – it’s only a matter of six hours before they die.
Kyran was alone, without an antidote and nowhere near a hospital. ‘I slowly hopped back, then just stared at the snake,’ says Kyran, who managed to slowly edge around the snake without alerting it to his presence.
The dangerous encounter came just days into a four-month, 4,200km walk along the Pacific Crest Trail, from the Mexican border to Canada – with just a backpack full of high-calorie snacks, soups, tinned food and water, and a tent to sustain him.
Kyran’s cause? The critically endangered mountain gorilla. His mission: to raise £100,000 (Dh575,437) for The Gorilla Organization. The African charity’s team of conservationists will use the funds to help tackle threats to the species by supporting development projects in villages near the gorillas’ habitat, provide sustainable alternatives to stop poaching, and train young conservationists to protect and preserve the planet’s largest primates from extinction.
There are fewer than 900 mountain gorillas left on earth, making their home in just three African forests of Uganda, Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). Poachers in these areas have systematically decimated the population, killing the animals for bush meat or hacking off their hands to sell as lucky charms, rendering them unable to feed and thus die an agonising death.
Zimbabwe-born Kyran was at school in Stroud, Gloucestershire, in the UK, when he read about the plight of the primates, who featured in the award-winning film Gorillas in the Mist.
‘I was looking through a National Geographic and read about the killing of gorillas. It made me angry and inspired me to do something,’ he says. ‘There are some sickening things happening to animals around the world and I just wanted to help.’
The first thought that came to his mind was to undertake a walk to raise funds to save the gorillas.
Kyran did some research and chalked a 4,200km walk along the Pacific Crest Trail through California, Oregon and Washington, right up to the Canadian border. He knew it would be tough and would pit him against the elements. ‘I wanted to do it for the gorillas,’ he says. ‘This beautiful, hazel-eyed pacifist has been pushed to the brink of extinction. Now critically endangered, the mountain gorilla is constantly being encroached from all sides by human settlements.
‘Worse still, I was shocked to discover that poachers and DRC rebels hunt down these harmless creatures to sell as food and part of their bodies as lucky charms. This is a creature that rarely shows aggression and can’t fight back.’ Kyran started planning his walk, asking individuals and companies to sponsor him, and watched documentaries on YouTube to learn as much as he could. Then, one day he was at his local Saturday market when he spotted a famous conservationist he’d seen talking about gorillas on YouTube.
‘I just went up to him and said: “Excuse me sir, but are you the famous gorilla conservationist?”
It was Ian Redmond, OBE, who was the Ambassador for the UN Year of the Gorilla 2009 and is the current Chairman of The Gorilla Organization.
‘He looked at me astonished, and replied, “And how would you know that?”
‘I told him my plan to walk nearly 4,200km for the mountain gorillas and he said he could help me out. He gave me a lot of advice on how to plan the trip, what to take along, what dangers I could face... He mentored me a lot. Meeting such a great man was just the push I needed.’
Ian suggested he undertake shorter walks to prepare for the big one and, following his advice, Kyran set off two years ago on a solo walk across the Pyrenees mountain range. He walked 800km in 28 days.
It was enough for him to know he was ready for the big walk. So on May 18, 2015, Kyran set off from the small town of Campo on the Mexican Border. His brother Scott, 21, joined him for the first few weeks to take photographs and film his adventure.
After crossing the Mojave desert, Kyran will walk approximately 40km a day, across the Sierra Nevada and Cascade Range from Mexico to Canada, along the Pacific Crest Trail – the equivalent of walking the length of England six and a half times. He is carrying everything he needs on his back and sleeps under the stars every night. During the course of his walk, he will pass through 25 National Forests and seven National Parks, and climb the highest mountain in the contiguous US – Mount Whitney at 14,000ft – living on a diet of chocolate, couscous, olive oil and soups, among others foods.
‘It’s not a very well-balanced diet but it’s light to carry and in portion packets, and will give me enough calories to keep going,’ he says. ‘I’m feeling pretty confident about it. Raising the money to save the gorillas has become the real drive for me,’ he says. ‘They are truly amazing, beautiful creatures.’
Left in peace to graze in “the salad bowl” of the DRC, on a diet of foliage, leaves and shoots, the mountain gorilla has a lifespan of between 40 and 50 years. They are referred to as the “guardians of the forest” because of their role in the eco-system, spreading seeds. Males aged about 12 and over are commonly known as Silverbacks because of their distinctive markings. The forests are fertile and rich in biodiversity, making them some of the most populated areas in Africa, with around 85 per cent of citizens making their living by growing food on the land.
As people move closer to where gorillas live, they also bring the risk of spreading human diseases to gorillas such as the flu, pneumonia, and even Ebola. Ten years ago, an epidemic of Ebola killed more than 5,500 gorillas – 95 per cent of the species.
The mountain gorillas, whose DNA is between 95 and 99 per cent similar to humans, have found themselves caught in the middle of a social and economic crisis – the civil war in the DRC, which has raged on for decades, has already claimed the lives of 5.4 million people.
The locals depend on the forests’ natural resources and wildlife-based tourism. The Gorilla Organization continues the work of Dian Fossey, the American primatologist murdered at the age of 53 in Rwanda while working to protect the primates.
‘I know that the lives of the gorillas are linked to the people who live close to the forests,’ says Kyran. ‘So any project to protect the animals has to include the people whose livelihoods depend on the forest.’ It is for this reason that the charity will be earmarking part of the funds in conservation and education projects to help local communities recognise the importance of protecting the primates’ environment. It also uses funds to help rangers and their families – 140 of whom have been killed by poachers while protecting gorillas.
Jillian Miller, director of The Gorilla Organization, says the focus of the charity’s work is on improving the local economy and leaving the gorillas to forage in their troops in peace. ‘They are a very endangered species and we just want to keep their habitat intact,’ she says.
‘We concentrate our efforts on economic development with the local community. The idea is, by helping them out of poverty, they won’t go into the forest and poach gorillas.
‘Sometimes people set traps in the forests for deer to eat but the gorillas get trapped in them and the rusty traps, often made from clutch cables or coat hangers, cut their flesh and cause horrific injuries.
‘They can get gangrene, which kills them, or they can lose a hand or foot, which means they are unable to feed themselves. One of our projects is supporting organic farmers and beekeepers outside the national parks, as those inside can cause forest fires when they smoke out the bees. ‘The forests are also used for logging and oil for the international market. We want to take the pressure off the gorilla habitat. We’re planting two million trees in Congo around the national parks, which have been deforested to produce a buffer zone,’ she says.
Jillian’s team realised that the local people’s reliance on trees for firewood was putting increased pressure on the gorillas’ habitat. Working with their partners, the charity began distributing firewood-saving stoves that reduce wood and charcoal consumption by at least 55 per cent.
New methods of cooking now reduce the impact on the forest and save money while protecting gorilla terrain.
‘Gorillas don’t need much – just to be left in peace so they can then thrive.’
The charity’s event manager, Chris Perrin, says, ‘Kyran’s is a fantastic project – for such a young guy he’s very passionate about our cause. He’s very determined and his efforts are hugely appreciated.’
As a boy, Kyran wanted to be a ranger in Africa and he still harbours an ambition to work as a conservationist on his native continent. ‘I want to go back,’ he says. ‘Africa is in my blood. It’s calling me.’
Currently on his gap year between school and university, Kyran left Zimbabwe at 12 and won a squash scholarship to a top UK school. He rose through the ranks to become number three in the English Juniors.
The would-be zoology student has been unable to see the giant gorillas in their natural habitat – but he plans to spend some time with them on his return and see his sponsorship in action.
‘I’d love to see how the money I have raised for The Gorilla Organization is going to help these gorillas in the wild,’ he says.
Kyran’s inspiration, Ian Redmond, says: ‘Kyran has set himself a massive challenge, but seeing the way he has set about organising it, with quiet, methodical determination, I have no doubt he’ll succeed. The gorillas have found a new champion.’
For more info visit www.gorillawalker.com