In the far northern pocket of Rwanda lies an ancient volcano range called the Virungas. They cut an imposing figure chisled into the sky like a grand monument serving as a natural border to Uganda and the Congo. As we drove in, they were shrouded in a mist that only served to further their mystique. Somewhere in the trees, high above the ground we walk, lie our ancient descendents, the endangered mountain gorillas. Our backpacks contained the tracking permits required to witness the creatures in their native habitat.Our guide, Placid, began by explaining the infamous 7 meter rule, the distance that we should keep from the gorillas. This, as we found out, was a rule practiced only in theory (“Excuse me gorilla, could you just back up a little bit. Your in my personal 7 meter bubble.”)He then opened up a book of photos, showing us the “Hirwa” group that we would be tracking, a relatively small new group complete with a Silverback, a couple females and some babies to boot.
We began the trek in the early morning haze, up through the lanes of farmers’ fields, passing families busy with harvesting and grazing livestock. When we reached the jungle path of the volcanoes, a guard carrying an AK-47 emerged from the trees to accompany us. More of a precaution than anything, the guard was there to protect us from rogue elephants, water buffalos and poachers intent on killing and maiming gorillas for profit.
Our guide instructed us to put down our backpacks and walking sticks (they could be mistaken as spears) and we hacked our way into the interior, where we could see the trees shaking and bending at unnatural angles.
Out of the dense brush, a black, inky form materialized in front of us and disappeared into the bramble beside us. We inched closer and around the corner came face to face with the leader of the group, the Silverback. He perched on all fours, and appraised us with interest.
Its eyes were large, sentient and had an incredible human-like quality to them. When he took in all of us, he began to grunt loudly. The grunt was rolling and thunder-like, a rhythmic way to communicate with us. It reverberated through the dense air and into my chest, where it settled, and, through instinct, I found myself wanting to grunt back in response. My fear quickly evaporated; he sounded like my Dad when he had a pressing problem on his mind.
The gorilla meant no harm; somehow I was sure of it. The eyes of the creature were speaking of somewhere, of something else. It was but a few seconds that we held eyes, but in the lingering stillness, he held an intense and pure stare, powerful and understanding. In that instance with the world progressing with unstoppable continuance, you are given over to a sole emotion rarely felt; complete and utter respect. The stare transfixed me to the spot until he looked away.
There are under a thousand mountain gorillas left and they are all in East Africa. Only in the last century was it discovered that they are gentle and vegetarian. They share 97% of biological makeup with humans. They spend 30% of their day feeding, 30% moving and foraging for the remainder. They eat bamboo shoots, giant thistles and wild celery, all of which have water, allowing gorillas to survive without drinking.
A groups Silverback, the leader of the group, determines movement and defends the clan. He can pack a punch estimated at 8 times stronger than Muhammad Ali. They communicate through facial expressions and 2 dozen vocalizations. They are the largest primates in the world and weigh as much as 440 pounds.
Simply put, the gorillas are the most fascinating creatures I have ever seen. Our hour flew by too quickly; as the clan stopped taking notice of the strange visitors and continue on with life. The baby gorillas playfully practiced their handstands with limited success, which brought a chorus of laughter from the humans as they grunted and tried their luck again. A large female gently bowled me over as she decided that she wanted to sit in the place I was previously standing. The Silverback, obviously in his prime, found a wide open air to roll over, scratch, yawn, and pose with his hand on his chin, contemplating life’s mysteries.
The fate of the mountain gorilla is still uncertain. Human poverty is the greatest threat to these great creatures, as they live in areas which have some of the highest population densities and lowest adult life spans. This makes conservation a difficult prospect, as habitat loss, local civil unrest and poachers continually threaten their survival.
Founded by Dian Fossey in 1978, The Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund International is dedicated to gorilla conservation through daily protection, anti-poaching, research, education and helping the communities they work in. Thanks to organizations like this, the Virunga mountain gorilla populations have increased in the past two decades. To learn more about the organization and their work in the Congo and Rwanda, click here.