Location: Rwanda. It was early morning, and at 2600 m above sea level, the air was thick with moisture and it felt like it would rain. This gorilla looked cold, and to my (anthropomorphic) mind a bit jaded (what, another bunch of gawking tourists?).
We’d trekked (and slipped and stumbled) two hours up the mountain through ankle deep mud and bamboo rainforest to find this family and then there He was. I think we all felt pretty awestruck in the hush. And then... he farted. Long, loud and lingering. You’re really not allowed to laugh at a gorilla, so we all moved right along.
The Parc National Des Volcans in Rwanda is home to the some of the world’s few remaining mountain gorillas. This is Dian Fossey territory. You may have heard of the late primatologist who studied and documented the ape families here. If you haven’t, and you’re interested, then see the film Gorillas in the Mist.
This big boy is part of a relatively young family headed by the silverback named Charles (gorillas, incidentally, are identified by their unique nose print). Charles had, at one time, been part of another family, but as he grew up he got sick of the celibate demands of playing second fiddle to the silverback of his group, and, after staging a brawl ran off with some of the ladies. Such tactics are necessary to get some satisfaction, and are great for the diversification of the gene pool. And it was a win-win. Rather than a fight to the death between a patriarch and the upstart, there’s a entirely new family, and no fatalities.
It’s not always easy to find these guys, and the guides won’t guarantee a definite sighting. But the trackers go up in advance and then radio their location. And then the main challenge is to make it up the mountain without keeling over (I recommend being fit, especially because it becomes harder to breathe on ascent). We were deep in a thicket of bamboo when an enormous black shape in the clearing ahead reared up and started charging our way. Charles was onto us, and his strength and speed was something to behold. There was a brief moment of terror – we were all trying to backtrack up the slope but kept getting caught among the bamboo, but the trackers and guides seemed to communicate in a series of grunts to him that we meant no harm, and Charles settled right back down.
And then we entered the clearing.
It was chow time, and the silverback was at it with gusto. So, we sat down a little further away. Charles then shifted somewhat closer. Now you’re under strict instructions at the point and they go something like this: a) don’t run, in fact don’t move at all, b) don’t scream, and c) don’t give the silverback the death stare. Easy enough, but that is when he eyeballed me.
And... I relaxed. Okay, yes at over 400 pounds he was a bit fearsome, but actually there was just a strong sense that here was a sentient, super smart creature (sharing some 96% of our DNA) who could judge the balance of power just fine, without having to sit on me to prove the point.
In fact Charles was so laissez faire, even with 11 people watching his every move, he also had a lie down. Perhaps he was just showing off how great the gorilla lifestyle can be.
At the time of visiting, our guide reported there are only 308 gorillas up in the Virungas, and apparently that’s hopeful. Which is so goddamn depressing the only adequate response is action. Numbers have been decimated over the decades by the deadly triad of civil war (this Rwandan habitat borders the Congo, Burundi, and Uganda), the trade for bushmeat, and poaching for rich people’s trophies (a gorilla hand ashtray, anyone? Like really, Get A Life). Not to mention loss of habitat. The state of emergency is such that the UN finally got their butts into gear and initiated the Great Apes Survival Partnership. You can even adopt an ape.
The jury is out on whether it’s fair for these gorillas who have been habituated to humans to have their days interrupted by tourists, and there is a risk they could catch something from an unwell human (which is why you are closely scrutinised before being allowed to go). But at present the greater risk is poachers and there’s no doubt the US$500 cost of the gorilla permit (56 permits = US$28,000 a day), provides the medical infrastructure, research and security guards to keep them safe from their main threat – us. Currently it is the only way to raise that money outside charity and philanthropy.
So if you’re a wildlife nut, and you ever get the opportunity, this is how you can find yourself face-to-face with a mountain gorilla. If I ever get back there, this is the nose print I'll be on the lookout for. Here's hoping.