The tingling in my spine comes not from the cold mountain air. I came to Rwanda to visit one of the most enigmatic animals on earth and here I stand staring into the eyes of a 500-pound wild mountain gorilla.
I left the town of Ruhengeri with rangers near dawn and traveled miles of bone-jarring, four-wheel-drive roads to reach Park National des Volcans (Volcanoes National Park). This island of protected mountain gorilla habitat in northwestern Rwanda consists of a series of steep cone-shaped, jungle-covered volcanoes. After hiking through the cultivated foothills, we start up the steep jungle paths through thickets of giant bamboo so dark I wish for a headlamp. The mud is so thick in places that it threatens to suck my boots off and is populated with earthworms the size of snakes. Stinging Nettles at least 10 feet tall overhang much of the trail and most of my body is covered in a icy-hot itch. This entire mountain range is teeming with life. I feel like I’m on the set of Jurassic Park.
After hours of climbing, my guide points to moving vegetation ahead and signals to be still. The leaves part and out sidles a large gorilla with a baby riding high on her back.
The moment I lock eyes with my first mountain gorilla all thoughts of the arduous journey to reach this place evaporate. These enormous animals display such a rare blend of intelligence, power and gentleness. I am spellbound. It takes some time for me to remember to turn on my camera, a VERY rare occurrence for me.
Mountain gorillas live in groups of several adult females and their young who are led and protected by a single adult male silverback. Silverbacks average about 490 pounds. Unlike lowland gorillas, mountain gorillas do not survive in captivity. Habitat loss, poaching and relentless war have reduced their surviving population to approximately 790 individuals.
Gorillas have incredibly expressive eyes. Joy, surprise, humor, curiosity, weariness, sorrow, and the whole range of emotion are on display in these big intelligent brown eyes. One by one more females come into view and begin grazing on bamboo and wild celery as babies play in their midst.
The gorillas often move so close that I might reach out to touch them. The entire group appears to care for the young gorillas together. They bounce from adult to adult playing wrestling and chasing each other up trees. The adults administer tickles, hugs, smiles, and occasionally discipline.
As a photographer, I am so fortunate that the mist and low overcast is blocking the harsh light of the midday sun. The light is soft and even.
Suddenly the brush ahead opens wide and the silverback appears. This gorilla is awe-inspiringly enormous. He is easily twice the size of the females and incredibly muscular. My spine tingles and I feel the hair rise on my arms. He stops and stares at me for a moment and I see a spark of curiosity. Thankfully he seems to feel no threat. If this gorilla wanted to, he could easily rip a person to pieces. It seems incongruous that these massive, powerful creatures have such a gentle nature. The silverback looks nearly as powerful as the brown bears I’ve encountered in the Arctic. However, unlike the solitary hunter-bear, this is a vegetarian family-ape. He sits down in the midst of his group and begins grazing on the lush vegetation.
Mothers move about with small babies riding on their backs. Older gorillas pick up scampering little ones and hug them close making happy faces at them, just as I do when holding a human infant. Two young gorillas chase one another around the silverback as he watches approvingly. Alternating photographing and just watching these amazing creatures, I can’t help but worry about their future.
Park National des Volcans is bordered by one of the poorest, most densely populated areas on earth. Despite the steep mountainous terrain, nearly every square foot of land is terraced and cultivated. Tensions run high between people who need wood for fuel and those protecting the gorillas habitat. War, poaching and disease are a constant concern. Thankfully many dedicated people devote their lives to the protection of these remaining mountain gorillas and their habitat. Standing here amidst this family of gorillas, I fully understand that dedication.
All too soon it is time to leave the gorillas to their mountaintop and descend the long trail. Memories of the baby gorilla’s antics and all of the group’s expressive faces play across my mind as the miles of trail disappear behind my boots.