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.