“When you realize the value of all life, you dwell on what is past and concentrate more on the preservation of the future.”
—Dian Fossey, champion of the mountain gorillas
Only 700 mountain gorillas remain on earth.
They were unknown to scientists until the 20th century.
To say they are dramatically endangered is an enormous understatement.
These lumbering giants are gentle by nature and very social. They can be affectionate, laugh, and even throw things when angry. Just like us. And, less like us, they beat their chests.
Most of the remaining mountain gorillas live in the volcanic mountains that straddle Rwanda, Uganda, and the Democratic Republic of Congo.
Most gorillas live in very remote areas and cannot be reached by humans. The number that can be reached by humans is extremely limited.
For a number of reasons, we feel the best opportunities are in Rwanda, where there are about 10 troops that can be reached on foot by humans and are habituated enough to stick around when they see us.
You have to work to see them. You trek through impressive mountainous rainforests, dense with bamboo, tangled vines, and other vegetation, as well as birds and other primates. Your guide will help clear your path with a machete. The gorillas tend to move every day, normally within an area of about 16 square miles.
You will know you are close when you see damaged bamboo trees. The young tender shoots are a culinary favorite of the gorillas and they also like the sap in the older stems. When you get really close, you will know from the smell and the sound of these none-too-delicate animals as they move through the forests, playing and feeding.
When you come face-to-face with a troop (anywhere between 5 and 20 gorillas), the first one you notice might be the silverback – the dominant male in the troop. Up to 350 pounds in size, he is the guardian and decision-maker. He is named for the silver streak of hair on his back.
Whether it’s newborns (at four pounds), silly children playfully pounding their chests, mothers nursing, or teenagers swinging from tree to tree, these enormous animals – the mountain variety is larger than the lowlanders – are at once awe-inspiring and strangely familiar.
They move like we do, they interact socially like we do, and their expressions are like ours. We share about 98% of our DNA with them.
The gorillas carry an innate dignity that becomes apparent as you spend time with them.
The opportunity to be with these giant primates at such a close distance, in their virgin, natural habitat, unfettered and unblemished by humankind, is an enormous privilege. Few of us, their (arguably) more evolved cousins, will ever have the opportunity to do so.