The dense undergrowth of the Democratic Republic of Congo’s Parc National des Virunga combined with snake-like rising vines, protruding tree roots the size of city sewer pipes and drooping, dew-covered foliage to form a jade green curtain which seemed to cloak us in damp, silent darkness.
Only with the aid of an eager machete-wielding guide were we able to hack our way through the natural barrier, and we had done so at double time. We followed our machine-gun toting guides through the jungle at almost sprint speed in pursuit of one of the world’s most endangered and treasured animals, and only after 45 minutes did they stop. And then, it wasn’t exhaustion but a single sentence which left me breathless.
The lead guide halted suddenly, turned and gestured for our group of eight to stop as well. Then he whispered: Be very quiet, and don’t be afraid.”
After recognising that we were somehow scared, excited and impatient all at the same time, the elderly guide gave a calming smile before starting off slowly and cautiously and motioning for us to follow. We rounded a small tree and immediately in front of us, merely metres away, was what we had driven 14-hour days on end to see – a mountain gorilla, a silverback, no less.”
Environmentalists and animal experts estimate that there are no more than 650 mountain gorillas remaining in the world today. At the current rate of loss, they predict that the precious species are likely to be extinct in our lifetime. It is a shattering reality.
The remaining families reside in the mountainous area bound by a triangle of national parks across the east and central African countries of Uganda, Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of Congo (formerly Zaire). The Bwindi National Park in Uganda is home to almost half of the remaining mountain gorillas – about 320 – while the rest are spread across Parc National des Volcans (Rwanda) and where we were currently eyeing our own magnificent specimen, the Parc National des Virunga. Permit levels introduced to protect the animals limit the number of people allowed an audience to as little as 30 per day in some places.
After first spotting the massive silverback our guide told us to stop and stand still together. Seemingly unaware of our entrance the gorilla sat childlike, yet with super strength simply snapped bamboo stalks the size of small trees single-handedly before peeling and eating them. But the silverback certainly was aware we were there.
After permitting our presence for maybe a minute he dropped his snack, stared at us, and let out a spine-chilling scream. That was enough to make all our legs go to jelly, but what followed snapped them back into action again. The silverback suddenly jumped to all fours and bounded towards the group.
The silverback’s charge occured almost exactly as the guides said it would. They had also told us not to run, but that advice was ignored by all. Yet a metre from our guide the male gorilla turned and continued on. It’s a show of dominance and not a serious threat to our safety, our guide explained, in an unsuccessful attempt to stem the fear only a challenge from an angry primate can engender.
After successfully showing us who was the boss the silverback continued into the jungle, and after steeling our nerve we followed. When we finally found him again it was in another clearing – this one created by the family of seven, including two babies, who now surrounded him.
In the familiar presence of his family the silverback mellowed, while the others played around him, and sometimes on him.
The mothers nursed their young exactly as human parents do, the dad doted, and even farted, scratched his bum and then went to sleep on his hands, prompting one of the ladies in our group to exclaim: Wow, they really are like human males.”
We stayed for exactly an hour, the maximum limit allowed, and after struggling later to describe the experience we all rated as the highlight of our lives, our group settled on one word – awe. It was unlike being in a zoo, where bars seem a small barrier but are a barrier no less, or even on safari, where you can be but metres from a wild lion yet guarded by the glass of a truck.
We were in the gorillas’ environment, and at their mercy. With a flick of their almighty arms they could have had us dead. But in their dark brown eyes, we all admitted after, we saw ourselves. We saw something so close to our own that they were almost indistinguishable. We saw kindness, caring and love for family. And it only served to make the continued slaughter of the magnificent mountain gorillas all the more incomprehensible.”