Finding Gorillas in Africa where they still fight for survival

Writer with young gorilla
Writer with young gorilla

VIRUNGA MOUNTAIN RANGE, Africa, August 22, 2014 – The colorful explosion of toys in a child’s room is an artful camouflage for the world’s smallest silverback, small six-inch statuettes my father kept a supply of should one vanish.

As a child, I loved gorillas and had a favorite gorilla toy. With a “Go find your gorilla,” my parents could send me off on a search when they wanted a reprieve from my childhood babble.

Sadly the inexhaustible supply of those childhood gorilla toys is not the case for the African gorilla. In 1980, as I sought a favored toy, poachers were combing the Virunga Mountain Range in search of the animals. According to a 1978 census, these breathtaking creatures in the wild had dwindled to a mere 260. According to a recent National Geographic article, of the 700 remaining animals, nearly half now live in Virunga.

Without a massive push for awareness and action, they would vanish from the planet forever.

Gorilla Patriarch | Matt Payne
Gorilla Patriarch | Matt Payne

Luckily the tide of 1978 has been pushed back and now a small group of stalwart adventurers are walking past young Rwandans harvesting sweet potatoes, trekking into Volcanoes National Park in search of a family of African gorillas.

It is raining again, a sudden deluge not unlike the one that stopped as abruptly as it began when our guide Feliciens explained about the Sabyinyo family we would be visiting.

This gorilla family, led by a massive male named Guhonda, includes 14 mountain gorillas. They are just one of 18 families of mountain gorillas, first immortalized by Diane Fossey some 45 years ago, that call the dense rainforest of the East African Virunga mountain range their home.

Against the backdrop of mist and eucalyptus trees, as locals perform a tribal musical evocation, we begin. Weaving along a path cut through narrow stonewalls designed to keep Volcanoes’ buffalos in the park and out of the local potato farms our journey toward the low-hanging, fast-moving clouds of the mountain rain forest begins.

As soon as we picked up the trail, my foot sinks immediately into six inches of black sludge. The thick mud sucks at my boots again and again.

A tracker with machete leads our pack, chopping hanging vines and brush creating a crude path through the bamboo and stinging nettles. The dense forest canopy is no match for the raindrops beating a deafening rhythm on the hood of my rain suit. Soon the trail more accurately resembles a small river.
As we’d been promised, getting to the gorillas is not easy, but well worth it.

Since that 1976 census, the gorillas have not, as feared vanished. For more than 40 years, massive conservation efforts by various national and international entities have protected the animal and the habitat.

Activists have tracked gorillas’ behavior in the park, working with local Rwandans to demonstrate that the park is more valuable in its natural state, generating tourist dollars, than it would be if the forest was cut down and used for farmland and firewood.

Lodges in the surrounding area, like the incomparably beautiful Virungas Mountain Lodge, often employ as many as forty people or more.
Locals also carve and sell souvenirs, perform dances, provide entertainment, and work as porters and trackers in the park.

Permits to go tracking, which are usually purchased months in advance, are $750. Groups are limited to six people and each group visits one of ten habituated families of mountain gorillas.

The hikes are challenging and are anywhere from 45 minutes to several hours. Once with the gorillas, visitors spend one hour before returning.
Weather, as I quickly learned, can be challenging, especially during the rainy season. And rain or shine, gorilla sighting or not (although almost everyone sees the gorillas), there are no refunds.

Feliciens, our guide, brings us to a halt. After a little more than an hour we have come to the gorillas.

“The silverback of Volcanoes National Park’s Sabyinyo gorilla family,” Feliciens introduces us “will either grunt giving us permission to “join” them, or respond with an aggressive “ah-ah-ah-ah,” suggesting that we stay back, they are busy.”

At a whisper barely audible over the pounding rain, Feliciens continued, that on sunny days, the young gorillas are playful, often intoxicated by fermented celery root. They are curious and often try to play with humans.

The experience is typically an intimate one. We are to give the gorillas only a few yards of personal space, and while we must honor their space, they do not have to honor ours.

We are also instructed to remove our backpacks as the gorillas might try to steal them, set down our walking sticks because they are threatening, and turn off the flashes on our cameras as they are startling.

My heart pounds with excitement, which is diminished only slightly as Feliciens explains that gorillas hate rain. And it is still raining.
We will be close, he says, but observing the Sabyinyo family of great apes will be challenging.

What did this mean? Going home without seeing a gorilla would be heartbreaking. In hours I would be back on a plane, U.S. bound. There would be no coming back later today or tomorrow.

Whatever he meant when he said, “challenging to observe,” I hoped we would be up for it.

We push through thick bamboo and come to a clearing in the forest. The tracker turns and holds his finger to his mouth.

Even before he can speak, I am thrilled to see the face of a massive silverback no more than ten feet from me on the other side of some brush. His deep black eyes catch mine.

The guide grunts twice and we wait. The moment hangs and finally the silverback, as we’d hoped, parrots back the grunt. With his permission, like the small plastic gorilla that entered my world more than 33 years ago, I enter his.

Nonchalant, he chews the leaves off of some foliage. The guide tells us to go closer. We can hear giant silverback breathing. Behind him, branches crash as other members of the Sabyinyo family forage for food. Occasionally the patriarch snorts.

Again Feliciens urges us to move forward. Next we come across a mother lost in thought while her baby, the newest of the group, nurses. The rain drenches us one last time and then stops.

Gorilla mother and child | Matt Payne
Gorilla mother and child | Matt Payne

As it does, so does time.

Ultimately, we spend an hour in that little clearing watching the beasts shake off the rain, roll around, groom, yawn, burp, and stretch. It is peaceful.

It is terrifying.

Occasionally Guhonda grunts. “He wants us to know that it is okay that we are here,” Feliciens explains. It feels like family.

At one point, one of the males approaches me. He comes close. I fumble with my camera, as he gets nearer. With my hands shaking and lens fogging up, I can’t get a picture. With the gorilla just inches away, I let the camera hang impotently from my neck.

This moment needed no photo to be immortalized. I was a kid in a toy box who finally found his gorilla.

It was a moment of total childlike surrender, something that, I realized, I could afford to do more often.


Reprinted from May 2013

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