After suiting up in waterproof jackets and knee-high rubber gaiters, we drove from the visitor’s center at Rwanda’s Volcanoes National Park to the base of a fog-covered mountain. Earlier that morning, we’d received reports that a group of gorillas had descended from the mountains, close enough for us to visit without trekking too far into the jungle.
These mountain gorillas are the world’s most endangered apes. They live only in small portions of Rwanda, Uganda, and Democratic Republic of Congo, virtually unknown until the turn of the 20th century when several were encountered by German explorers who promptly killed them. When American zoologist Dian Fossey, perhaps the most vocal and visible modern champion of these magnificent beasts, was herself killed in 1985 (likely by poachers), there were only 300 mountain gorillas remaining in the world. Their survival was further threatened by the chaos that descended upon Rwanda in 1994 when the Hutu majority committed genocide against 1 million Tutsis. The future was not bright for the mountain gorillas of Rwanda, nor for Rwanda itself.
After the cessation of internecine hostilities, and the recognition that gorillas in this part of Africa could be a tremendous environmental and economic resource, gorillas were placed under state protection. Despite the trespasses of poachers, gorillas now seem extraordinarily comfortable with human beings.
At the base of the mountains in Volcanoes National Park, we met Edward, our guide. Edward introduced us to our porters, former poachers doing a kind of penance and making a living by guiding visitors to gorillas that not long ago would have been hunted and captured to be sold as pets.
Entering Gorilla World
The gorillas climb down from the mountains during the morning hours to eat, relax, and spend time together. On the day of our visit, park intel reported that one clan, the Kwitonda, was currently resting within a 45-minute walk from the entrance.
To maximize the sustainability of the gorilla population, and minimize human interference with the gorilla’s everyday lives, only small groups of visitors are allowed to visit individual groups of gorillas. Once the gorillas are encountered, we will have one hour, maximum, with them, before we must exit the park and let the gorillas go on with their lives.
The entrance to the gorilla sanctuary was a locked gate leading across a bridge that traversed a stone wall and a deep trench designed to keep the approximately 600 gorillas inside their 160-square-kilometer sanctuary — and to keep humans outside, for their own safety and the safety of the gorillas.
The mountain gorillas of Rwanda are not usually aggressive, though they can be stirred to anger if humans appear to intend them harm. If a gorilla starts to become angry with you, it’s best to make yourself very small, bend at the knees and waist, avert the eyes, and slowly walk backwards with head bowed, much as you would withdraw from a meeting with royalty. The last thing you would want to do is either meet aggression with aggression or turn tail and run. If you look like you want a fight, the gorilla may oblige you. If the gorilla sees you running, he will make the same presumption of guilt.
Some soldiers we encountered in the bush carried firearms. This is understandable; to have a human visitor torn apart on a gorilla trek would be very bad for tourism and perhaps even for the future of gorillas in Rwanda.
Visiting these gorillas is not cheap: the price recently doubled from $750 to $1,500. Rwandans understand that the gorillas are a national treasure, and that it’s to the benefit of all to keep them healthy and living. Ten percent of park revenues go back to the communities around the park, which helps increase access to drinking water, health care, education, and housing.
We Come Upon the Kwitonda Gorilla Group
When tracking gorillas, we walk as the gorillas do: right through the jungle, ripping up, slicing through, or trampling vegetation to make our way. Our porters are leading the group, hacking through brush with machetes.
After about 30-40 minutes, we come upon a clearing. There, in the sunlight, is the Kwitonda gorilla group, lolling in the sun as though resting after a mid-morning meal. There are approximately 18 members in this group, including two silverbacks, the large, male leaders with the glistening white-gray backsides. Kwitonda means “humble one” in Kinyarwanda, the indigenous language of Rwanda. The group was named for a dominant silverback.
Babies snuggle up in their mother’s fur, eyeing us humans with a curiosity not shared by the older gorillas. Adolescents play in the trees, and two big males rest, side by side, one affectionately nibbling the toes of the other.
The scene is very peaceful, reminding me a little of Manet’s “Le Dejeuner sur l’Herbe,” just a group of friends hanging out in nature, enjoying a snack.
Every now and again, a big gorilla will sit up, look around, and search for thistles, a favorite food. To eat the thistle, gorillas strip off the outer skin and spiny leaves and eat the inner stalk, a good source of moisture. Watching the snacking gorilla, I grabbed a thistle and stripped it; the tender inner stalk had the moist, crisp texture of young celery. Not bad.
Suddenly, we are in the center of much gorilla activity. There are dark shapes in the bushes next to us, younger apes cavorting in the trees above us, but none of the porters seem unduly concerned about this, so we relax into the scene. We can hardly believe we’re permitted to get so close to them; they seem oblivious to us as they go about their gorilla lives, so all is cool.
Touched by a Gorilla
As I watch a big-as-a-Volvo silverback eating a thistle, I hear a gentle rustle as a smaller gorilla rushes behind me. He bangs into my thigh on his way to wherever he’s going. This is as close as I’ve ever been to a jungle creature. I whisper, to myself, “Yikes!”
But there’s nothing to worry about; these mountain gorillas are very gentle, and if it’s clear your intentions are friendly, they will reciprocate with indifference, which was just fine.
After spending an hour or so among these massive and magnificent creatures, we hack our way out of the clearing and start back to the exit point. As we stand for a moment to rest, several men in our group come out of the jungle, weeping openly, so powerful was the scene we had just witnessed. Even Edward, our guide, wipes away tears while assuring us that he isn’t crying. It’s a moving experience, being so close to these incredible creatures, so much like us, our ancient relations.
The annual Kwita Izina is the official “naming ceremony” for baby gorillas. Organized by the Rwanda Development Board, this event has much traditional dancing and local food, including excellent Rwandan coffee and chocolate.
In the shadow of volcanoes, the Kwita Izina brings together local dignitaries and international celebrities to confer names upon babies who were recently born to gorilla families. At this year’s ceremony, for instance, Cameroonian football legend Laureano Bisan Etamé-Mayer, formerly of London’s Arsenal, named one baby gorilla “Ikipe,” which means “team” in Kinyarwanda.
Conferring names upon the baby gorillas is a good way to help conservationists track them. Perhaps just as importantly, it personalizes the gorillas in an anthropocentric way that helps make humans feel closer to their hominid brethren, and thus more likely to respect and preserve them. There is, of course, no better way to feel close to gorillas than by visiting them in their homes … and sharing with them a midday snack of thistles.
How You Can Support Gorilla Conservation
The Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund is the largest organization committed exclusively to gorilla conservation. Thanks in part to a lead gift by Ellen DeGeneres and Portia de Rossi, work has recently begun on a new space, the Ellen DeGeneres campus, which will further support the organization’s gorilla protection and research, education, and community outreach programs. Support their efforts by donating, adopting, or even traveling to Rwanda to experience a gorilla trek firsthand.
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David Hammond is Dining and Drinking Editor at Newcity and contributes to the Chicago Tribune and other publications. In 2004, he co-founded LTHForum.com, the 15,000 member food chat site; for several years he wrote weekly “Food Detective” columns in the Chicago Sun-Times; he writes weekly food columns for Wednesday Journal. He has written extensively about the culinary traditions of Mexico and Southeast Asia and contributed several chapters to “Street Food Around the World.”
David is a supporter of S.A.C.R.E.D., Saving Agave for Culture, Recreation, Education and Development, an organization founded by Chicagoan Lou Bank and dedicated to increasing awareness of agave distillates and ensuring that the benefits of that awareness flow to the villages of Oaxaca, Mexico. Currently, S.A.C.R.E.D is funding the development of agave farms, a library and water preservation systems for the community of Santa Catarina Minas, Oaxaca.