We are up since early morning and our guide Patience tells us there are less than 1000 mountain gorillas left in the whole world. We are sitting in a circle with 6 other tourists in Masunze’s Gorilla Trekking Center. Masunze seems to thrive of gorilla tourism. This is the Rwandan city where the famous Dian Fossey established her life project: research on mountain gorillas and a passionate effort to save them from extinction.
The mountain gorilla is a critically endangered species and currently populations live in three countries: Rwanda, Democractic Republic of Congo and Uganda.
Gorillas live in families. Each family has a male leader which is called a silverback. They are called silverbacks because when they reach an age of 12 the hair on their backs turns grey. The silverback weighs around 200 kg and is stronger than a group of 10 bodybuilders. You do not ever want to attempt to hug a silverback!
The gorillas are vegetarians and eat grass and leaves all day long. Then they take naps. They are very kind animals if you are not hostile towards them. If a member of the gorilla family dies, the whole family stays close to the body and grieves for three days and then moves on.
Hiking to see the gorillas is not a walk in the park. You have to be prepared to steep hills and dense jungle in an altitude of almost two kilometers.
In this setting, we approach the gorillas silently. Experienced trackers have been tracking the gorillas since early morning. The trackers communicate with our guide through a radio phone and we are easily led to a group inside the jungle.
Once we are with the gorillas, we have to keep a distance of seven metres. It is difficult to describe the feeling you have when seeing these fantastic animals in their natural habitat. The word that describes my feelings best if humbling. I might have cried a bit.
For safety purposes, our guide makes a constant low grunting sound, like a dog. This is gorilla language and it means: It is okay. We are not here to harm you. We also have to check our surroundings because in addition to gorillas, there are mountain elephants and wild buffaloes in the highland jungle.
We are told that it is forbidden to spit or sneeze in the forest. You know why? Because gorillas can easily be infected by human diseases and that can be very dangerous for them. If you have the flu, you are not allowed to enter the park.
Also, you have to whisper when you are close to the gorillas and you should never point at the gorillas. Pointing is a gesture which means for them that you might be throwing a stone at them or willing to harm them in some other way. You are never allowed to touch the gorillas but sometimes the gorillas, especially the young ones, might touch you and want to play with you. (Look at this video filmed by a tourist – you can see how close the silverbacks can come. You can also hear the grunting sound by the guide).
The mountain gorilla has no natural enemies or predators except for the crazy human being. There are poachers who hunt and kill the mountain gorilla. Luckily, the number of poachers has gone down in recent years. This is because of clever conservation efforts. The money we paid to see the gorillas is partly used for supporting the local Rwandan people who live next to the gorilla jungle. When they have another livelihood, such as tourism, they do not hunt the gorillas as easily for making a living (gorilla heads are sold as ornaments and gorilla hands are sold as ashtrays, for example). However, problems still remain. Ms. Fossey herself was strongly against gorilla tourism.
As you know, gorillas share 96 % of the same DNA with humans. Like our guide says: “These guys are like us. They just live in the forest.”