For those that have not already had the incredibly unique experience of trekking to see gorillas in the wild, it’s pretty special, and well worth the effort. Each place is a bit different. Here at Kahuzi-Biega National Park, we’d arrive around 8 in the the morning at the Park headquarters to sign in, get porters and find out where the gorillas were. Then we’d all load into the cars and drive to the closest hike-in location. Here the road is really good and it was a short drive to where we’d start the walk, and we were lucky that the gorillas were relatively close so usually only about 30 minutes to an hour hike to find them. The forest here is definitely dense and there’s lots of vines and spiky plants, nettles and other unpleasant vegetation that try to get you through your clothes, and of course, the occasional run-in with the dreaded army ants!
But then when we’d get close to the group, the rangers would alert us that they were nearby, we’d don our face masks (to limit disease transmission to the gorillas) and we’d start setting up our equipment to film them. Then they’d clear some vegetation with machetes to reveal 1, 2, or many animals, just sitting there feeding, or relaxing! I had been to see the mountain gorillas in Uganda in 2003, but my first encounter with eastern lowlands (Grauer’s) was just as amazing as that first time so long ago in Uganda. It still blows my mind that when you step into their domain, they give you an interested glance, and then go back about their business. It feels a bit like walking into a cafeteria and there’s only strangers there eating, some look up and notice you, others don’t, but they all go back to their food and their conversations, as if you don’t exist. Except these are some sort of Buddha-like forest people, eating their lunch on the ground, or in the trees, smacking their lips, belching reassurance grunts to one another, farting, and ripping apart salad and eating it with fingers!
Sometimes, the animals were quite interested, particularly the juveniles. So they’d stare at what we were doing, only half-heartedly eating their food items, or wrestling with their friends, but mainly staring at us. On a few occasions, an individual would even approach us, breaching the 7 meter safety rule (also to protect them from diseases). In these moments I was absolutely torn by how cool it was that they were coming close, but also fearful that it was unsafe for them to be getting that close. I wasn’t afraid for my safety, more just wondering if we should be moving away so as not to encourage that behavior. I don’t know about you, but whenever I am a tourist, I always somehow see myself as different, or BETTER than all the OTHER tourists. I have this attitude of “well I’m glad I got to have that close encounter, but it’d be a problem if that was happening with ‘regular’ tourists because what if they didn’t know the appropriate behavior?” This of course, is a totally hypocritical view to have, because we are ALL visitors, and rules are in place for the safety of the gorillas, and we ALL need to remember that it’s for their safety. Our own selfish desires to ‘make contact’ or to get that stunning photo really need to come second to their health. And it truly can affect their survival. There have been cases of gorillas that have died from respiratory disease, measles, and other contagions because of unsafe proximity to humans.
It’s also important that the rangers be consistent and don’t relax the rules just because they might get rewarded by a tip from a tourist, because then that would undermine the whole system.
So basically, the rule of thumb is that you keep the safe distance, but if one approaches, you try to back up, if you can. Also, if they try to touch or taste your camera boxes, you need to move them out of reach of the animal as well! Also, because visitor group size is limited, our porters or anyone not needed for filming must stay back, out of viewing range of the gorillas.
On this one particular day, the majority of the family were in a ‘gorilla pile’ as I like to call their power-lounging sessions. They were under a thicket of vines, but we had a beautiful intimate view of the group in there. The silverback was grooming his son, a couple of his females were snoozing, and the littlest babies were wrestling, climbing the vines above, twirling around on their brachiating wrists and then dropping boisterously down onto their dad! I wasn’t sure if they were trying to annoy dad or whether they were just having a good time, either way he was tolerant and gentle. I was really enjoying the scene, but then out from the side popped this very interested older juvenile or mature female, (it’s hard to tell the difference) who clearly took a very pointed interest in something behind me! I turned around to see what was peaking her curiosity and Stu had just arrived down the trail with some piece of camera kit, but was standing stock-still when he saw her. She was staring right at him and started walking toward us to get a closer look at him… and didn’t’ stop until she was about 5 meters away!
We couldn’t have backed away if we wanted to because both cameras were set up behind me, with dense vines behind us. Ian was filming just behind me, I was taking photos, and this gorilla was enthralled with the ‘new big white guy’. She stopped for a second, but then approached even closer, on all fours, just staring at Stuart behind me, and at one point I said while continuing to film, “Ian, you’ll tell me if I should be scared, right?” But then she stopped her advance, sat on a log, stretched a leg out and braced it against a tree, and gave us a side-pose. It was magic!
The crew and the porters (that I affectionately call the turtle brigade) beginning the hike in to find the gorillas (Photo by Mike Dillon)
Gorillas chilling in a thicket
A juvenile plays around while the others nap
Eastern lowland (Grauer’s) gorilla, striking a pose for us (Photo by Ben Cunningham)
Look at the tourists getting photos of a gorilla! (Photo by Mike Dillon)