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Visiting the Mountain Gorillas in Tanzania

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ONLY about 320 of them live in the volcano area on the border of Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of Congo. Another 300 dwell in the impenetrable forest in Uganda. They are the mountain gorillas—among the most critically endangered mammals in the world!

American zoologist Dian Fossey did much to arouse public concern over the fate of these creatures. Fossey came to Africa in the late 1960’s to study mountain gorillas. At that time they were rapidly disappearing as a result of poaching. The plucky scientist took up a hermitlike existence in the Virunga Mountains, quickly befriending the gorillas who lived there. Fossey published her findings in magazine articles and in the book Gorillas in the Mist. As time passed, she became increasingly determined to protect her furry friends, waging a virtual war against poachers. However, she became a casualty of her own crusade and was murdered by an unknown assailant in 1985.

Spurred on by the hope of seeing these peaceable creatures ourselves, in 1993 my wife and I decided to venture into the gorilla habitat. Allow us, please, to relive our adventure.

It begins as our guides take us on a one-hour climb from the foot of the 12,000-foot- [3,700 m]high Visoke volcano to the edge of Volcanoes National Park, in Rwanda. While we take a welcome break, our guides explain how we are to conduct ourselves around the gorillas. We are told that only eight visitors per day are allowed to visit this particular group of animals. This minimizes the risk of their exposure to diseases and also prevents behavioral disturbances.

“Once we enter the forest,” one guide reminds us, “we must keep our voices low. This will help us to observe the other animals and birds in the forest, for in addition to the mountain gorillas, there are golden monkeys, duikers, bushbuck, elephants, and even buffalo.”

We are also made aware that there are stinging nettles and ants in the park and that we may have to walk in the misty and muddy bush. My wife and I look at each other. We are not equipped for that! But the friendly guides help out by lending us rain gear and boots.

Our guide then explains that the gorillas are extremely susceptible to human diseases and that in order to protect them, anyone who is ill or knows that he may be carrying an infectious disease must stay behind. “If you feel the urge to cough or sneeze while with the gorillas, please turn away from the animals and try to cover your nose and mouth,” says one of the guides. “Remember! We are guests in their mist-filled home.”

Close Enough to Touch Them!

The climb becomes steeper and steeper. We reach an altitude of 10,000 feet [3,000 m]. The air is thin, which makes it rather difficult to breathe, and the paths are narrow. But we can enjoy the beauty of the hagenia tree, with its horizontally spread branches, laden with a thick growth of mosses, ferns, and orchids. It gives the forest a paradiselike beauty.

The guides now begin searching for the spot where the gorillas were seen the day before, although the gorillas are constantly on the move looking for fresh food. “Look over there!” someone exclaims. Matted down in the soft vegetation is the bed, or nest, of the silverback gorilla.

“He is called Umugome,” explains the guide. “When a male gorilla is about 14 years old, the back turns white like silver. He is then considered the leader of the group. It is only the silverback that mates with all the female gorillas. Younger ones who try are immediately dismissed! However, if a rival manages to kill the silverback, he also kills all the offspring. Then, the new leader takes over and produces offspring with the females in the group.”

“How long can a gorilla live?” asks someone in our group as we follow the guides into a beautiful bamboo forest.

“Up to about 40 years” is the quiet reply.

“Sh! Sh!” someone whispers, at the sound of a deep grunt. “What was that? A gorilla?” No, but one of the guides is grunting like a gorilla, trying to arouse a response. We must be very close!

Indeed, only 15 feet [5 m] away from us, there are about 30 of them! We are told to squat and to be quiet. “Don’t point at them,” implores a guide, “as they might think that you are throwing something at them. Please don’t cry out. When taking pictures, move slowly and carefully, and don’t use a flash.”

We are close enough to touch them! But before anyone can act on that urge, a guide whispers: “Don’t touch them!” No sooner is that said than a couple of small gorillas approach to check us out. The guide smacks them gently with a small branch, and the curious youngsters roll down the slope, wrestling like small children. “Mom” intervenes when the play gets too rough.

The silverback is watching us from a distance. Suddenly, he moves toward us and sits down, just a few yards from where we sit. He is huge and must weigh about 450 pounds [200 kg]! He is too busy eating to pay us much attention, although he keeps an eye on us. Actually, eating is a gorilla’s main activity! A silverback may eat up to 65 pounds [30 kg] of food a day. And every animal in the group is busy looking for food from morning till evening. Sometimes one can see them fighting over “goodies” they have found.

Their favorite food is the marrow of the giant senecio plant. They also enjoy wild celery, the roots of certain plants, and bamboo shoots. Sometimes they even make a “salad,” mixing bamboo shoots with green leaves of thistles, nettles, galium, and various roots and vines. “Why aren’t the gorillas stung by the nettles they grab and clean?” someone asks. A guide explains: “They have a thick layer of skin on the insides of their palms.”

We are enjoying this peaceful scene when, suddenly, the huge male stands up on his feet, beats his chest with his fists, and gives out a horrendous, nerve-racking scream! He charges one of the guides, braking to a halt just before reaching him. He gives the guide a fierce stare! But our guide does not panic. Rather, he squats, grunts, and moves backward slowly. It seems that the silverback just wanted to impress us with his strength and power. Believe me, he succeeded!

The guides now signal us to get ready to leave. We have spent a little over an hour with these wonderful, peaceable creatures, as guests “in the mist.” Though brief, our visit has been one of our most unforgettable experiences. We cannot help but think of the Bible’s promise of the coming new world, in which man and beast will permanently be at peace with one another!—Isaiah 11:6-9.

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