I hiked with gorillas in Rwanda and one of them touched me! Even still to this day that statement does not sound real, but it is one hundred percent true. Rwanda is quickly becoming an urban capital in the middle of the African continent. The capital city of Kigali is rapidly urbanizing and moving rapidly into the 21st century in terms of technology, economy, and tourism. Rwanda is also one of the three countries able to boast a plethora of wildlife and endangered species, one of which is the silverback mountain gorillas in the Virunga National Park.
The national park is situated over the borders of Rwanda, Uganda, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. The park is home to one third of what is left of the world’s 1,000 endangered mountain gorillas, predominantly on the flanks of the Mikeno Volcano at the southern end of the park. The park makes money by promoting conservation and offering tourist expeditions to experience these charismatic animals in their natural habitat, although tensions and poachers in recent years have made operations periodically difficult.
Mountain Gorilla Facts
- There are only 1,063 individuals left in the wild.
- They can live up to 40 years old in the wild.
- Males can weight up to 400 lbs. and stand over 5’5″ (170 cm).
- Gorillas diets include leaves, shoots, snails, ants, and bark.
- Humans share 98% of our DNA with gorillas, making them susceptible to human illnesses like the common cold.
- Families will sleep together in nests they build from leaves and foliage on the ground.
- Most family groups have about 10 individuals, with one dominant male.
- Mountain gorillas are endangered due to habitat degradation and competition with agricultural development.
I was given the opportunity to travel to Rwanda in 2012 to go on one of these expeditions, and was not sure what to expect. We arrived in Rwanda after getting our immunizations and arranged lodging on the slopes of the Virunga Volcanoes. We were introduced to our rangers and guides who track the mountain gorillas every day and would guide us through the African jungle. They drove us to the outskirts of a forest where a family of gorillas was last spotted, proceeding to walk through the bordering farmland into the dark foliage.
After entering the jungle it feels like you stepped into an entirely different world, as the sights and sounds of the villages behind you are completely blurred out by the thick vegetation. All you can hear is the people around you, and the wild noises of the jungle. We began following the guides at a brisk pace as they radioed with guides tracking the gorillas, and after about 15 minutes of hiking we also arrived.
The first site of these animals was early in the morning as they began leaving their sleeping nests made of leaves and plants. We walked right up to them, merely feet away. The feeling is odd to describe because like many people I have seen gorillas in a zoo before, but now there was no glass wall or fencing separating us. They were completely cognoscente of our presence and some even acknowledged us with facial signatures. The guides had instructed us to be quiet and move calmly to avoid inciting reactions that could turn into a dangerous situation.
Then we just followed them as they moved through the jungle, grazing on plants and playing around with each other. We ended up going on three expeditions introducing three different families that each had unique dynamics, demographics, and behaviors. Some families even had newborn babies. The baby gorillas were definitely the cutest things I have ever seen and won the hearts of every person on the expedition as it felt like watching an National Geographic documentary about a baby animals first encounter with the world. The babies would rough around with each other, sometimes even bothering a nearby adults until being told off or swatted away. They never approached us directly, but one time a passing gorilla grabbed my leg like it was a tree, walking past.
When the gorilla touched me it was so weird to describe. Its grip was incredibly strong, and although similar dexterity to a human it was vastly different. Another encounter I had with a silverback, dominant male gorilla, almost made me shit my pants.
This large male was sitting and eating grass about 3 yards away from our group until he suddenly stood up and moved directly towards us. I do not know why I am always in these situations, but the rest of the group somehow got behind me pushing me towards the massive gorilla. It stood up on all fours and was higher than my head, really putting the size of these creatures in perspective. It walked directly towards me and the guard kept ushered to keep calm and move back, even though there was nowhere for me to go. So I just stood and stared past it, making sure to avoid eye contact as it walked well within arms reach.
I came away from this experience with so much hope for humanity honestly, at how the people in this part of the world have changed their economy and habits to protect these amazing creatures. Looking into the gorilla’s eyes you can tell that we are not that much different from the primates, and I got to witness many of their intimate relationships. I was only sixteen when I visited these gorillas and I definitely attribute the feelings I developed from the experience for encouraging my future intrigue for travel and conservation.
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