Tuesday, Oct. 11, 2011

Trek of a Lifetime: Encountering Rwanda's Gorillas Up Close

People who talk about the 800lb gorilla in the room wouldn't if they'd ever met one. There's something about climbing through jungle up the side of a volcano — the mist, the mud, the muttonhead in front who keeps whipping jungle cane into your face — that makes it hard to imagine a gorilla indoors. Because though the Virunga volcanos straddle the border of three countries — Rwanda, Uganda and the Democratic Republic of Congo — wherever you make the trip to see the world's last mountain gorillas, it requires a hell hike: a 45-degree slope, torrential rain, thick forest, no path. Gracious tented safari on the African savanna this is not.

But there will come a time on your trek, most likely long after your imagined breaking point, when your guide stops and crouches — and your life will never be the same. Twenty years ago, when I was a 20-year-old backpacker in Congo, our tracker positioned us just below a family group of gorillas on a steep hill. Within seconds, the animals were on us. With a loud crash, a silverback male walked into our small clearing, stood on his stubby legs and furiously drummed his giant chest. The guide pretended to eat grass, I copied and, the matter of who was Lord of the Jungle settled to our Kong's satisfaction, he pirouetted on his hand-feet, crashed into a bush and fell asleep, leaving us to spend an hour watching his children jumping on his chest and falling out of trees.

When I returned to the Virungas four years ago, it was to Rwanda. This time the hike was so extreme that a day later my entire body went into a spasm from which only an injection of morphine back in the capital Kigali could rescue it. But once again, the toughness of the trek was forgotten the moment we found the gorillas. After watching a mother and her child for a few minutes, a noise behind us told us we had inadvertently sat down between the group and a lone adult male. Once he emerged from the bush, we could see the gorilla (large, but not the alpha this time) had lost a hand to a poacher's snare. That might have engendered a deep hatred of people. Instead, we just annoyed him. Twice he tried to shove past us before giving up, sitting back on his giant haunches and sighing impatiently.

It is the gorillas' begrudging tolerance of your presence that it is so extraordinary. It opens up the deepest of connections, a link that reaches across millions of years of evolution but still feels something like family. Looking unblinking back into your eyes, apparently with the same half-recognition and understanding, is our cousin species, with whom we share a common ancestor and 98% of our DNA.

And for all our sophistication — language, clothes, flashy cameras —there's no mistaking who's more impressed. Not that it's difficult to become depressed about mankind in these parts. Rwanda was where 800,000 people were slaughtered in a 1994 genocide when majority Hutus turned on minority Tutsis and their suspected Hutu supporters. That holocaust sowed the seeds of a war in neighboring Congo which eventually sucked in nine African countries and plunged a vast and barely functioning nation into a bloody chaos from which it has yet to recover.

It was during the Congo wars that marauding militias would kill gorillas to eat as meat, or to sell their hands and feet as ornament, or steal their children to sell to illegal animal collectors. But by then, the gorillas had human friends as well as enemies, people like Dian Fossey, the American conservationist who befriended them in the 1960s and was killed for her efforts at her Virunga research station in 1985, or the gorilla trackers, who stick with one family group throughout their career. Today, there is hope the environmentalists are prevailing. Under constant watch, the Rwandan gorilla population is growing. Over the border in Congo, the Tayna lowland gorilla reserve is host to a university dedicated to conservation. Still, with numbers of mountain and lowland gorillas in the low hundreds, extinction remains a real threat. That, as greens and gorilla groupies tend to put it, is the elephant in the room.