[monkeywire] Gorillas in Rwanda: One Amazing Hour With the Susas
josh.greenman at gmail.com
Mon Mar 6 17:06:42 EST 2006
GORILLAS IN RWANDA
In a Family Way: One Amazing Hour With the Susas
By Sarel Kromer
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, March 5, 2006; P09
We plowed through nettle fields, at one point crawling through the
Rwandan foliage on all fours. One member of our armed escort went
ahead to scout the path. Just as I was ready to collapse, a tracker
hooted in the distance and two young silverback gorillas tumbled into
The duo began playing to their audience like a couple of hams in a
vaudeville act: striking poses, gamboling with each other, posturing
for us. We were supposed to remain at least seven feet away, but no
one had told them. Their performance was a combination greeting
("Welcome!") and warning ("But we're in charge!"). They'd stop to eat
-- tearing bamboo plants up by their roots and chomping them down in
one or two gulps -- then turn a profile.
This was our first glimpse of the mountain gorilla, a member of the
great ape family and an endangered species -- about 650 to 700 remain
in the wild, half in Rwanda. They live high in the Virunga Mountains
of northwestern Rwanda, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Uganda
and migrate freely across the borders of these countries in search of
food. Alas, their population has been decimated by a combination of
deforestation, human-borne disease and poachers.
The animals are now protected, and while these problems have
decreased, signs of poaching are still evident: One of our welcoming
silverbacks had lost a hand to poachers as a baby.
This past August, my adult son and I spent time in Rwanda visiting
American friends and studying the Rwandan legal processes, but our
opportunity to visit the gorillas was what made the trip truly
special. A cousin, also working in Rwanda, joined us to attend an AIDS
conference in Ruhengeri, so we based ourselves there rather than at
one of the hotels closer to the gorillas' habitat in Volcanoes
Our group of eight trekkers, ranging in age from mid-twenties to
mid-sixties, was accompanied by soldiers carrying machine guns, who,
we were assured, were there to protect us from mountain buffalo.
Whatever the risks posed by angry bovines, there are legitimate
security concerns while visiting this region -- poachers and border
incursions from neighboring countries have been problems in the past.
However, Rwanda and its neighbors are now at relative peace, and
Rwanda in particular is rebuilding its economy and society after the
horrifying 1994 genocide.
The government understands the value of the tourist trade to the
nascent economy and was clearly taking great effort not only to
protect tourists, but also to let us know that we were being
* * *
Our day had begun at 5:15 a.m. for the 16-mile drive over the rutted
road from Ruhengeri to the park. We hired our car (a Toyota Land
Cruiser) and driver from the church group our friend works for in
Kigali, Rwanda's capital. Though we'd expected the land to be teeming
with wildlife, we saw few animals as we drove through the African
At the park office, the 40 of us with permits for that day's treks
were assigned to groups of eight, each with one guide and three armed
soldiers. The official language of Rwanda is Kinyarwanda and most
people speak French (a throwback to the country's heritage as a
Belgian colony). Our guide, Diogene, spoke excellent English, which he
had learned from talking with tourists, and was teaching himself
Before setting forth, the guides described the personalities of the
gorilla family we were to meet. Gorillas are identified by their nose
prints, each as distinctive to an individual as fingerprints are to
humans. Five gorilla families currently reside in the park; the
smallest, the Sabinyo group, has nine members and generally
congregates less than an hour from the park office. Group 13, with 10
members, is likewise easy to reach and, according to park guides, is
led by a very relaxed silverback.
We chose to visit the Susa group, the most active and farthest from
the park office. Primate researcher Dian Fossey, who studied the
family in 1967, famously sent supervisor Louis Leakey a telegram
reading, "I've finally been accepted by a gorilla," after a young ape
named Peanuts exchanged a glance with her. Today, trekkers hope to
replicate the experience as they scale the mountains in her footsteps.
The gorillas have a strict hierarchy defined by age, gender and
dominance. Each gorilla has a rank within the familial group, starting
with the dominant silverback (so named because as males age, the fur
down their spine grays to a dignified silver hue). When on the move,
they walk in order of rank. In the Susa group, the chief silverback
(one of five) goes first, followed by his second in command. No. 3
brings up the rear, with Nos. 4 and 5 in front of him and the females
and children in between.
The females have a parallel hierarchy: The oldest matriarch -- Poppy,
a 29-year-old mature female who was the only member alive when Fossey
worked with the group -- is in charge of the other females.
Most of the gorilla families were near the park office during our
visit, and groups visiting those families were able to start their
treks from the headquarters. The Susa group was many miles and an
hour's drive away, so we caravanned to a distant part of the park to
begin our trek on foot.
* * *
The weather was cool and crisp as we began our ascent. To keep his
charges together, Diogene placed the slowest person (in this case, me)
first to set the pace, and everyone else adjusted.
The gorillas live at a high altitude so they can find a plentiful
supply of their favored diet: bamboo, wild celery and mint (a lot of
it -- adults can be about the size of a small car and consume about 45
pounds of food a day). They eat for about four hours, rest for two
hours and continue onward, migrating in search of more plants. So
finding the animals can be tricky. As the gorillas moved from place to
place, trackers communicated with Diogene by radio to steer us toward
When we began the day, they were somewhere around 13,000 feet, but by
the time we found them, they had turned and come down to below 11,000
feet (thankfully). I had problems with the altitude, at times gasping
for breath. Drinking a lot of water helped, as dehydration can be a
hazard at these heights.
The sight of the young silverbacks that led us toward the family group
caused all physical difficulties to dissolve in the mountain air. Our
first view of the main group, from a distance of about four feet, was
of a mother with twins on her back. Twins are exceptionally rare in
the gorilla world.
To the babies, mom is food, transport and playground -- in this case,
mostly playground. The twins were using mom as a jungle gym,
clambering around her back with such choreography that I could not
catch both in my camera lens simultaneously.
We walked a short distance farther and found ourselves surrounded by
three dozen gorillas stretching up and down the mountain. It was
breathtaking. As far as the eye could see, there were gorillas of all
sizes and ages, resting, eating, yawning, not at all disturbed to find
us in their midst. Never did I expect that we would be welcomed with
such grace and charm, ushered into their temporary home and their
lives and allowed to visit among them.
The spoken and unspoken communication between man and gorilla was
amazing. On an earlier trip, friends of ours had visited the Sabinyo
group. When a baby came too close to humans for the silverback's
comfort, he uprooted a stick of bamboo, approached the visitors and
drew a line in the dirt, then marched back.
The Susa group's leader was considerably more relaxed. He yawned
mightily and chomped on bamboo.
The gorillas are giants of an inherently peaceful nature. They display
aggression if they feel threatened, uprooting and hurling trees to
show power, for example, but they are not known to attack people.
Throughout our visit, the trackers communicated with the animals using
two different noises: a deep, throaty "harumph" and a "chum chum." One
identified our presence ("I'm here"), and the other that the gorillas
were in charge ("Easy, big fella. We mean you no harm").
We stood still, excitedly taking pictures, and the gorillas seemed
content to have us among them. At exactly one hour, just as the
tracker told us it was time to leave, papa silverback abruptly stood
up, glared at us, turned his back and began stalking up the mountain
with the family falling in line behind him.
The message was clear, the timing amazing. I imagined that through the
years, with humans interacting with these gorillas for exactly one
hour per day, the regularity of the visits has become a daily pattern
in their lives. Papa silverback knew we were there for one hour and
was happy to welcome us and share his family for exactly that long.
There was no doubt who was in charge. He was, and we were his family's
honored guests for the agreed-upon time.
Sarel Kromer is a retired lawyer who lives in Chevy Chase.
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