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Rwanda’s Wild Ambassadors: Mountain Gorillas (Part 2)

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Continued from Part 1

With Jerome and our four trackers, our group proceeded––with much trepidation––into the “gorilla’s den”.

As gorillas love bamboos, it’s no surprise that this family group has chosen a thick grove to frolic in. And in this serene setting, we could see at least 8 gorillas of all ages, some sitting down, some lying around and others wandering from bamboo to bamboo, yanking the juiciest stalks.

All the gorilla groups are semi-habituated to human company, making it safe for visitors to gawk at them as they rip and pick apart tough bamboo the way we eat chicken wings. While you can get close (the rule mandates a 7m distance, but it doesn’t mean that gorillas adhere to those rules), touching them is strictly prohibited.

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A female gorilla picking a scab

As you watch these gorillas closely, you’ll realise that we have a lot in common with them; their facial expressions are animated, they even sulk when unhappy. Many of the gorillas present were sporting some sort of bite wound inflicted by other members; it’s not surprising since there are plenty of rambunctious males around. Young males boast their strength (to humans, at least) by snapping tough bamboo stalks as easily as you’d snap a toothpick.

Like humans, gorillas are sometimes pranksters; there have been instances where gorillas have curiously touched their human visitors. One of them––a large blackback male––even came up to within 3 metres of us and proceeded to let a huge fart rip. “They eat a lot of fibre,” explained Jerome.

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The farting beast

In a trek that happened some time back with another group, one of the younger gorillas even performed an armpit fart.

No visitor has ever been harmed by gorillas in the 20 years they’ve run this gorilla trekking programme, although we were slightly concerned at one point when the large silverback Gahingi (the troublemaker) did what everybody imagines gorillas do: charge and thump their chest.

Luckily, it was directed at other male gorillas in the pack, but it didn’t stop us mere mortals from scrambling to the nearest safe point. It’s adrenalin-charged moments like these that make the visit so special; you can come close to Colobus or golden monkeys, but rarely would you find the encounter this exhilarating.

Meet Ubumwe
The star of the show––the leader of the group––was undoubtedly Ubumwe. For a silverback, he wasn’t the largest in the group, but he was certainly the easiest to approach. The term ‘silverback’ only applies to male gorillas when they reach the age of 13 when the hair on their backs turn white, hence the term. When you have a number of silverback males in a group, it’s inevitable that there would be a fight to be the top, or a fight to take a handful of females to form a separate group (as was the case with an ex-silverback member called Charles).

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Ubumwe and his bamboo buffet

You can see why this group is called Amahoro – Ubumwe is a calm and easy-going fellow. He was busy tearing into his meal, stripping bamboos as we took turns posing for photos not more than 3 metres away from him. Ubumwe hardly looked up from his feast, but it could be that he was already in a sedated stupor with the amount of bamboos he’d put away.

The return trek
You know you’ve enjoyed your time when you don’t notice how fast it flies. Not long after our session with Ubumwe, Jerome announced that our 1-hour time limit with the gorillas was up.


Get close to gorillas

We returned via the same way we came – through bamboo groves, shady trails and nettle fields. Sturdy wooden hiking poles are loaned to every hiker – not only were they useful, they’re beautifully carved with individual gorilla figurines.

A gorilla trekking permit (US$750pp) requires booking in advance as only 80 hikers are allowed per day, and these can be arranged via tour operators or directly with Rwanda Development Board. The fee goes towards building the infrastructure around the area, improving the livelihoods of locals and providing them with a more sustainable form of employment (many of the porters and rangers are ex-poachers).

While admittedly some adventure experiences may not live up to their hype, gorilla trekking was (for everyone in our group, at least) every bit as exhilarating as it sounds.

Gorillas on Film
Check out our film on Rwanda, including the trek with gorillas here:

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