• Brian D. Hinson

Gorillas in the Mist

RWANDA -- The armed park guards led our group into the forest. They were there primarily for the protection of the mountain gorillas, since poaching is still an issue. The gorillas aren’t very aggressive, so safeguarding the tourists requires little effort.

The guards’ morning routine is tracking down a specific troop of gorillas for fee-paying tourists. The troops settle in a different nesting place each night. Our group of twelve hailed from three different continents and were admonished to be quiet for the meandering hike.

After over an hour…there they were, maybe a dozen or so, lazily eating vegetation and grooming one another. The young ones romped and wrestled. A mother nursed. They generally walk on all fours, but their faces tell stories and project emotion in a very human way. In their eyes I felt a connection, and certainly an intelligence. I didn’t feel like I was observing wildlife, but a primitive tribe. It’s not surprising that we share 98% of our DNA with these hairy cousins.

They’re accustomed to these daily morning visits. They regard us with mild caution, but mostly, we’re ignored. The park guards make sure we keep our distance of ten feet. Again, not so much for our safety, but the gorillas are susceptible to human contagions. In the Congo, it’s required to wear a face mask during the visit.

The mountain gorillas are critically endangered. The latest estimates have their population pegged at around 1,000. Conservation efforts are working. There were 620 in 1989.

Part of the preservation is tourism. There are three nations where you can visit these uncannily human-like creatures in the wild: Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Uganda, and Rwanda. Each national park charges a hefty fee for the privilege. Rwanda’s gorilla preserve, Parc National des Volcans, limits tourist traffic to 80 permits a day at $1,500 each. It was a bit less when I visited in 2014, but still steep.

If you would like to be a part of the conservation effort, here a couple of great organizations.

Mountain Gorilla Conservation Fund

World Wildlife Fund

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