A Gorilla Visit

Pet Tales
by Barry B. Burtis D.V.M.

If you travel to another country, I believe, it is a real advantage if you have family that you can visit while there. They may not be close relatives. You may have never met them before. Perhaps, you are related only through a common ancestor who lived several generations in the past. Nevertheless, in my experience, you usually receive a courteous welcome and it will add a whole new dimension to learning about the country you are visiting, and create new friendships and wonderful memories.

One on my business partners and I just returned from a trip to Africa. The purpose of the trip was to attempt a trek to the summit of Mt. Kilimanjaro in Tanzania. However, we decided that there were several other things that we wanted to do, while traveling to that part of Africa. As a result, we made plans to spend five days in Rwanda with the goal being to visit some distant relatives in that country. Our visit turned out to be a real highlight of the entire trip.
We arrived in Kigali, the capital of Rwanda, a relatively small country in East Africa. We spent a day in that city visiting some of the local attractions and then we were driven about 200 km north to the Parc des Volcans. This park is located in the Virunga Mountains, a chain of volcanoes, in East Africa, along the northern border of Rwanda, the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Uganda. The Virunga Mountains are the home of the critically endangered Mountain Gorilla, listed on the Red List of International Union for the Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources (IUCN). The IUCN is the world's main authority on the conservation status of species. These gorillas were the primate relatives we wished to visit.

Early in the morning, one day, along with approximately thirty-five other travelers from around the world, we gathered at Parc des Volcans headquarters. We were divided into groups of six to eight persons. Each group was assigned to two National Park guides who introduced us to the gorilla family we would be visiting that day. We also learned the proper manners we should display while visiting the family. After being driven to our drop-off point, along with our two guides, two armed guards and a porter to carry our backpack, if we wished, we set off to walk up a mountain trail to find our relatives. I should add the armed guards were to protect against poachers we might encounter, not inhospitable gorillas.

After a relatively easy mountain trek of about one hour, we were treated to the best wild creature viewing that I have ever enjoyed. We spent one hour visiting the Hirwa mountain gorilla family. This gorilla family is made up of the silverback male, weighing approximately 200 kg., four adult females, each with young between two and six months in age, and two adolescents. We watched them eat the lush vegetation delicacies that make up their diet; we saw them interact with one another, in a small clearing, as they rested. We laughed as the youngsters played with their siblings. We positioned ourselves such that we could be photographed with various family members.  All this activity was observed from a distance sometimes as close as six to eight feet from them.

Encountering a gorilla family and being allowed such an intimate visit with them is a moving experience. They are in many ways so like us. Their sight and sense of hearing and smell are closely similar to our own, so they perceive the world in very much the same way as we do. They live in largely permanent family groups. They move from childhood to adolescence to maturity and then senility at very similar ages to humans. They also demonstrate body language that closely resembles our own. Study of the genomes of certain primates has shown how similar our DNA sequences are to theirs. They prove that humans' closest relatives are the African apes, chimpanzees and gorillas. Such studies suggest a divergence from a common ancestor about 5 million years ago.

We took leave from our visit most impressed by the calm, respectful, entertaining and hospitable manner in which we had been received. We did go on to successfully summit Kilimanjaro, but, that's another story for another day. Meanwhile, we had begun our African journey with an experience that even that mountain would have difficulty topping.