On my recent trip to Rwanda, knowing that one of the main draws of visiting the small African nation was the endangered Mountain gorillas, I was met with an unexpected shift in my perception of myself and of the world around me. Spending a priceless hour with a family of 18, known as the Kwitonda family, I literally had a spiritual “come to Jesus” moment. As I sat in their midst, staring into the eyes of the male Silverback and other members of the group, I couldn’t help but feel so deeply connected to them. I had never met gorillas in the wild and didn’t know what to expect, but, in an instant, I felt as if I was looking at members of my own family. Mothers, cousins, toddlers and babies sat and played together, living and working in a harmonious system that was created through evolution, over millions of years.
There are just over 800 gorillas left in the wild, living amongst the shrouds of green bamboo in the stunning Volcanoes National Park that straddles Rwanda, Uganda and the Democratic Republic of Congo. And, these 800 creatures have been hunted and poached by people desperate to feed their families. $50 for a gorilla hand, $2000 for a baby gorilla – the price of a life, or many lives, that have been taken in recent history. There hasn’t been an instance of poaching since 2004 in Rwanda, as the gorillas are now fiercely protected by the government and through independent groups like the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund. The same cannot be said for the families of gorillas who live in areas of the park that lie in Uganda and the Democratic Republic of Congo. But, a gorilla renaissance is underway.
I hiked for nearly ninety minutes from the park’s head offices at the base of Virunga volcano. I followed my guide, the porters who carried my gear and the trekkers who make it their business to keep tabs on the gorilla families and their whereabouts. The terrain was rough, exhausting, but breathtakingly beautiful. As I dodged stinging nettles, fire ants and branches that tried desperately to stand in my way as I ascended the steep hill, beads of sweat rolled off my forehead. My imagination ran wild with images from Hollywood films. Would it be like the Sigourney Weaver movie, “Gorillas in the Mist”? How close would I actually get? Would they charge at me and, if so, what would I do?
As I reached a clearing and caught my breath, my guide made it known that we were about to come upon the Kwitonda family. Walking sticks, backpacks and water bottles left behind, I made the final move into an area where the gorillas had been seen the night before. A few steps in and, suddenly, I was surrounded. Through the trees, lying in front of me, sleeping in the distance – 18 gorillas were in sight. My group of fellow tourists went instantly silent, in awe of what we were seeing. As I moved in, I was instructed to slowly make my way to whatever vantage point I felt drawn to. I did. I chose a small clearing where a mother was lying on her back and nursing her baby. Some gorillas were chewing on bamboo, some of the elders of the family slept and most of the “children” played. Two toddlers, three years old in age, were rolling through the grass. One of them found me interesting and made his way over to gently touch my leg, daring me to react. I wanted to hug him.
Rwanda allows each group of visitors, which is limited to eight people per group, to spend no more than one hour with a family of gorillas. This is in effort to keep germs and disease from spreading into their communities. Gorillas and humans share roughly 98% of their DNA, which make them very susceptible to human illnesses. My hour was short, but I was present for each and every minute. I absorbed the beauty, the charisma, the playfulness and the majesty. When my guide signaled that it was time to go, I stood up from the ground and accidentally made eye contact with one of the mothers who was carrying an infant in her arms. She stared right through me, directly into my eyes. Her baby was wrapped in her arms and she acknowledged my presence with her stare as she moved to a new sleeping spot. I realized, immediately, that it’s all so simple. Life is simple, this is what matters – we complicate it, pollute it. As I descended the volcano I took with me this experience, the grace and beauty of the Kwitonda family. I further understood the lesson that staying connected to my environment and understanding my role in it, will only help me be a better human being and resident of our planet. Rwanda and its families of gorillas helped me understand that.