David, the Wildlife Management Authority guide assigned to take today’s eight permit holders to the Rushegara family of Gorillas looked over the sweating panting group of humans and calmly said, “ I am happy to announce that we are very near the gorillas.” Two hours of steep hiking had brought us to the top of a thickly forested mountain, about 7000 ft., in the Ugandan national park, Bwindi National Forest.  If anyone had any breath left, there would have been a cheer. “Please have any water you need now,  put down your walking sticks and backpacks, the porters will bring them later.”  David goes on to remind us that there was to be no loud talking, no quick movements, no flash photography. “ If you must cough or sneeze, do so into your sleeve.  If an animal charges, look down, be meek and do not run.  Stay in a tight group,  do not approach the gorillas,  the closest you are to come to them is 21 feet.  You will have exactly one hour to observe the gorillas,  after that time you will follow me out of the area.”  No nonsense here.    We gather together and follow David closely.  Behind us is a tracker with an AK47.  The forest is filled with green, it is as if the whole world is green, in every shade and hue of the spectrum.  There are vines and low plants underfoot, bushes growing from there left. A juvenile male gorilla has been munching leaves 8 feet from our group, assessing today’s group of people as he enjoyed his morning feeding.  Cameras are raised, David is stopped and the viewing begins.  Soon, the juvenile gets up and ambles with-in two feet of my legs and walking casually on all fours into the brush to the sliverback leader of the family of twenty. There is no doubt that this is the family leader.  He is big, majestic and the others come to him with respect.   Suddenly, the forest floor is alive with gorillas, babies, mothers, juveniles, both male and female, a black back male.  David is trying to keep the tourist group together for taking photos and observing this family as they move through the forest in search of food.  Each day the gorillas will consume tens of kilos of leaves, stems and roots to maintain their body weight and health.  They pick through an area and then move on to another area, always looking for the best supply, young and tender leaves and branches.  We watch as another juvenile rapidly picks and chews through the vegetation within his reach while the silverback is more discerning, picking and eating with some care.  A young gorilla is wandering from plant to plant, jumping and playing, eating a little here and there.  A female grooms the young one and hands some leaves to him.  He lopes off towards the silverback who watches him for a bit and then the silverback gets up and begins to move.  As he passes the young one in the grass he reaches out and the youngster is riding his back.  David says this is a good father!! Cameras are clicking away.  As the gorillas make their way through their eating they are moving from the crest of the mountain down the otherside from where we ascended.  Little by little we follow them down,  watching with fascination as they interact, care for one another in a way that is known to them but not the new observer.  They are unfazed by us.  As long as we keep our distance and are quiet,  they accept us.  We are the visitors, coming into their home and daily routine.  The black back sits up and looks at us pensively, Buddha like.  He finds us fairly uninteresting so he ambles off.  Walking on all fours is oddly graceful on this steep slope. It makes me think I should try it when we go down to the valley.  We move from one small group interaction to another.  It seems like moments before David announces that we have only 5 minutes until our observation time is finished.

The fascination is that we see much of our basic selves mirrored in these animals.  David tells us that we have seen the entire Rushegara group.  We are fortunate not only to have seen them all but to have seen them active,  eating, moving, playing.  Later in the day they rest and are more difficult to see.  On a scale of 1-10,  this has been a 10!  The Mountain Gorillas must live in the mountains,  they are very susceptible to stress. Because of their need for particular vegetation and space to roam, they have not survived in captivity.  Their biggest threats are loss of habitat and human disease.  In this preserve they are increasing in number and yet, the entire known count of this species of mountain gorillas is less than 800.  Our money for permits and controlled viewing have allowed for their protection and given relative economic vitality to the people of the area.   As difficult as it has been to get here, we marvel at the amazing affinity we feel.  We observe care for the young,  respect for elders, the easy relationship of extended family groupings, the need for daily bread and habitat.  Just as we are only getting a brief look, it is too easy to anthropomorphize the experience.  Yet, somehow, the experience is powerful and elemental.  We leave with regret, yet knowing that we have been privileged to observe something amazing.

The hike down is challenging as well, but our guides and porters are relaxed and share some of their life stories.  The village has also become accustomed to these trekkers each day.  We are greeted by women in colorful katanga’s  with mats spread on the ground,  multi-color baskets and carved gorillas are for sale.  We can visit the local banana brewing site,  the primary or secondary schools,  the local herbalist, medicine man,  the Batwa pygmy village and more.  But first’,we go back to the WMA headquarters where we all receive certificates of having visited the Rushegara.  We are urged to post these in our homes and offices so others will make this journey and the protection can continue.  It has truly been a once in a life time experience.

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