Friday, May 18, 2007

Parc National des Volcans, Part II

The silverback and the mother of the one month old infant were close together in a sort of clearing of crushed down foliage. Nearby, the two and a half year old and a five or six year old were playing. Our group of five tourists, guide and tracker were a few feet from the gorillas and we were all mesmerized by the baby nursing. The baby's head was wobbly and his/her teeny hands were so cute - not to mention the little pink tongue that kept emerging. I was trying to capture all this baby cuteness on film, as was most everyone else. My focus was therefore about 5 - 8 feet in front of me, on the mom and baby.

I heard a loud and unexpected noise and looked down to see the 5 or 6 year old charging towards us. The sounds were kind of angry and the guide said to step back slowly. For a second I was genuinely startled. I asked the tracker if the gorilla was playing and he said "No." The youngster did it again and whacked two people in our group on the knee. Then the silverback more or less told him to cut it out, and he did. I think he was just jealous we were all focused on the baby and not him. No one was injured in any way and I think the display was for attention and show - it's loudness and suddenness were startling, but it wasn't really scary so much as surprising. It did get my attention, that's for sure. The "charger" is pictured on the left, above.

The "charger" looked a little sulky and surly the rest of the visit but we all paid more attention to him, took his picture, etc. and he seemed to brighten up and play with his little brother again after a few minutes. This was a very memorable experience and the young gorilla was literally less than 6 inches from me; had I not stepped back slowly as instructed he would have made contact. As cool as I think contact would be, I fully respect the guide's job is to keep the gorillas safe and the people safe, and the least I or anyone can do is follow their instructions. This day other gorillas walked by so close we had to move back - they did not seem at all afraid of walking right up to, or by, visitors, and I had no fear of them either - just wonder and awe.

The photo on the right is of domestic life - two boys are wrestling, dad is looking on sort of in a tolerating way, mom and baby are next to dad. There are others in this group, another mom and baby are behind us, a second silverback is up a tree behind us with some other members of the group. The gorillas were all around us in a big circle, but we spent the majority of our time with the silverback and those around him. He was extremely calm, despite the fact the guide warned us he was one of the more aggressive silverbacks who'd been habituated and we should be prepared to fall back and follow instructions. I do think the guides and trackers really keep people safe but you do need to follow their commands, as they know the gorilla behavior and the appropriate response.