About 4 million years ago, a monkey-like creature lived in the heart of Africa that would be known as the common ancestor of gorillas, chimpanzees, and humans. Having such a close common ancestor so recently in terms of evolution is like sharing a grandparent- humans and gorillas share over 98% of the same DNA, making us genetic cousins really. Estranged perhaps, but no one closer in terms of relatives.
We haven’t been the best of relatives to the gorillas honestly- poaching and loss of habitat and terrible civil violence have reduced the mountain gorillas to just 790 in the mountain jungles of Uganda, Rwanda, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. The only way to save them is to hope enough income is generated that the local populations will benefit from their survival, which means you can pay $500 for the privilege of one hour of time with a mountain gorilla family used to a human presence. It’s probably the most expensive thing I’ve ever done, but certainly one of the most rewarding-
Our journey took place in the wonderfully named Bwindi Impenetrable National Park in Uganda which is home to an amazing assortment of flora and fauna but also about 350 mountain gorillas. Currently 9 gorilla families have been habituated so humans can visit them for a maximum of eight people a day, but you have to do a potentially serious trek through a jungle filled with steep, wet terrain and fire ants and all sorts of other unsavory details. One group the day prior to us had trekked 3.5 hours one way to see their gorilla family but we lucked out as our trek lasted just over an hour over relatively easy terrain for most of it. The mountains were similar in size and steepness of the Appalachains back home, actually, and a couple in their 60s even trekked with us so I think it’s fair to say you can do this too if a day of average hiking wouldn’t do you in.
But anyway, the gorillas!
We were tracking a group of 5 male gorillas on our trek which were part of the Bitukura family (which had split the week prior over a disagreement about females) and we first ran into them foraging in a relatively clear area. Hearing gorillas before seeing them is one of the best parts by the way, as the ominous rustling and sounds are the stuff of the best adventure tales you can imagine!
Things turned interesting relatively quickly however when we ran into this fellow above, a blackback (adolescent) named Obia. It turns out Obia in the local language roughly means “Punchy” because, well, he has a reputation for punching people in hopes they’ll want to play and punch him back. He didn’t hold back this time either as after this picture was taken he knocked over a small blonde Aussie girl in front of me (she fell more from surprise than serious force) and then seeing she wasn’t interested in playing he headed towards me. And punched me in the gut. Because life just keeps finding new experiences I was never planning to have, like getting into a rumble with a mountain gorilla.
Now Obia must be rolling his eyes about these wussy girls not getting he’s just teasing and wanting to play and he really didn’t hit hard (and there was some speculation that the guides deliberately put the two smallest girls in front out of their amusement, as they’d warned the other groups that this invited punching). So to let the truth get in the way of a good story the punch really wasn’t hard and didn’t hurt- never even got a bruise, and honestly the guide pulling me away by the arm hurt more after! But hey, that is the official story of what happened when Punchy the Gorilla wanted to be affectionate friends with me I guess.
Anyway, soon after this excitement the gorillas ran rather quickly up the hillside to rest and eat some tasty bugs out of the logs. Here’s a 5 year old juvenile at work on just this task-
When gorillas decide to not violate the rules and come closer to hit you or whatever, you’re supposed to stay 7 meters away at all times partly to give them space and partly because we can easily give each other diseases. We could easily watch all five gorillas from our vantage point though, and here’s a picture of the three of them to get an idea of a typical scene-
The amazing thing out of all this is the slowly dawning realization while watching that these guys are really so similar to us- the silverback leader was reclining against a tree with his beer belly poking out looking just like a guy lazing around on his sofa on a Sunday afternoon, the young one threw himself backwards after foraging with his arms overhead, and another began a siesta. You keep noticing funny details like “hey, they don’t have armpit hair but we do!” and nodding approval as the rotten log is carefully broken down to expose bugs to eat, and an hour feels much too short but certainly worth the effort.
They say captive gorillas have their intelligence tested at the level of toddlers and that they can learn sign language. Gorillas can love and laugh and remember the past and consider the future, they can use tools, and they recognize the trackers who visit each day and can even motion when a traumatic event has occurred so they don’t want visitors that day. The most amazing thing about a family reunion with your evolutionary cousins deep in the jungles of Africa is seeing how close we are in nature, and it’s an experience I doubt I shall ever forget.