There is something emblematic about the Mountain Gorillas of Rwanda. They have become cherished symbols of hope for a nation so recently torn apart by genocide – not to mention being significant earners of tourist dollars. In a small country with a rapidly growing population, where the pressure on land for agricultural is intense, the identification of the gorillas with the well-being of the nation may, ultimately, prove to be the thing that secures the future of the Mountain Gorilla.
There is a ceremony, made famous by the support it gets from the President of Rwanda and international celebrities, which celebrates newborn gorillas. The annual naming ceremony – giving names to baby gorillas – takes place in the foothills of the Volcanoes National Park and attracts a large national and international gathering. The ceremony serves to cement the fate of the gorilla with that of the nation, and has done much to persuade local communities to tackle poaching and protect habitats.
Mountain Gorillas are extraordinary animals, and seeing them close up in their natural habitat was the highlight of my visit to Rwanda, and one of the most wonderful animal encounters I’ve ever had. Gorillas are extremely intelligent animals, living in complex social structures within extended families. They have a strict hierarchy within the group, at the head of which is a dominant male, known as a ‘silverback’ thanks to the grey hair they develop on their backs.
Gorilla groups are generally very peaceful, spending most of their time eating, grooming, playing and resting. Even in groups with more than one silverback, like the Susa group I was observing, there is no conflict between adult males. The dominant male retains his place at the head of the group until he dies, when an orderly transition to the second string silverback takes place. So strong are family ties, when a dominant silverback dies the group will often remain with the body for several days, before moving off to another location.
Gorilla groups have territories which overlap. Occasionally this leads to conflict with a male of another group, but interestingly the males defend their group rather than their territory. Gorillas are also extremely long lived, often to between 40 and 50 years, and like humans are largely active during the day. At night they build a nest on the ground to sleep in, often in family groupings.
Watching the Susa group at play and rest was magical. The huge and powerful dominant silverback – totally undisturbed by our presence – walked to the centre of his extended family and sat down. He gave our small group of awe-struck tourists the once-over and, realising that he had little to fear from puny humans, got down to the real work of the day. He played a little with one of the baby gorillas and groomed with some of the females.
Occasionally he’d lift up his giant head and check on the rest of the group. Eventually, content that all was well in his world, he lay down and rested. Around him the group continued to play and groom, thanks to his calming presence, ignoring the tourists snapping photos and pointing out other gorillas to each other. The Susa group is big, more than forty individuals; there is activity going on all around you and gorillas will suddenly appear out of the foliage, sometimes too close to us for comfort.
After about an hour in the presence of these glorious gorillas (visits are limited to one hour each day), we started our descent back down the mountain. I think I managed the entire journey back with a smile on my face.