Last week Jill and I attended the 10th International Network or KMC in Rwanda. But this was also an opportunity to visit the gorillas in the Virunga mountains which form the borders of DRC, Uganda and Rwanda. We hiked for five hours before finding them in an open clearing, feeding peacefully.
It was an awesome experience with these gentle giants. As we arrived a 200 kg silverback came and postured imposingly in front of us. Advised by the rangers we respectfully crouched down on our knees. Seemingly satisfied by our obeisance, he turned round and walked through our group, almost touching Jill as he went past. You should have seen her face …
Gorillas are amazing mothers, and we had the privilege of watching three mother baby pairs. They carry their babies for up to three years in constant physical contact with the mother , on their backs when walking, on their knees when feeding, on the fronts when resting and suckling. Interestingly for me, the whole area around the breasts has no hair, making better skin-to-skin contact. This applies to the silverbacks also, who apparently take over carry care if the mother dies.
The youngest of the babies was only two months, and the mother kept away from us at first. But after half an hour she came right forward and lay down in the middle of a lovely green lawn where we were sitting. She reached up over her back and pulled her baby over with one arm, settled down comfortably and relaxed while the baby breastfed. This took less than half a minute, but she stayed reclined and chilled, ignoring us, looking at a neighbour … but really just giving baby three minutes of total calm and relaxation. She then picked up a back leg and inspected baby, picking for a flea on its belly while cradling it in her arms. A minute later she picked the baby up by the arm and almost threw it onto her back, in an action uncannily like that we have seen among our African mothers! She marched off to join the others feeding, and within minutes the baby was fast asleep on her back.
What fascinated me the most was the gorillas hands. They looked like black leather gloves, and had incredible dexterity to pick up a leaf between thumb and forefinger and gentleness to stroke babies
The gorillas were peaceful, gently communicating in deep contented grunts as they ate. The teenagers kept close to Dad, the big silverback males protect and provide for their families yet are gentle with little ones. Their eyes are deep brown and wise, watching us carefully yet relaxed, calm and unafraid, unthreatened as they are the lords of the Virunga mountains. Long may they remain so… there are only 600 mountain gorillas left in the wild . When I left them I felt that I wanted to bow to them in gratitude for the privilege of sharing this precious hour with them.
Dr Nils Bergman