Eye to Eye with a Silverback
The whole experience is almost like watching kids on a playground, particularly when you see the little ones. We saw one who was just born two days before we were there. It was nursing. And there were four young adolescents. They were running up the trees after each other, swinging from branches, just having a jolly good time. They’re funny, they’re fun to watch.
One of the silverbacks had two females with him and maybe four little ones, maybe seven or eight months. When he saw us come in, he herded the females to an area and got them situated with the babies. A couple of them were nursing. Then he came around to where we were and stopped maybe four feet in front of us. He sat down, folded his arms and looked at us. And just looked and looked. There was no feeling of being threatened or that he was protecting the others. It was sheer curiosity that we sort of read in his face, and he must have read the same thing in ours.
We must have sat that way for 10 minutes or more before he got up started to say, like, thank you, and wandered off and went back to his ladies.
They’re very human-like, both in terms of their behavior with each other and with you. I’ve been up close and personal with elephants, because I have friends who live in Tanzania and have a sanctuary there. Elephants are very social with each other, but they don’t connect with you in the same way. Not at all. A gorilla … it would be more like the connection you have with a dog, but there’s still something else. You almost feel the humanness, even though you can’t get as close to them as a dog. And it’s very easy to distinguish them. After a half an hour, you know them by their faces. You know which one you saw and which one you didn’t even though they’re running around.
There’s more of a familiar feeling than … I mean, certainly elephants can be curious, and I know dolphins can be. But it’s not the same. There’s almost the feeling as if you could communicate with them somehow. A lot of that had to do with eye contact. The one who sat and we just watched each other, he made real eye contact. I don’t think I’ve seen in any other animal apart from a dog. And with a dog, it has to be your dog that you’ve known for a long time. You wouldn’t do it with a strange dog.
You’re only there with the gorillas for one hour. Five hours going there, one hour being there, and about three or four coming back down. That was for the Susa group. For older people and for the older younger-than-I people, people who are out of shape, there are families you can get to in an hour.
The Susa group is the biggest group. And in a big group, you’ve got more characters. Some of them are characters! Some really are characters. Sit and watch them. It’s, again, sort of like sitting on a park bench, watching not only the kids in the park, but the grown-ups. The grumpy old man who growls at somebody because they’re going to sit in his seat. It’s the same kind of thing. You’ll find a pushy gorilla, you’ll see shy ones, and you’ll see athletic ones.
The main concern I have, coming away from Virunga, is that the park will keep going and the gorillas will be protected. I hope they don’t keep going into the Congolese territories. And I hope that it doesn’t become Disneyland, Rwanda – that they keep it at the sort of level that it is now and make sure people mind their P’s and Q’s in terms of how they are with the animals. If they keep expanding, because that’s the way to make money, it may not be good for the gorillas.