The trek could have been gruelling as we were walking on an undulating mat of dense vine foliage. Every now and again one of us would fall through or slip on unseen moss-covered logs and have to scramble out of the undergrowth. Fortunately, it was the dry season, which makes hiking considerably easier.
John’s irrepressible optimism never left him, but even he was stunned when fifteen minutes after leaving the Goma road we stumbled across flattened vegetation indicating gorillas were nearby. It’s impossible to track the primates as the dense undergrowth covers the ground. There are no footprints in the dirt. Trampled foliage is the only indication of their presence.
“Gorilla nest,” said John, pointing to the stomped vines. “They slept here last night. We are close.”
I could see nothing. Jungle growth, thick as a velvet curtain, swamped us and visibility was a few yards in every direction except the sky blinking through the treetops.
Then I smelt them, despite the fact that I, like everyone else, was wearing a surgical face mask as gorillas are highly susceptible to human germs. They have no immune protection against flu or other nasty viruses. A sneeze can kill an entire family.
It was just a brief whiff — a wild musky odour, something I knew well in the bush. It’s a healthy smell, not unpleasant in the slightest: feral, earthy and natural. Organic even. The smell of life.
I saw the canopy ahead briefly shake and heard a branch snap. Bushes were rustling. I sensed they were right in front of us, but the jungle was so impenetrable I could barely see.
One of the rangers chopped a gap in the foliage. We all craned our neck, peering through the hole as if it was a cathedral window.
Then we saw him. Sloping Neanderthal forehead, pug faced, flaring nostrils and chocolate-brown eyes with a boxer’s neck cemented on tank-wide shoulders. The rest of his body was hidden by shrubbery.
I was at last face to face with the king of the jungle — yet there was no unfriendliness in his expressive features. He calmly scrutinised us as he carried on eating, stripping and shredding vine leaves in one fluid movement while delicately holding the stem as if it was a kebab stick.
He caught my gaze for an instant. He looked up, directly engaging me.
I have spent all my years around animals, some as a farmer, but mostly as a conservationist. I have travelled this continent’s unparalleled wildlife and its wildernesses for decades. I know it well. I love it infinitely.
But nothing prepared me for this encounter. There is no guideline for meeting a 400-pound silverback in the wild. It’s different for every individual. It’s unique.
In my case, adrenaline jolted through me as if I had grabbed a plugged-in electric wire — but at the same time I felt so overwhelmed I wanted to kneel and weep. I was as wired as a junkie tripping on euphoria, yet bizarrely melancholic at the same time. The buzz, a confused blend of yin sentimentality and yang elation, was that intense.
I am not sure what triggered these vastly conflicting emotions. Perhaps it was the sheer magnificence of meeting such an iconic creature just a yard away, but that’s too superficial. I now think it was instead the almost holy expression in his eyes ... a look of trust and acceptance. We were on his turf, invading his space. He could have killed any of us with a single blow of his rock-sized fist. He could have tossed us onto the jungle canopy top with a flick of those slab-muscled forearms.
Yet he chose not to.
The question is why.
We humans are responsible for driving these herbivores to the brink of extinction, and yet here was this barrel-chested, six-and-a-half-foot-high hulk, fifteen times stronger than any steroid-ripped weightlifter, allowing us into his world.
It is, possibly, something humans cannot answer. I couldn’t. The question is too painful.
Despite the fact that his anger should be cosmic in its intensity at what humans have done ... on that day in Kahuzi-Biéga, this supremely powerful silverback magnanimously allowed us into his world.
What have we done to deserve it?
It’s enough to make strong people weep. But I should instead have gone down on my knees in the vast mat of knotted jungle and given thanks, rejoicing in the unconquerable soul of the wild, its undefinable vitality distilled to its nucleus by the immensely dignified creature before me.
“It’s Bonané,” said John.
Bonané — the legendary Chimanuka’s firstborn son.
The front ranger sliced through more foliage so we could view the magnificent primate better. He signaled for me and Angela to come closer. We did so, until we were only a yard away from the silverback.
Angela and I looked at each other. Her eyes were moist. We nodded at each other in perfect telepathy.
From left to right, conservationist Peter Eastwood, Grant Fowlds, John Kahekwa and Bonané in Kahuzi-Biéga National Park, Democratic Republic of the Congo.
John told me such rapture affects most people seeing these stunning creatures for the first time. And John has taken a lot of people into the jungle; from billionaire Bill Gates and politician Al Gore, to humble hunters and barefoot woodcrafters who wish to pay tribute to these majestic creatures. Even the famed wildlife photographer Alan Root, sadly no longer with us, wept openly on his first gorilla encounter with John.
The rangers, most of whom come from the Batwa tribe, are so attuned to their environment that after a while Bonané barely acknowledged us. The only time he showed a modicum of aggression was when one of the rangers chopping off foliage so we could get clearer photos got too close and Bonané barked at him, like a dog with the most bass vocals imaginable. The ranger retreated half a yard. The silverback continued feeding, vigorously chewing as if his food was going to be wrested from him. It would take an exceptionally brave, or rather insanely stupid, creature to do that.
The secret of getting close to gorillas is receiving permission from the patriarch. Rangers will not allow trekkers to approach females or babies before being approved by the silverback. Homage has to be paid to the head honcho. Nobody, human or animal, can approach any member of the group without the boss’s permission. If anyone does not honour the basic good manners of the jungle, they have to accept the consequences. You don’t want to do that.
In front of Bonané, slightly lower down the slope, were his wives and two children. We could barely see them as they were covered in foliage, but John pointed three out; Mukono and Iragi — a mother and daughter pair who, like Bonané, had previously been with Chimanuka’s group — and Siri. Females only stay with silverbacks for protection and consequently choose the biggest, most ripped specimen around for obvious reasons. Unusually, this did not happen when Chimanuka badly beat up Bonané in the gorilla equivalent of a pub brawl over women. Although the females left him for some weeks while he recovered, they later returned even though he lost the fight.
Bonané means ‘the new one’ as he was born on the last day of the year in 2002, and John knows him well. The familiarity between the two was reciprocal. There was no doubt that this rippling-muscled titan accepted John as a friend. Whenever John spoke, Bonané looked his way, acknowledging him.
John has adopted his own way of talking to gorillas, using a series of barks and grunts. He learned most of this ‘language’ from hard-earned experience, sleeping, living and eating with his wild friends. But the initial inspiration came from his pioneering uncle and mentor, Adrien Deschryver.
John told us that Adrien’s method of gorilla habituation was fundamentally different to that of Dian Fossey. As he outlined in an article written for Gorilla Journal, his uncle Adrien always looked a gorilla in the eye and stood up straight. Dian Fossey did the exact opposite, kneeling and averting her gaze. Adrien also spoke directly to gorillas, whereas Dian communicated solely with gestures.
Both methods achieved exactly the same result. Dian’s many disciples in the Volcanoes National Park across the border in Rwanda continue her legacy, while Adrien’s ground-breaking work is taken to new heights in the DRC by John.
For me, it was the first time I had seen in-depth human communication with one of our closest DNA cousins, and it was a rare privilege to watch. John is a genuine gorilla ‘whisperer’, a word that has been horribly degraded by overuse, but like most clichés, it is true.
John said that despite all the years with gorillas in the jungle, he still loves spending hours observing their antics, the babies playing with their ever-tolerant parents, the animals grooming each other, or just snoozing in the sun. To habituate a gorilla family takes years, and John has paid his dues with interest doing that. The results are amazing, not least being the obvious recognition between him and the animals. He not only knows every gorilla by name, but their dates of birth, their parents and siblings.
I watched, totally engrossed at the timeless scene unfolding before me as we followed the group, ripping through the foliage gorging leaves and stems as efficiently as an industrial shredder.
Bonané then paid us the ultimate compliment. As if on cue as we were about to leave, he thumped his chest in the typical pose for which gorillas are celebrated. I have never heard flesh on bone sound so loud. A chest the size of an oil barrel pounded by a fist bigger than a brick makes a bongo drum sound mute.
I would like to think he was saying goodbye to us, but even in my most anthropomorphic moments, I know that was unlikely. He was calling his wives and children. Wild creatures are not humans. Thank God for that.
Grant Fowlds is a director of Project Rhino, a veteran community facilitator, an accomplished author and a core member of the Rewilding Africa team, overseeing the Wildlife Youth and Leadership Development component of Project Rhino, and spearheading the Rhino ART campaign in Africa and other countries. He is currently working in 11 African countries with conservation-related projects. Grant is also a board member of www.kageno.org, based in New York with community projects in Nyungwe, Rwanda and in Lake Victoria, Kenya. His books include Rewilding Africa and Saving the Last Rhino, where this story first appeared. www.grantfowlds.com