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Face-to-Face With Lowland Gorillas

Face-to-Face With Lowland Gorillas

DEEP in the equatorial rain forest of the Central African Republic lies a natural treasure that few have ever seen. We endured a 12-hour drive over rough trails to reach the Dzanga-Ndoki National Park, a pristine wildlife reserve in the southwest corner of the country, between Cameroon and Republic of the Congo. Our goal was to meet Makumba, a western lowland gorilla, and Makumba’s family.

Our guide told us to stay together and to be on the lookout for elephants, since we would be hiking on trails that they used daily to search for food. But elephants weren’t our only concern. “If a gorilla charges you,” our guide warned us, “stand still and look at the ground. He won’t hurt you; he’ll just make a lot of noise. Don’t make eye contact with him. In fact, I find it helps just to close my eyes.”

Along with our guide, we were led by a tracker from the BaAka people, considered a Pygmy group because of their physical traits and short stature.  By means of the faintest sights, smells, and sounds, the skilled native tracker can detect the presence of the most elusive animals. Swarms of maddening sweat bees surrounded us. We struggled to keep up as he strode with ease through the dense vegetation.

Soon our tracker was taking us through virgin forest where few Westerners have ever trod. Then, abruptly, he stopped and waved his arms over a large area near our path. There we could see crushed bushes and matted grass where young gorillas had been playing, as well as broken and stripped branches​—the remnants of a midmorning snack. Our anticipation mounted as we continued on.

A western lowland gorilla can grow to 6 feet (1.8 m) tall and weigh over 440 pounds (200 kg)

After about two miles (3 km), the tracker slowed his pace. To avoid startling the gorillas, he made a clack-clack noise with his tongue. Close by, we could hear deep grunts punctuated by snapping branches. Our guide slowly waved us forward. With a finger to her lips, she indicated absolute silence. She told us to crouch and pointed through the trees. About 26 feet (8 m) ahead, we saw him​—it was Makumba!

The once boisterous forest was now quiet, and all we could hear was the beating of our hearts. Of course, the question on our minds was, Would Makumba charge? Makumba turned his leathery face in our direction and, after what seemed to be a casual evaluation, welcomed us with a yawn. Needless to say, we were relieved!

Although in the Aka language the name Makumba means “Speedy,” during our time together, Makumba simply enjoyed a leisurely morning meal. Nearby, two juveniles wrestled and tickled each other. Sopo, a saucer-eyed ten-month-old, played near his mother, Mopambi, who gently pulled him back whenever his boundless curiosity led him out of arm’s reach. The rest of the family either stripped leaves and pith from branches or frolicked in groups, briefly glancing at us before losing interest and resuming their play.

After an hour, our time was up. Makumba seemed to feel the same, and with a single grunt, he hoisted himself up with his massive arms and moved off into the forest. Within seconds, the entire family vanished. Though we could spend only a short time with these magnificent creatures, the experience will stay with us for many years to come.