The gentleness of her touch on my leg felt like a whisper while my heart was pounding with joy. Without moving a muscle, I slowly looked down. Staring back at me were amber colored eyes filled with inquisitiveness. As quickly as she appeared, the black ball of fur disappeared following her mother into the shadows of the understory in the bamboo forest.
It was as if everything that had happened in my life, all the pain I had endured and all the adventures I had survived had been for one reason: to feel Kunderwanda’s touch.
Word spread in the office about my trip to Rwanda. As I unwrapped my retirement gift my eyes watered as I held the picture. Staring back was Kundurwanda, my adopted baby Mountain Gorilla from the Pablo Troop. My administrative assistant remembered, not only my stories of my previously adopted gorillas but my passion for this troop.
Over the years I adopted several gorillas through the non-profit Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund International. Dian Fossey was my idol and her death a tragedy especially for the Pablo Troop and a young gorilla Dian named Cantsbee. Now the leader, the large silverback is one of two surviving gorillas who knew Dian. Before leaving on this trip, I received a message that Cantsbee had disappeared and was presumed dead.
This would be my seventh trip to Africa but my first with an organized tour. Rwanda was the last country of a month-long visit to East Africa in February 2017. James, our trip leader began this adventure with twelve of us in Kenya and then Tanzania, with six of us continuing to Rwanda. As the guides from the Karisoke Research Center evaluated the fitness of the various groups of tourists, James waved us back to the land cruiser. He loaded us into our jeep as a Karisoke guide jumped in the passenger seat and we drove off.
James, with his gleaming white smile, shouted “Michelle, we are going to the Pablo Troop.” Tourists did not usually visit this group but when my trip mates told James of my connection to the Pablo Troop, he made a few calls. It was sheer luck that the lead guide for this group was available.
Driving through dusty colorful villages and maneuvering a rocky and rutted four-wheel drive path, we reached the trail. As the six of us ascended the steep climb through the bamboo forest, I mentioned the loss of Cantsbee to our guide. He asked, “You know Cantsbee?” I nodded yes.
As we approached the ridge, our guide instructed us to stop and be quiet. He nodded me forward and pointed. There squatting in the understory, his arms resting on his massive legs, was a silverback, with eyes alert watching us. My mouth dropped open as I mouthed, Cantsbee! The guide whispered, “He came back. He had unfinished business.” He had lost weight but the gray-white stripe down his back was visible. With an unspoken communication between our guide and the leader, we moved forward on the trail, while Cantsbee disappeared into the understory.
We approached an area and sat where the grass was compressed. Several female gorillas, at first hidden by the tall grass, made their presence known. Grunts. Gorilla language – the guides understood more than 200 words. Slowly, the tall grass parted, and a large female gorilla sauntered a few feet away, and then sat chewing on a stalk of vegetation. Suddenly two black balls of fur tumbled out of the grass playing; a six-month old and a newborn.
The baby, grass tangled in the thick hair, suddenly aware of our presence, started towards me. And then mom grunted and grudgingly, the baby stopped. After two sneaky attempts by the baby, the guide asked the mom if her baby could come close. Mom said no. He told us that the troop is nervous ever since Cantsbee returned.
Although an hour had passed, time had stood still before we made our descent in silence. As I trailed, I glanced behind me and there was Cantsbee, watching. Unable to avoid his eyes, I quickly bowed my head, turned and continued walking. Not only did these intelligent, magnificent creatures allow us into their world, they welcomed us. They showed us more humility and respect than we witness in our own society, among our own species.
Decades of daily direct protection have saved critically endangered mountain gorillas from extinction and stabilized their tiny population in the Virunga’s of Rwanda. With habitat destruction and fossil fuel development, the Grauer’s gorillas in the Congo are experiencing dramatic declines. All types of gorillas are critically endangered and face serious threats to their survival.
Education and tourism are helping groups like the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund International to protect these beautiful animals. Until leaders around the world demand global environmental protection of these unique but endangered habitats, it is our responsibility as travelers of the world to share our stories about such amazing animals, and what the world be like without them.
After I returned home, James sent me a message informing me of the passing of Cantsbee. He was 38 years old. As I write this, I wonder what our troop would be like if our leaders showed even a quarter of humility and respect as Cantsbee showed us.
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