Growling With The Gorillas: A Rwanda Mountain Trek Gorillas often get a bad rap, but folks who work with them say they're as much gentle as giant. On a recent trip to scope out the primates, an NPR producer trekked into the Virunga mountains of East Africa, where more than half of the world's mountain gorillas live.
NPR logo

Growling With The Gorillas: A Rwanda Mountain Trek

  • Download
  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
Growling With The Gorillas: A Rwanda Mountain Trek

Growling With The Gorillas: A Rwanda Mountain Trek

  • Download
  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript


Just saying the word gorilla conjures an image of something mighty and ferocious. After all, gorillas are imposing. They're the world's largest primates, some weighing as much as 500 pounds. NPR's Rebecca Davis recently traveled to the Virunga Mountains in East Africa where about half of the world's remaining mountain gorillas live and she found that these great primates and their young can be as gentle as they are giant.

REBECCA DAVIS, BYLINE: If you ever hope to have an audience with Rwanda's most famous citizens, you have to get up before sunrise, pack up your rain gear, put on hiking boots, grab a pair of gardening gloves and catch a ride. OK, we're in the Land Cruisers and we are heading up the mountain. This is a volcanic mountain range that spreads across three countries - Uganda, Democratic Republic of the Congo and Rwanda.

I'm with a group of about 12 other visitors and our drivers let us out at the base of a trail that we're supposed to follow.

It's damp, but not too muddy and in front of us are the peaks of volcanoes. Today, we're going to see a group of gorillas in which there are a set of twins, so we're all pretty excited about seeing them. Twins, you see, are extremely rare among mountain gorillas. The ones we hope to catch up with are boys born into a group they've called Hirwa, which means Lucky One.

EUGENE TWAHILGA: Can you come closer down here please? Because now we enter the forest.

DAVIS: We lean in and our guide Eugene Twahilga says, keep close together. And when we do meet up with the gorillas, try to keep about 20 feet away from them. It's OK to take pictures, but no flash.

TWAHILGA: The flash is not normally allowed because seeing this flash might frighten the gorillas.

DAVIS: Can I ask you a quick question? We hear things like do look them in the eye, don't look them in the eye, turn your back, don't turn your back, run, don't run. Can you give us any advice?

TWAHILGA: Any advice? For these gorillas, you will never run. Does no good otherwise. You can do any other things, but don't try to run away.

DAVIS: Or they'll chase you. We laughed nervously. One of the silverbacks, the big daddy of the group, weighs in at 430 pounds. For years now, these forests and their inhabitants have been protected from poachers and farmers. So unlike much of the land in Rwanda that has been cleared for crops, the mountainsides here are still covered by rainforests. If you go to Google Earth and look up Volcanoes National Park, you'll see that this protected zone is like a small toupee on a bald man's head.

Yes, it is lush, but space is limited.

TWAHILGA: This bamboo is their favorite food. Before they eat it, they have to peel it first.

DAVIS: Eugene's been a guide for 13 years so he's come to know the gorillas and their habits as well as anyone. But a few years ago, on a trek with some tourists, he saw something he'd never seen before.

TWAHILGA: I was with a group and it was around 9:30 like that, we were watching the gorillas.

DAVIS: He says the gorillas were sitting around in an open area, munching and resting when suddenly a pregnant female stands up and walks away from the others.

TWAHILGA: And then, we saw that the females, like the other females, went down to the other female and then they surrounded the pregnant female.

DAVIS: With all the females forming a circle, Eugene says he could no longer see the pregnant gorilla, but suddenly, he heard a piercing noise, a cry.

TWAHILGA: That noise, I've never heard it again. Sounds like it was a bit painful.

DAVIS: Painful, yeah. Then, the male of the group, the silverback, began beating his chest. And Eugene says the female breaks through the circle and walks into a clearing carrying a newborn baby on her arm.

TWAHILGA: Yeah, that was a good experience. So they were very happy, because it's not everybody who can see that.

DAVIS: Especially since mountain gorillas give birth only once every four years, so the population grows slowly. But the most recent census shows the number of the gorillas in the Virungas has grown by 25 percent in the last decade. Today, there are about 480 mountain gorillas living in these forests.

But make no mistake, they face some serious challenges. Top on that list is the threat of disease, especially diseases from people coming into contact with the gorillas. Since these primates are so much like us, human viruses spread easily and dangerously among them.

There's also pressures on the gorilla habitat from locals who venture into the forest for wood and to set traps for antelope - traps which also injure and kill gorillas. And then there's the political instability and fighting in parts of this region, which means gunfire and more disruption to these forests and the animal life that lives here.

TWAHILGA: Need a hand?

DAVIS: Grab my fingers.

And now we're in a stand of bamboo totally enclosed over our heads. It's dark and we've been advised to speak quietly.


DAVIS: I hear a growling sound. What is that? It's our guide letting the gorillas know that we're here so we don't startle them. That's very nice of him. I'm not sure I want to meet a startled gorilla.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: There's one right in front of us.

DAVIS: Oh, my god. It's a gorilla. Oh, wow. He's like a big black Buddha sitting there.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: There's another baby straight ahead.

TWAHILGA: This is their mother with the twins.

DAVIS: The twins are playing. They're absolutely adorable. And they're kind of about the size of a toddler. And they're rolling around on their mom's belly. They're still nursing. Oh, one just started beating on his chest and sort of fell over. I'd say that was a juvenile. The baby's coming our way. They don't want us getting that close to the baby or any of the gorillas. Yep, we're backing up.


DAVIS: Slowly backing up.




DAVIS: Just trying to maintain our distance.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Excuse me. Turn quickly.


DAVIS: That's our guide. OK. The big guy just got up and he's moving towards us.


DAVIS: Yep. So we're back lying down. I have to say when he got up and started moving, I started to feel a little nervous. May I remind you, these things are huge and he's just lying there. It's crazy. Like he's reclining, looking at us.

Are they always this mellow?

TWAHILGA: Mm, it depends, because every morning after they wake up they start to eat. They eat intensively and then around this time then they have their first break.


DAVIS: And for the better part of an hour we stood there watching this little country scene: sun breaking through the trees; an afternoon nap. A cheeky toddler annoying its dozing mother. And if it hadn't been for the clutter of vines and bamboo, we would've spread a blanket and been lulled into a gentle sleep among the gorillas.


SIMON: Rebecca Davis traveled to Rwanda on a program organized by the International Reporting Project.


SIMON: You're listening to WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News.

Copyright © 2012 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.