In The Midst of Gorillas

“The king's name is Gukubita. It means ‘beat’. But don't worry, he beats his chest not his visitors." Our guide Eugene winks, adjusts the automatic rifle on his shoulder, and turns toward the jungle.

We walk up the base of the Sambinyo Volcano to track Gukubita and his family of mountain gorillas.

Rwanda’s volcano region is called the Virunga Mountains and is the place Dian Fossey founded the Karasoke Research Center in 1967 to study and protect the gorillas.

Karasoke protects one third of all mountain gorillas in the Virungas, and because of their efforts the critically endangered population has increased by almost seven hundred.

Eugene’s machete rings out a high Cschringgg, as it strikes the bamboo thicket. The lush, emerald-colored terrain is difficult to navigate. There are no trails, so we walk on top of the vegetation.

I silently wish I remembered my gaiters and gloves, as my limbs scrape against the stinging nettles. Each unsteady step produces a new welt.

We pass three men who live on the volcano by day. They are armed, quiet, and greet us with nods. These men protect the gorillas from hired poachers, who kill the majestic animals for souvenir heads and hands, then sell them as bushmeat. The baby gorillas are taken from their families and sold to exotic animal owners, who focus only on their status in society and not their proper place on the planet.

"Poaching is a big problem in the Republic of Congo,” our guide explains. "But here in Rwanda our animals are protected. We have not had an infant stolen or mother killed in ten years."

I balance on the undergrowth and take in the views. Coffee, potatoes, and bananas grow on terraced hillsides and cows graze in a field below.

Our group halts suddenly. Eugene presses his gloved finger to his lips.

There is movement in the thicket next to me. I startle.

Nestled in the lush green leaves is a black, wrinkled face. A female gorilla sits, five feet from me. She is quiet and calm. Her eyes are the color of burnt umber, wizened by thousands of long, star-lit nights on the volcano. She holds my gaze and I well up.

Desikashar said, “Yoga exists in the world because everything is linked.”
The gorilla climbs a few inches up the hillside to an open space. She faces us and reveals her baby. The three-month old clings to his mother’s belly and she cradles him with one arm. I imagine that she is proud to introduce us. She turns and disappears into the vines.

I feel allied to this Mother. I think of the first time I heard my son’s heartbeat in the doctor’s office. That moment flicked a switch inside my heart. I thought, “This is God.”

I cannot fathom how any person could harm her and take that baby away.

Eugene clears his throat and growls. "I am telling Gukubita, the king, that we mean no harm."

Gukubita echoes the call. "We can enter now," Eugene tells us. "Remember do not run if you are frightened. If he beats his chest, slowly crouch down on your knees to show respect."

We enter a cave of bamboo. I hear throaty grunts above us. Another mother and baby lounge in a hammock-like nest. When they move a shower of dried leaves and twigs lands on our heads.

Gukubita lays on the ground chewing. His onyx coat shimmers in the sunlight. He surveys our group and seems comfortable, even tolerant, in spite of our intrusion.

I snap photographs and inch closer. He yawns, his tongue and teeth stained black. I stand ten feet away with my friend Laura, a filmmaker who stares over her viewfinder, mesmerized. Gukubita’s imposing size contradicts his mild spirit.

Eugene grunts again and Gukubita answers.

He yawns one last time and then begins his show. He reaches for a bamboo shoot and pulls himself upward. He measures six feet tall and 350 pounds. His dark hands curl into fists as he inhales. Then he roars, pounds his chest, and rushes toward us.

I lower my camera, drop to my knees, and avert my eyes to ensure the king knows I have no intention of challenging him. I recoil at the high-pitched sound of bamboo snapping. My fingers tremble as I reach out and hold Laura's hand. Then silence.

"You can look at him," Eugene whispers.

Gukubita poses on all fours at arms length from me. I resist a foolish urge to reach out and touch his silver shoulder. His breath mists from his nose. He waits as I attempt to take a photo with shaky hands. He repeats the grunt and sigh that means he accepts us and wanders off into the thicket.

Yoga teaches us that true personal strength is neither passive nor oppressive. We can only know authentic power when we find the balance between these two. This king is a yogi.
He earns our respect in a calm, direct manner. He demonstrates that his duty is to protect his family and that he will only wield his power if necessary.

I can no longer feel the stinging on my ankles and wrists. I stand in silent awe. Laura peels my fingers from her hand and laughs, “You can let go now."

The animals allow us to view their world. We witness babies in their mothers' arms, playful youths swing from branches in the distance, and our king sits high in the trees surveying it all. He effortlessly demolishes bamboo trees as he lowers the food toward his throne.

I wonder what the poachers are feeling as they approach such a beast. They must be terrified that he will pummel them.

Suddenly, I understand their desperation. They have no options. The power in their lives is unbalanced, so aggression is a means to feed their families.

Desikashar is right. We are linked. I have as much to learn from the poachers as from the King. We cannot choose to what we are inexorably connected, but each connection can lead us to empathy and understanding. This is God.

Gukubita assesses his family and their surroundings, then satisfied, he lays back in a bed of green, closes his eyes and goes to sleep.

I send a silent thank you from my heart, and wonder if the gorillas feel a relationship to us-- hairless, trembling creatures, who seek to capture the moment with black lenses in front of our eyes.

My guide whispers, “God roams the world but comes to rest in these mountains.”