The Science of Sustainability

Mountain Gorillas and their Human Guides: A Symbiotic Relationship

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Sea anemone and clownfish, ants and the acacia tree; in the natural world, there are many symbiotic relationships, those in which two species benefit from each other. Humans, it seems, are rarely part of such a partnership, so it was all the sweeter to believe I had discovered one.

I knew that my fall journey to Uganda and Rwanda would include a grand finale of hiking into the Virungas Mountains and encountering the rare (only 700 left) Mountain Gorilla. I knew it was going to be incredible to see such endangered and magnificent creatures close up. I knew the hike through mud and thistles would be challenging. I knew what to wear. I thought I knew it all, but was quite unprepared for what I witnessed.

Entering the Virungas Park headquarters after a hectic boarder crossing and rain threatening to dampen our experience, our group of 20 felt incredible relief to arrive in the care of our guides, who greeted us with smiles and hot coffee.

As the men spoke of Group 22, the gorillas we were to visit, it was clear this was more than a job to them and that these gorillas were not simply their livelihood. One of the guides had known a particular gorilla for over 10 years. They worried about their well being, about the poaching and human born disease (www.mgvp.org) that threatened them, and about how they were doing within their group. They were their family.

After a rather magical three hour journey through bamboo and mud, we met up with the trackers and left everything besides ourselves and our cameras in a pile.

"Let us meet our cousins," the guides said.

We climbed over a ridge… and there they were.

Now for the part I was unprepared for: the gorillas were willing to let us into their bamboo forest homes, willing to let us to gaze at their long-eyelashed females and infants with tiny human-like feet, willing to hear us giggle at the antics of their juveniles and quietly gasp at the sheer size and gentle power of their silverback. It was astounding what they allowed, and it seemed their allowance was part of a contract agreed upon long ago, to be part of a mutually beneficial partnership.

Upon first seeing the silverback, the guides gave a greeting: a long grunting huff-growl which seemed to say, "Hello. It is us. You know us and trust us. We are here for our one-hour allotted visit with 8 friends. They mean you no harm. You are the boss." The silverback made a small grunt at them that seemed to say, "Fine. Just be cool." Each time any gorilla in the group got too close to us, the grunting huff-growl was given to the silverback. They were communicating.

As we began our blissed-out descent, one more grunt from the silverback seemed to say, "Thank you for protecting us and our habitat. Now your time is up. We will see you tomorrow, if that is what it takes. Good Day, Sirs."

A symbiotic relationship? Let's just say yes.

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Category: Biodiversity, Environment, Partners

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Amy Gotliffe

About the Author ()

Amy Gotliffe is Conservation Manager at the Oakland Zoo. She is a Detroit transplant, enjoying the good Bay Area life for 17 years. She has a degree in communications, holds several teaching credentials and has a Masters Degree in Environmental Education. She has worked at various Bay Area educational and environmental institutions, teaching second grade, working on campaigns, planting pollinator gardens, producing earth day events and generally spreading the word about wildlife and green living. She currently works at The Oakland Zoo where she serves as the Conservation Manager. There, she coordinates support for international, national and local conservation efforts, produces a Conservation Speaker Series, produces the zoo's Earth Day event, leads eco-trips, teaches the various educational programs and heads up an on-site Green Team. On her list of other passions are travel, photography, music and the lindy hop. :-)
  • Debbie Morrow

    I was honored to be able to share this experience with you. A memory I will always cherish. You and the gorillas have a special place in my heart. This was truly a life changing dream.

  • Sarah Cramer

    Like Amy, I wonder what the gorillas think of the pale primates that visit them! Especially since not every gorilla group sees tourists every day in the off season (trackers are with them every day.) Do they notice "Hey, the pale primates are back!"?

  • http://www.pamelasturner.com Pamela Turner

    Lovely piece! I don't know of anyone who has visited mountain gorillas who doesn't come away perfectly awed by the experience. There really is no other land animal of this stature that you can safely get this close to.

  • http://www.vitaminsdiary.com/acai-berry.htm J. Martin

    I was unprepared for: the gorillas were willing to let us into their bamboo forest homes, willing to let us to gaze at their long-eyelashed females and infants with tiny human-like feet, willing to hear us giggle at the antics of their juveniles and quietly gasp at the sheer size and gentle power of their silverback. It was astounding what they allowed, and it seemed their allowance was part of a contract agreed upon long ago,

  • mary garrett

    Thank you for this great note — i've never cared for the primates in a zoo, it just seems so wrong. But your story shows these gorillas in a different light — i so hope we can manage to let them survive
    thank you
    mary