The gorillas on the slopes of the Virunga volcanoes—some 300 animals—inhabit a small forested island surrounded by a sea of people. Twenty miles to the north is Uganda's Impenetrable Forest, now protected as Bwindi Impenetrable National Park, another island with perhaps 300 gorillas. These 285 square miles represent the entire world of the remaining mountain gorillas. Years ago, when I watched the gorillas' leisurely life, the animals eating and sleeping and tumbling in play, I was glad that they could not fathom their rarity and my concerns. We have a common past, but only humans have been given the mental power to worry about their fate.
Now the radiance of those months returned as intense memories. Once again Kay and I followed a swath of head-high vegetation until soft grumbles signaled contented gorillas ahead. We recalled old gorilla acquaintances: Big Daddy, the silverback leader of a large group, his power majestic even in repose, and Junior, a reckless young male that liked to linger near us. Once a female with an infant on her back had climbed with startling innocence upon a low branch to sit with me, probably the first time that a wild gorilla and a human were amicably side-by-side.
However, to me that gorilla study had meaning beyond the gathering of new facts. Gorillas had long been viewed as symbols of savagery, "exceedingly ferocious" in temper, as a 19th-century missionary phrased it. My task was not to capture or master them but solely to interpret their life. So I approached them with empathy and respect, wanting nothing from them but peace and proximity. And they accepted my presence with an astounding generosity of spirit. The recent decades have been a turning point, indeed a revolution, in our relationship with animals. Humans have begun to overcome cross-species barriers, achieving intimacy with humpback whales, chimpanzees, lions, mountain sheep, wolves. The gorillas of popular image were a fantasy. It pleases me that I helped change perceptions.
The gorilla, of course, is more than an animal. These apes are a primal part of human heritage. Our kin. We traveled down different evolutionary paths, the gorillas creating their own world, complete and coherent, and humans shaping theirs. No one who looks into a gorilla's eyes—intelligent, gentle, vulnerable—can remain unchanged, for the gap between ape and human vanishes; we know that the gorilla still lives within us. Do gorillas also recognize this ancient connection?
Our reveries that day on Mount Visoke were shattered by a walkie-talkie message from the lowlands: The Rwandan Patriotic Front—led by ethnic Tutsi—had invaded from Uganda. We were ordered to leave the mountains immediately. Led by primatologist Diane Doran, the director of Karisoke at the time, we descended to the town of Ruhengeri. Caught in the middle of a battle between rebels and the Rwandan Army the following day, we were evacuated by French paratroopers.