With a BSc in Environment, Economics and Ecology, Sarah has long been fascinated with the challenge of balancing human needs and environmental protection.
Clambering up a steep embankment, we emerge from the close, humid forest into a small clearing. Resting a moment we breathe in the fresh, cool air, enjoying the vista spilling before us – dense forest below, blue-grey mountains in the distance. But we can’t stop long; we have places to go, gorillas to see.
It’s just after midday and we’re nearing the end of a lengthy trek along narrow jungle tracks that lead up the slopes of Volcanoes National Park, Rwanda.
Perhaps half an hour later, our guide stops to point. We crowd in, excited. There, on the forest floor before us, we see our first sign of mountain gorillas – a small, perfectly formed, exceedingly fresh dollop of poo.
Here’s a tip for you: if you ever want to strike up a conversation with a zoologist, you could do worse than to bring up the subject of faeces. Studying, as they do, species that are often elusive and rarely seen, they know all to well that dung can offer an astonishing degree of insight into the health, status and whereabouts of their subjects.
So it is little surprise that the group I am with, which consists mainly of mountain gorilla experts, is more than a little delighted by the discovery.
“Gorillas!” breathes a voice in my ear, a few minutes later – a long, drawn-out exclamation, filled with anticipation.
“Where?” I demand.
“They’re close, I can feel it.”
Sure enough, moments later, we push through a thicket of bamboo and… “There!”
And there he is; a large male, sleeping peacefully – one of three silverbacks in the Kwitonda group we have come to see.
I am unprepared for how the encounter makes me feel. Alongside the awe and excitement I might have expected is something else: familiarity.
This sensation only grows as we come across more gorillas – the bulk of the family this time. The majority of the group is either fast asleep or dozing lightly, some taking time to themselves, others sleeping with limbs entwined.
It's a hard life...
But two of the group are far from asleep, instead showing off that boundless energy only youngsters possess. While the older gorillas seem utterly oblivious to the Homo sapiens in their midst, these two young siblings are utterly fascinated by us.
Making a farce of the ‘seven-metre rule’, they do all they can to get a better look at us, forcing our group to quite literally clamber into the bushes in order to keep the required distance away.
Much to our mingled relief and sorrow, they disappear from view – only to reappear dramatically just minutes later, crashing down from the canopy as the sapling they have climbed (in a bid to get closer to us) bends under their weight, bringing them back to earth with a bump.
Although it should come as no surprise, I cannot help but be amazed at how reminiscent their antics are of the rough-and-tumble games of my own childhood.
A young mountain gorilla pushes over his sibling, then gestures with a defiant chest beat, mimicking an adult.
But this charmingly domestic scene belies a sobering reality: that the future of these amazing animals is by no means assured.
Although populations have been steadily increasing since the 1970s (thanks to incredible conservation efforts, including those of my own colleagues at Fauna & Flora International), their numbers are still low – just 880 at the last count – and they are currently listed as Critically Endangered, meaning there is an extremely high risk that they could become extinct in the wild.
They also still face many threats including injury and death caused by snares set for other wildlife, climate change, habitat destruction and disease. The last of these is the reason why visitors are required to stay at least seven metres away – our two species are so closely related that they can easily catch our illnesses, and a cold that might merely be a nuisance to a human can be deadly to a gorilla.
Recalling this only serves to remind me what a privilege it is to see these great apes in their natural habitat, and to inspire me to play my part in helping them.
The visit passes quickly, and before long it is time to say our goodbyes. But we get one last treat as we make our way back through the forest when we come across another huge male silverback, sitting placidly at the base of a tree, eating.
Abruptly, he rears up to his full – and astonishing – height, using his massive bulk to tear down some more tasty vines to eat. Selecting one, he delicately bites off each end and pulls it through his teeth, stripping off the bark in one smooth, expert action. This he chews, scratching his enormous belly in satisfaction.
A silverback expertly strips a vine of its bark.
Too soon it is time to go. Tearing our eyes away we begin the hike back down the mountain, leaving these extraordinary animals to continue their day in peace.
It is the perfect end to a great week, during which I have been lucky enough to meet with colleagues from all over the world to talk about mountain gorilla protection at a workshop convened by the International Gorilla Conservation Programme (a collaboration between Fauna & Flora International and WWF).
As I write this, we are eagerly awaiting the census results for the Virunga Massif mountain gorilla population, pending DNA analysis of genetic material gathered from…you guessed it…poo.
Fauna & Flora International is grateful for the support of players of People’s Postcode Lottery, who are helping us to conserve many of the planet’s most endangered species, including mountain gorillas. You too can support this vital work making a donation.
Article originally published in the Cambridge Independent.