yet another gorilla

White-crested hornbill calls from forest edge.
White-crested hornbill calls from forest edge, sounding like a squeaky cat’s meow.

It was approaching 5:00 PM when Gil and I emerged from the forest onto a mostly overgrown savanna in the Ivinga corridor, south of Gamba. The trail is used mostly by elephants, monkeys, and the few sitatungas we were hoping to see. The crisp late-afternoon sunlight stung momentarily as my eyes adjusted from searching the shadows of forest for hulks of elephants that might begin moving. Forty meters ahead, a dark shape crossed the trail. I could tell immediately by the smooth, powerful stride that this was a gorilla. Unbelievable. As it crossed the trail into vegetation, sunlight shimmered from the lustrous coat of the large silverback, an adult male of perhaps 150 kilos. I motioned for Gil to come forward, but the gorilla was gone as quickly as it appeared. We sidestepped from the trail to nearby cover and watched the bush before us, now infused with the awe and mystery of a gorilla encounter in the wild. We strained to hear any movement, separating the birdsong from breeze rustling through leaves, the crickets in the bush from what we hoped, with a certain amount of trepidation, were more gorillas coming our way.

A silverback, surprised while feeding along a track near Ivinga Station.
A silverback, surprised while feeding along a track near Ivinga Station.

Usually a silverback is accompanied by a troop of various females and juveniles. In years past, as many as fourteen gorillas have passed camera traps placed in this area. Last week during a similar walk, Gil and I watched a female gorilla high in a tree canopy, building a nest or feeding, and could hear another in the understory as we traversed a nearby savanna. Now we waited for the possibility of family following this male, not yet sure if the silverback had spotted us. Recent tracks of a band of gorillas, including three individuals crossing a savanna in the past day or two, suggested there were more animals in the area.

Brilliant butterfly or moth, resting on a leaf.
Brilliant butterfly or moth, resting on a leaf.

Three or four minutes went by with no movement or sound. A few hornbills sailed overhead, butterflies darted low through the vegetation, and a lone Red-chested cuckoo warbled its three-tone melody “all-is-well” from the forest canopy. Suddenly the bushes began moving from where the silverback disappeared and, incredibly, he reappeared back onto trail. The silverback was now facing us, obviously unaware of our presence. Snapping off new leafy shoots, he was eating fresh greens while searching for the next handful. Barely a few seconds later, he glanced up from his dinner to realize we were watching. Without losing a beat, he melted silently back into vegetation, leaving us to wonder if he had actually departed, or had paused to study us from inside the forest edge.

Black-casqued hornbill sails over a savanna near Gamba.
Black-casqued hornbill sails over a savanna near Gamba.

We waited again, both to give him time to move away from the trail and to listen for any nearby family. After 10 minutes, we cautiously proceeded, murmuring and coughing to announce our location should we walk into an alarmed troop of gorillas.

We arrived at a stream cutting across the track, surprising a large heron-like bird from the thick vegetation crowding the bank. Gil was able to identify the bird as a Tiger heron.

Fresh prints of a silverback gorilla, in loose sand. The hind foot, with protruding large toe, between knuckleprints.
Fresh prints of a silverback gorilla in loose sand. The right hind footprint, with protruding large toe, between knuckleprints.

Darkness arrives in this part of the world shortly after 6:00 PM, sooner when in the forest. With a three-kilometer walk before us, we decided to head back. The gorilla zone was now silent, the only evidence being a large set of prints at the edge of the bush. The dark forest before us was a little daunting as we entered, searching again for any beasts we may need to address. Soon we found ourselves following the fresh prints of a large gorilla. Evidently the silverback had circled us and was now somewhere ahead in the forest. Following a gorilla through the forest at dusk is probably not the wisest of plans, but he was between us and the trailhead at this point, so we began murmuring again to give out our location should he be near. Almost on cue, from somewhere to our right, perhaps thirty meters in, the forest erupted with a thrashing of branches and the barking alarm of a gorilla, apparently not happy with us. We froze in our footsteps, hearts racing, to determine if we were going to meet this gorilla face to face, or if he was moving away. Neither happened, so we decided to continue slowly along the trail, talking softly to assure our gorilla that we were moving off.

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