A curious swish in the leaves caught my attention as I returned along a trail deep in Vera Plaines. It was late afternoon, and my walk in the forest had been delayed by rain. At least five centimeters had fallen since I arrived at the trailhead, from midday until nearly 3:00pm, washing all tracks and animal sign from the trail. A constant plop of water dripped through the canopy to the vegetation below, making it difficult to hear any sounds coming through the trees.
Branches continued to shudder and sway, suggesting something large was moving in the thick tree canopy.
I searched back and forth from the trail, straining for a better view, and soon saw a little arm reach to grasp a tree limb. A plump baby gorilla pulled his way out onto a branch. He was mostly hidden by foliage. Tottering for a moment, he nearly fell grabbing a branch to swing into a nearby tree. Thinking it might be a young chimpanzee, I decided to steal into the forest for a closer look. I’m not sure why I thought a chimpanzee might be a safer approach than a gorilla. The little primate was some 30 meters in from the trail, and as I approached the tree, I could hear more rustling, now coming from behind. Another member of this family was likely hiding high in a tree overhanging the trail. As I searched for the new mystery, the baby gorilla moved deeper into the forest, and I chose to ignore the single “pok!” coming from somewhere beyond. Turning my attention to the tree at trailside, I could finally make out a hairy silhouette of gorilla hiding 15 meters up in a tangle of lianas. I began to circle for a better view, and should have taken the second warning “pok!” to be the chest beat of a silverback, sending message that he was ready to intervene.
The female in hiding soon realized her cover was blown. She suddenly rose up through the lianas, feces and urine raining down through the canopy. When that was finished, she began screaming to wake the dead. I remember trying to take a picture, but there were branches in the way, and as I maneuvered, I could hear what sounded like a stampede bulldozing through the understory. An alarmed silverback was headed straight for my position. I glanced over my shoulder as this blur of flying hair came hurtling into view. Not only was the female screaming, the silverback was roaring, howling, and sounding furious. Besides my life flashing before my eyes, I remember thinking: “I am SO F#*%ED!” My other thought was what Lisa and Angelique told me to do when confronted by gorillas: Do NOT Run! I could see that running would be futile. I turned sideways, hoping I might look smaller, not so confrontational, moreover, if there was to be contact, vital organs might have some protection.
The gait of a charging silverback looks like a sideways gallop as rear feet are planted on one side and to the front of forearms; he then lurches forward over his hind feet, the mass of powerful forearms and upper body crashing through the understory. This silverback was bearing down fast. Five meters before feared collision, he rose on his hind legs, arms tearing into the vegetation while he gave out a deafening roar, then veered off in a circle 20 meters to my left. A warning charge. Both animals were now screaming, and, from the sounds of cracking and ripping vegetation, the silverback was preparing for a second charge. Thinking a second charge may be more than a warning, I decided the best course was to move slowly away from the female. With a little coughing and mumbling I began to communicate a deliberate course back to the trail, away from the tree with the female, and definitely away from the silverback. This appeared to alleviate the tense situation. The screaming finally subsided, the roaring stopped. I could hear nothing crashing through the forest in pursuit as I slowly made my way back to the trail. Two kilometers of forest left to traverse, every step a vivid reminder of what it is to be alive.
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