The five hundred pound silverback in front of me rolled over in his sleep. He had bits of dirt and leaf poking out from his coarse fur and his nose whistled with breath. Other gorillas from the group surrounded us, snapping branches and grunting to each other. Some, especially the adults, were doing this out of irritation to our presence, and others were simply feeding and locomoting. I ignored the commotion and focused on Isabukuru and the heavy rise and fall of his large stomach.
I opened my tan canvas field book and mindlessly shuffled through hundreds of pages of ethograms, data collection and endless strings of code. If I were to stop on page 163, I would read what the entire olive baboon group in Ruzizi was doing that day, July 7th, from sun-up to the time of day when they gathered in their sleeping trees underneath the setting pink sky. Page 321 would remind me of the day in Nyungwe forest when a troop of colobus monkeys jumped through the canopy above, raining a shower of feces onto me and Bernd’s laughing faces. All I had witnessed was on those waterproof pages, and they showed the evolution of my experience as much as the behavior and demographics of these very different primates. After watching Isabukuru’s still body for another few moments, I reluctantly closed my book, relaxed my body and drifted off into a light sleep, ready to wake up at the first sign of movement.
I opened my eyes and orange glared back at me. I’d seen this color before, in the peel that my brother would add to the old fashioned he ritually made me, standing at the bar in a tucked away corner of our parent’s house. I’d seen this color in the sweating Arizona sun I had watched with my arm tucked around my dog, Frank. And I’d seen it in my father’s floral necktie, the one he wore when we spent that summer in Hawaii burrowing our feet into the warm sand. This orange, however, this reflecting stare had life behind it. The orange disappeared for a moment, as Isabukuru blinked sleepily. Leaning back on my hands, I pushed myself out of my “hiding” spot, bits of damp dirt lingering on my palms. I was now four feet away from the silverback and without making a sound, I lowered myself onto my left side and stretched out into a horizontal position, pressing my face directly into the earth mimicking him. I arranged my hands and feet to precisely mirror him, and I realized I had been holding my breath throughout this entire movement. My lungs at capacity, I expelled air towards Isabukuru who was so close to me that I wondered if he could feel my breath on his face. He watched me with a curious and careful stare, still not prepared to get up from his nap. Although I wanted to bore into his amber irises, I did not keep eye contact for longer than a moment, knowing that he may get nervous. Isabukuru, I’ve spent countless hours looking for you, and I’ve shed tears when I could not find you.
The wrinkles on his nose ran deep, intertwining and providing a labyrinth of information. When I first came across the giant mammal weeks before, sitting peacefully under a tree, I knew who he was immediately because of these prints that he uniquely bares. There was a sudden loud cracking sound as someone stomped through the dense foliage behind me. Sitting up, I twisted my head around, prepared to glare at the tracker for being so disruptive. Instead of seeing a thin, dark-skinned man dressed in a forest-green uniform with tall rubber boots and holding a rifle, I saw a tuft of black hair sticking out overtop of a short bush. When the figure moved and green hazel eyes met my own, the muscles in my mouth immediately formed upwards. There she was. I made two short, low grunts followed by a longer, rising one, comforting Keza and letting her know it was okay to approach. She crawled straight through the bush and the three-year-old juvenile plopped down in a seated position at my knees, hands grabbing my mud-encrusted hiking shoes. As her fingers twirled my shoelaces, I tore a small leaf off of a nearby lobelia branch. Keza looked up from my shoe and watched me roll the leaf in my palm, eyes wide and observant. When I put the leaf in my mouth and started chewing, she climbed onto my lap and put her face up to mine, smelling my mouth. Keza, little one, am I strange to you? Am I just a pale, naked animal or can you tell that I am so close to you? Here, in front of these beasts, the ego and selfishness of man could not exist. The spectrum of our existence is so apparent in their expressions, granting us the gift of recognition that our distant relatives aren’t so distant at all. A breeze rushed through the small clearing, and the sweat dispersed across my body became pearls of ice, biting against my skin. Bored of my eating habits and comforted by her post in the nook of my crossed legs, Keza snatched the pencil out of my hand and stuck it up under her nose, taking short sniffs along its length. As she inspected it, I stroked her lower back with light fingers. I picked out bits of leaf and mud from her fur and wanted desperately to throw my long arms around her and kiss her soft black face. Her curiosity pumped blood quickly to my heart and oxygen seemed to become irrelevant on that tender ridge.
Isabukuru, who had been sleepily observing the scene, decided that it was time for his daughter to stop playing with the awkwardly shaped outsider who lacked their particular social graces. He sat up in a manner that was more hurried than his usual sluggish shifts and stared at me straight with sharp eyes that had not been present moments before. Moving his mouth as if he were chewing, he looked more childish and contemplative than threatening. Gently, I pushed Keza off of my lap and into the direction of her father, apologizing to the young gorilla internally. She ambled toward him and he pulled her into him with a scoop of his large arm, which she deftly adverted and ducked under. Prancing around Isabukuru’s nest, Keza rushed at him with her chest puffed and knuckles downward in the ground, attempting to play in a bravado she thought appealed to the older male. She broke small branches, trounced through bushes, and began beating at her chest with little fists. Just like any other female, she was unable to produce the champagne cork-popping sound that a silverback can make, lacking the necessary air sacks. Isabukuru watched her slightly amused- mouth twisted and brow ridge raised. Two days earlier, the cautious leader had stopped in his tracks as we travelled along the summit of the volcano. Hearing something that my ears could never pick up, he suddenly stood on his back two legs and thumped his chest rapidly, a high-pitched hollow thunder bellowing across the crater. That evening over dinner, Bernd had told me that he had been with the Titus group that day and had heard the threat as they rested a kilometer down the mountain from our position.
Still, without results, Keza continued pumping away at her small frame, getting more excited when she saw her sister, Samedi, trudge through the thick fence of leafage that dominated the landscape. As Samedi made her way over to Isabukuru, Keza ambushed her, wrestling her to the ground. The older sister barely reacted, pulling herself up and continuing towards her dad, dropping down against him. Defeated, Keza laid down in the same spot where she hopefully tried to play with Samedi, her small belly creating a black crescent moon against the green backdrop. She kept her eyes open, mindlessly looking around at the sky and surrounding shrubbery, finally resting her eyes on me. Eyes flickering up and down the length of my body, she reached out her hand towards me and laid it on the ground, her open palm facing upward. Quickly looking over towards Isabukuru and Samedi, I saw that they were fast asleep, curled up together on their sides as one big mass of black fur. I got on my hands and knees and leaned forward in Keza’s direction. I touched her fingertips with mine before lowering my hand into hers. Her fingers were caked with dirt, yet somehow felt smooth as I traced the lines in her palm. She was so beautiful. I licked my chapped lips, tasting the salt from the tears that unwillingly coursed down my face. Eyes still locked on mine, she closed her fist around my hand and tried to tug me closer. I had to fight against every muscle in my body to stay planted firmly in my spot. Gorillas who become too habitualized with humans are easy targets for poachers, a danger their species could not afford. I retracted my hand, and it is the hardest thing that I can remember doing in years. Sitting there, looking at Keza with her arm still reaching out to me, I could only hope that this part of the research would get easier over time. Leaves crunching underfoot, snapping me out of my fixation, Dieter climbed up the slope, pushing aside tall stems with nettled leaves attached.
“How’re you doing up here, L? Almost ready to call it a day?” He spoke in a low voice, keeping himself 3 or 4 meters away from the gorillas and me.
“Yea, I don’t think they’re going to be doing much else today besides heading to their sleeping spot for the night so we can head down.” I put my pencil and field book into my backpack and headed down towards Dieter where a small trail would take us down the volcano.
We hiked in silence, reflecting over our observations of the day, and the moments we were still trying to wrap our heads around. My binoculars smacked against my chest as I jumped down over rocks and tree roots and patches of nettles whipped against my arms, leaving their stinging chemicals on my skin. We emerged from the forest at the base of the volcano and were presented with sloping potato fields and piles of ashes where vegetation had recently been burned. Small goats were tied up to posts near children, who either stared with wide eyes or ran alongside us as we trudged down the dusty hills. Holding my bandana against my mouth, I looked back towards Bisoke. The uprising of earth’s surface piled above me, and I thought of Isabukuru.