Give Us a Squeeze Lovey

An Amazing Day with Peanut’s Group

Dian Fossey’s Karisoke Research Center, Rwanda, Africa

Hagenia trees seem almost life like with their many twists and turns.

Hagenia trees seem almost life like with their many twists and turns.

Journal Entry August 9, 1985

Wayne, David and I hiked into Zaire today in search of Peanut’s Group. The Zairean border is only a 15-minute walk from Karisoke. No passport required, we simply jumped over a small stream.

The terrain is surreal. We passed through wide emerald meadows flanked by huge hagenia trees. Whispy vegetation hangs from the horizontal branches like gauzy sleeves swaying in a breeze. It almost feels like we’re on another planet. I can understand why Dian hates leaving here even for a couple of days.

Wayne really didn’t want to take both of us along with him. He was cautioned by another researcher against approaching Peanut’s Group with more than one other person. There’s still a good deal of unrest among the 6 male members over the two females acquired from Nunkie’s Group after he died recently.

Stinging Nettles

Stinging Nettles

Stinging Nettles

Peanut’s Group remained hidden in the nettles all day making photography impossible. Nettles grow as tall as 7 feet here and we had a royal battle with them today. These fuzzy prickly plants secrete an excruciating stinging fluid that can sting right through your jeans. We’d be miserable of it weren’t for our Gortex pants and jackets. The gorillas eat nettles,  so we inevitably find ourselves surrounded by them. They also eat gallium and 4-foot tall celery. Peanut’s Group left a 4-foot platform of trampled nettles leaving a semi-stable platform for us to walk on. It’s such an odd sensation – it’s what I imagine walking on the moon would be like.

The Big Scare

It was difficult to photograph the gorillas as they often were surrounded by tall vegetation.

It was difficult to photograph the gorillas as they often were surrounded by tall vegetation.

David got the pants scared off him today. He was peering over some vegetation straining to glimpse some gorillas when he felt a firm squeeze on his knee. At first he thought it was Wayne or me but when he took his eye away from the view finder, he saw us both in the distance. David looked down slowly into the face of a large male gorilla looking up at him. It was as if David had asked him to “Give us a squeeze lovey.” The blood drained from David’s tanned face.

“Never block a gorilla’s path,” Dian had said. David was standing on a well-worn gorilla path but couldn’t will himself to move. The gorilla walked around him then continued on his path without giving this errant human a second glance. Dian calls them mighty wonderful beasts and gentle giants. She’s so right. They tolerate our presence with such dignity. The more I’m around them, the more I respect them.

Gorillas have fascinated me since I saw King Kong at the movies when I was a little girl. That led me to the zoo where I could have watched them for hours. I studied their faces as they watched the people on the other side of their enclosure. Even then I felt a connection. Now, that I’m here in Rwanda with the gorillas, those feelings have come back tenfold.

New Group Dynamics

Peanut’s Group did a good deal of hooting and vocalizing, no doubt over the 2 new female additions to the bachelor group. Nunkie was the silverback leader of his own group when he died of natural causes. Females in that situation seek out a new silverback for protection. Two of Nunkie’s females went to Peanut’s Group, 6 went to Group 5 and one went to a lone silverback named Tiger.

More Excitement

Our tracker Kananira is newly hired and I think he’s trying to do an extra good job. He approached Peanut’s Group ahead of us and got charged by one of the males. The gorilla stood upright, beat his chest and ran toward Kananira with his hair standing on end as if he’d been struck by lightening. He gnashed his teeth at Kananira, who pulled at some wild celery, looked down and kept repeating “um-um-wuam, um-um-wuam.”

This scared the crap out of all of us, so we grabbed some celery, took a bite then began vocalizing, “um-um-wuam, um-um-wuam.” Dian had explained to us that 95% of the time a gorilla charges, it’s a bluff. This makes him easier prey for poachers who want to sell gorilla babies illegally. It really feels silly making gorilla vocalizations at first but the gorillas do it with each other all day. Besides, it’s absolutely mandatory when trying not to break another of Dian’s rules: Never surprise a gorilla. Shortly thereafter the group calmed down. Wayne thinks the gorilla may have mistaken the new tracker for a poacher.

Gorillas spend most of their day either eating or foraging for food.

Gorillas spend most of their day either eating or foraging for food.

Grateful, Grateful, Grateful

We are so lucky to be here. Not many people will ever get the chance to sit among a group of mountain gorillas in the wild. If poaching continues this may not be possible 50 years from now. This is the hardest physical work we’ve ever done but the most rewarding. I’m so grateful to Dian for inviting us. She should have returned to Karisoke today but didn’t. I hope she gets home safe.

Helpful Stuff:

Mountain Gorilla’s Survival: Dian Fossey’s Legacy Lives On This powerful film takes you behind the scenes, uncovering the story of the devoted trackers risking their lives to save a species.

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