Mountain gorilla trekking is Rwanda's greatest tourist attraction and an unforgettable wildlife experience.
"He has been watching us since we arrived, his eyes portraying a curiosity that matches ours.
But we are not equals.
He is the largest and oldest silverback in Rwanda – and this is his home. He demands respect and as his 220kg body moves deceptively fast towards us, we give it without hesitation.
I crouch low into submission, eyes pointing to the ground. I don’t need to look up to know he has reached us – I can feel his presence. He is testing us.
After a few tense but uneventful minutes he returns to his original position, comfortable that we have accepted his status as king of the forest. I exhale, unaware that I have been holding my breath. We have passed his test."
With the silverback seemingly tolerating our presence, I turn my eyes to the rest of his family. There are a number of females, feeding on the forest vegetation as their small children wrestle with each other nearby. I hear the calls of other family members in the distance, including a younger silverback that had crossed our path earlier as we trekked towards the main group. A large black-back male is navigating his way through the trees to our right, preferring his own company but reluctant to venture too far from his social group.
The youngest of the family moves towards the silverback, craving attention like a human child. Its siblings follow and they begin to wrestle, as the silverback lies down to rest - uninterested but unbothered by their antics. They are easily distracted however and soon move away to continue their games near one of the females.
For the most part, the gorillas seem indifferent to our presence, aware but unperturbed. Occasionally however, one looks up and our eyes meet, curiosity and recognition driving a mutual connection.
It’s not just the 98% shared genetic code that we have in common (making mountain gorillas our closest cousins after chimpanzees and bonobos). Humans and mountain gorillas also share a complicated but integrated relationship.
In 1985, there were only 250 mountain gorillas left in the world. Today, there are nearly 900 in the wild, with approximately half living in the Volcanoes National Park that crosses Rwanda, DRC and Uganda.
It’s an area of unrelenting natural beauty, providing a habitat in which mountain gorillas should typically thrive. But for many decades, poaching, civil unrest and habitat encroachment created an inhospitable environment. Humans became the gorillas’ biggest threat, driving them to near extinction.
In more recent times, conservation awareness and initiatives are helping the mountain gorilla population grow each year. And whilst they remain critically endangered, the human race that once threatened their existence is now their greatest hope for survival.
In addition, some of the tourist income generated both directly and indirectly from gorilla treks filters into the surrounding villages. The same communities that were once home to many of the poachers threatening the gorillas’ existence are now benefitting from their protection and survival.
As I ponder the complicated and evolving relationship between humanity and the natural world, I turn my eyes back to the silverback that has survived 47 years in this forest against all the odds.
After decades of a challenging co-existence, the future of both the mountain gorillas and the surrounding communities appears irrevocably linked, with an intertwined destiny that will hopefully lead to the prosperity of both.