This April, Warner Bros. Pictures’ Rampage will bring to the world a story of friendship that tries to fight all odds. Primatologist, David Okoye (played by Dwayne Johnson) befriends George, an albino gorilla when he is only two years old. The reclusive David and George, who grows into a silverback, form a strong bond, one which is tested when a freak accident causes George to mutate into a giant monstrous gorilla that threatens human lives.
It may not be easy to imagine a friendship between what appears to be a fearsome creature and people at first go, but when you see a gorilla in the wild and understand how gentle these giants can be, it is not a feat unimaginable.
There are fewer than 900 mountain gorillas left in the wild today and they live in the East African mountains stretching across Uganda, Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. To see this small but steady population of mountain gorillas you have to trek right into the heart of the rainforest. There is no experience that comes close to looking at a 200-kilogram silverback leading his family through the forest. For their size, mountain gorillas really are rather gentle beings—their fingers that end not in claws but fingernails, their wise twinkling eyes, the tenderness with which they interact with each other and with their young. It is not difficult to see how David Okoye easily befriended George.
While befriending or even seeing an albino gorillas may not be something that happens to you in this lifetime (there has been only one documented case of an albino gorilla in the world so far), these are the places where you can go to see human-habituated gorillas in their natural habitat:
In northwest Rwanda’s Volcanoes National Park, you can visit one of ten habituated gorilla families living in the Virungas Mountains.
The park is famous for being the home of Dian Fossey. It is here that she spent years with the resident gorilla families and her book Gorillas in the Mist is based. The rainforest and mist-covered mountain slopes are not easy to traverse. Each family resides at different altitudes and the trek can vary from moderately difficult to challenging but with the help of seasoned guides and porters, you can spend an hour in the company of the forest’s most famous inhabitants. Apart from the gorilla trek, Volcanoes also has a Dian Fossey Tomb Trail, a challenging hike to 9,843 feet on Mount Bisoke and a hike to the Ngezi Crater Lake.
Uganda’s Bwindi Impenetrable National Park is home to half the world’s mountain gorilla population. The ancient forest was named a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1994 owing to its incredible biodiversity and also the fact that it is home to a large number of endangered species including chimpanzees, l’Hoest’s monkeys, birds such as Shelley’s crimson-wing and the African giant swallowtail butterfly. There is also the Mgahinga Gorilla National Park, which sits high in the Virungas and stretches into Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. It also has three of the eight major Virungas peaks: Mount Gahinga, Mount Muhabura and Mount Sabyinyo.
Much like in Rwanda’s Volcanoes National Park, the trek in these parks can be arduous. There are no fixed trails and the thick forest vegetation is cleared with machetes that the park rangers carry with them. But all the effort in the end is worth it when you see a gorilla mother cradling her baby, or a giant silverback happily munching only few feet away. An hour spent in the company of these primates can be the experience of a lifetime. Even though you are at a safe distance, there is nothing stopping the gorillas from approaching you and there have been times when travellers have returned with stories of being hugged by mischievous gorilla babies.
In a country long suffering from internal conflict, the Virunga National Park is a rare success story. One of the oldest national parks of the continent, it is home to nine gorilla families of which six are habituated. Every family is named after rangers who have given their lives protecting this small but precious gorilla population. Given the country’s history, Virunga has often had to deal with violence of poachers and war alike. But it is the love and fierce protection of the people working in these parks that have kept these gorillas alive and with tourism picking up in the last couple of years, it is now possible to visit these gorilla families and spend time with them in their home.
While travelling to Congo may not be for everyone—the country still has scars from decades of conflict meaning the roads are pretty bad and the infrastructure is still in its nascent stage—but the advantage here is that instead of groups of eight like in Rwanda and Uganda, visitors travel into Congo’s Virunga National Park in groups of no more than four. It is also a much cheaper alternative than its neighbours. The experience however, is just as breathtaking.
Rampage opens in theatres on April 13, 2018.