Authors: Farley Mowat
As the gorillas began to reveal their individual personalities, Dian gave them names. First, No-nose:
I think she is an old female, and she is the only one I’ve dared to name, but this is the only way I can think of her-she looks as if she has no nose.
Then came Ferdinand, her name for a big blackback,
followed by a whole rush of christenings: Pucker, Mzee, Solomon, Dora, Hugger, Scapegoat, Popcorn, Tagalong, Mrs. Moses, Cassius, Monarch … even an adolescent male named Alexie.
Before long Dian developed an acuity for spotting trail signs that was matched by only the best African trackers. She learned that branches bent by passing animals point in the direction of travel. Gorilla knuckle prints show clearly in damp earth, and chains of dung deposits are laid neatly along a travel trail when a group is moving normally. Culs-de-sac created by individual animals that wander off the main trail to feed can be identified by taking the time to see whether there is a top layer of foliage bent back toward the main path along which the animals have been traveling. She learned to look far ahead along the line of travel to see if vine growth on trees had been disturbed or if bark had been damaged.
Dian also discovered that the gorillas’ distinctive barnyard odor clung to the foliage, so the animals could sometimes be tracked by their scent, if one was willing to do it on hands and knees. Their dung, too, provided invaluable clues to a group’s proximity, size, and composition, and even its collective state of mind. The freshness of a dung deposit could be tested by its relative warmth and by the number of flies and/or eggs or maggots on it. Different-sized gorillas left different-sized dung deposits, so a careful examination revealed much about the number and ages of the animals in a given group. As for the group’s state of mind—dung from undisturbed gorillas had the same general smell and consistency as horse manure, but gorillas in flight or frenzy became diarrheic.
Two months after arriving in Kabara, Dian received a long letter from the associate editor of
magazine, setting out the Society’s expectations.
They want to do the entire works, just as was done with Jane Goodall: television special and magazine series and a popular book. They want me to start planning the first article now. I would get two thousand dollars for
the article and any pictures of mine would bring fifty to two hundred dollars depending on page size.
The opportunity to be published in
had appealed to Dian from the beginning, and she commenced work on an article almost immediately.
It was at this time that she began having problems with poachers.
Virunga poachers came mainly from among the pygmy Batwa people (often abbreviated to Twa), who hunted forest antelope (duikers, bushbuck, and bongo) and other game using snares, spears, and bows and arrows. Their skill at tracking and trapping was legendary. In earlier times these people had wandered freely in the forests, leaving farming to the more numerous Hutu tribesmen—people of Bantu stock. Although hunting in the park was forbidden, that was where the antelope lived, so the Batwa accepted the small risk of getting caught.
Now in the March rainy season most of the elephant and buffalo and some gorilla have gone down the mountain to lower altitudes. In an attempt to locate gorilla, Sanweke and I descended the eastern side of the volcano in an area that turned into rain forest and was filled with Twa hunters. We met four of them in the deepest, darkest park of the forest, and while Sanweke held his gun on them, I took their spears and pangas. Sanweke intended to march them out of the forest to the nearest village, but one by one they slipped away from him because I couldn’t keep up and he had to keep his eye on me. That was easily the most horrible day of my life. We walked thirty-seven miles in all, through forest, mountains, and villages, before reaching the park headquarters because we couldn’t return the way we descended due to the presence of the Batwa. Six hours of this walk was in the dark and about twelve hours in the pouring rain.
Finding enough nourishing food was another problem for Dian. She was not very good at adapting her cooking and eating habits to locally available products. She had a hen she called
Lucy, and later acquired a cock, Dezi. She also tried to grow a vegetable garden. The hen provided her with an occasional egg, but the garden was trampled so often by night-wandering elephants and other wildlife that she finally abandoned it.
On my monthly shopping trip I buy potatoes, carrots, artichokes, lettuce, and whatever else looks appealing at the village of Kibumba at the base of the mountain. Then I drive to the small town of Goma to visit English-speaking friends and buy canned goods, and then go to Kisoro, two hours away from the base of the mountain, to pick up my mail at the Traveler’s Rest and have a good meal.
Much to my sorrow, the variety of canned goods is truly poor. The meat in particular. I can only get canned frankfurters, corned beef, and several varieties of “luncheon meat,” all of which are horrible. So I substitute tuna and cheese, and as fast as my poor hen can lay an egg, I claim it. She’s doing very well now, for I cook her a bowl of porridge each morning (with raisins in it, of course), and as soon as she is finished she lays a Grade A, superlarge. But no porridge, no egg. I also give her a slice of butter and cheese each evening.
Food would frequently spoil or she would find that she had not bought enough, then Dian would be reduced to living on potatoes. This was not quite so unendurable as running out of cigarettes, something she also managed to do regularly.
Still, none of this was enough to dampen her enthusiasm. In her letters home she described the joy of life on the meadow and among the gorillas:
“I’m all curled up on my cot with the interior of my tent looking like a Salvation Army fire sale—wet, muddy clothes hanging everywhere around the pressure lamp in the vain hope that they will dry. Everything I own is wet.
“The nights have truly been spectacular though, for there is a full moon and for some reason the sky clears in the evening. The volcano Karisimbi looms up fifteen thousand feet or so to the
left of my tent, and its snow-peaked cone seems to pierce the heavens, with all the stars—looking like small, twinkling moons at this altitude—paying homage to it. When the moon is full, there is an uncanny, silvery glow over the meadow, the hills around it, and the mountain, and I can see all sizes and shapes of eyes reflecting its light along the fringes of the meadow. Last night a large herd of buffalo fed about fifty yards from my tent without seeing me sitting on my ‘front porch’ in the shadows.
“The night really comes alive with sounds never heard in the day. There is the trumpeting of elephants ringing up the gorge between the mountains, the snorting of the buffalo, the chest beating and hooting of lone gorillas, the barks of the duiker, the soft, mounting cry of the tree hyrax—a rabbity little animal unlike any other creature on earth—that ends up with an abrupt sound like someone with a bad cold blowing his nose, and lastly the weird cries, hoots, shrieks, and laments of the nocturnal birds.”
Dian was now feeling much less of a transient at Kabara; and in her hunger for a sense of permanence, as well as her need for a little more comfort, she took over one of the two rooms in the men’s cabin.
I’ve just about finished fixing up a room in the hut, and it looks great. The ugly wooden walls are matted with two-tone grass mats the natives made for me, and the wooden supports are hidden by bamboo that was cut down the mountain a way and is a beautiful shade of moss green now. I have pictures, skins, tusks, and horns hanging here and there, and I’ve made curtains out of some African printed material. A fireplace will be built next week.
Work is going well, for I’ve been following one gorilla group around all month, and now I’m able to get within thirty to sixty feet of them and they are not afraid of me. To be perfectly frank, I think they are quite confused as to my species! I’ve gotten them accustomed to me by aping them, and they are fascinated by my facial grimaces and other actions that I wouldn’t be caught dead doing in front of
anyone. I feel like a complete fool, but this technique seems to be working, and because of the increased proximity I’ve been able to observe a lot never recorded before.
Last week two of them approached me to within twenty feet, and the rest of the group remained at thirty-five to sixty feet for over an hour! There aren’t words to describe what a thrill that was, and as long as I live I’ll never forget it. At the same time I was slightly apprehensive because I was directly downhill from them and without a tree to climb or hide behind should anything have happened. I had to use my “threat face” once-don’t laugh, it’s quite effective-when one of the silverbacks began to get carried away with his bluffing tactics of running, chest beating, and breaking down trees. Needless to say, I was dutifully impressed with his prowess, but decided our proximity was being strained, so turned a horrible grimace on him, which had the effect of a flower on Ferdinand: immediately he sat down and began to eat, nervously and with one eye on me, but at least his hands were harmlessly occupied, and finally he just stood up and walked away.
It was really an hour that made everything else worthwhile, and my only regret is that no one was there either to witness or photograph it.
My field notes, of course, are just about ready to squeeze me out of the tent as they are quite voluminous after almost six months. This month I’ve been doing a great deal of work on what might optimistically be called thesis preparation-analyzing, classifying, charting and graphing, etc.-and now something complete and compact is growing out of all those pages and pages, and I’m rather proud of what’s being created.
Now in June the rainy season has subsided to a great extent, and many elephant and buffalo are in the area because the local pond is the only source of water for some miles around. I feel as though I’m walking through the
Denver stockyards, with animals behind every tree. I don’t mind the elephant so much because there’s no danger of stumbling across one of them. But the buffalo are often hidden by the foliage, and it’s hard to tell who’s more shocked when we “bump” into one another. The other day I was crawling under a long log, following a typical gorilla trail, when I noticed that the slender tree trunk I was about to grasp seemed to be moving. I pushed aside a few vines and found myself a foot away from a buffalo’s leg! The silly thing wasn’t aware of my presence, so I crept back farther beneath the log and let loose with some hog-calling yells that sent the entire herd into a frenzy. I’ll bet they’re still running.
There are two Egyptian geese on the pond, which though lovely to look at, are not musically inclined. I’ve named one Olivetti and the other Corona Smith. They’ve taken to briefly visiting the meadow to exchange threats with my rooster, Dezi, who considers himself king of the mountain. Dezi has already succeeded in cowing two white-necked ravens, who now have to come to the tent instead of the hut (the tent is outside of Dezi’s domestic range) for the food I give them. It’s quite impossible to sleep there in the morning, what with the cock crowing, the ravens cawing, and the geese clicking.
One issue that threatened to wreck Dian’s mountain paradise was her relations with her camp workers. Her problems with the camp cook were the first to cause her serious concern.
My cookboy, Phocas, came back after a nine-day absence, and although I was all set to fire him, I couldn’t find a decent substitute. He does his work perfectly, but he’s so rude and insolent I hate having him here. At any rate, I told him he was on trial this month and I’ve tripled his workload and treat him like dirt. This is what I should have been doing all along, for he’s finally toeing the mark and actually seems to respect me for the first
time. The same holds true with the park guards. You can’t be nice to them. If you give them a cigarette one day, they want the pack the next. So I go around giving orders and grumbling, but it makes me lonely-I’ve no one to talk to now that I’ve just about mastered Swahili.
Ultimately things got so bad that she felt compelled to appeal to Leakey for help:
“Dr. Leakey, I don’t like writing the following any more than you’re going to enjoy reading it, but the fact remains that I must have some ‘help’ up here as soon as possible, if only for a few weeks.
“Now that the novelty of my being here has worn off, the guards have become increasingly insubordinate, and the growing problems with discipline have me defeated. The lying, stealing, complaining, and begging, manifest all along, are just one part of it and don’t really affect my work. However, shooting at animals grazing on the meadow or disobeying my orders when in contact with a group of gorillas has definitely had an effect on my observations this month, and I don’t wish it repeated….
“Please know I dislike asking for help but, under the present circumstances, consider it mandatory.”
In a letter to the Prices, she spoke more bluntly:
“My current mood is somewhat black, and I’ve no business writing in this frame of mind. These Africans may yet be my undoing. Much as I dislike having to do it, I’ve written Dr. Leakey for help in the form of a cussing, wog-whacking ‘mzunga’—a white person—to enforce some discipline. Since I’ve been here alone for so long, they are beginning to bully me because, to their way of thinking, I’m a lone entity…. Sanweke has been horrible this month, threatening to shoot at game and not obeying my orders while we are in contact with the gorillas. On the 15th I had to release my stored-up wrath and sent him packing down the mountain. On the next night I awoke to the sound of gunfire because the cookboy, who is terrified of being up here alone, was shooting at a herd
of elephants who’d come onto the meadow to graze. I was furious, and naturally I didn’t see a sign of gorilla for days after. Sanweke has since returned with another guard and all are as obedient and docile as the first week I was here, but I’ve told them their individual actions have been reported to the big chiefs of the study and of the park, and that they are in for it. Leakey had better not let me down or I stand to lose a lot of face.”