Gorilla Trekking in Rwanda: A Former Zookeeper’s Primate Experience

Prior to working in travel, I had yet another job that most little kids dream about—I was a primate zookeeper. In this role, I had the pleasure of working with various monkeys, lemurs, and of course great apes at zoos around the country. So, when the opportunity arose for me to head to Rwanda and see golden monkeys and mountain gorillas in the wild, I knew I couldn’t pass it up.

While I never worked with the two species I was set to encounter, I had experience with the closely related De Brazza’s monkeys, red-tailed monkeys, and western lowland gorillas! Every day, I was responsible for cleaning enclosures, providing enrichment, training, and monitoring the health of the animals in our primate collection. I would also lead educational chats with visitors and contribute to the zoo’s various research and conservation projects. Working that closely with primates was an amazing experience and there are things I miss about being a zookeeper every day; but being able to see their wild counterparts in their natural habitats was something I had dreamt about since I was a little kid.

Leading up to my trip, I was curious what it would feel like to be in such close proximity to animals that I knew less about.  I was quite familiar with the species that I had seen daily for years! I knew their birthdays, their favorite foods, what enrichment items they preferred, their personalities, understood (to a certain degree) what their vocalizations meant, and they also knew me. And here I was, about to find myself in the middle of an unfamiliar troop, without any barriers between me and the animals. I was slightly nervous!

On the morning of our trek, we were assigned to the Isimbe Group, one of the harder gorilla groups to find, but also one of the largest in the park. A bit apprehensive about the difficulty, our guide reassured us that the lengthy trek would be worth it because the troop included several infants and young gorillas. And so, we set off, trekking for about three hours and relying heavily on our porters for assistance.

Eventually, our guide answered a call on his radio, stopped us in a small clearing, and told us the words we had been waiting for all day—that the gorillas were just up ahead! We left everything with our porters, with the exception of our cameras, and eagerly listened as our guide reviewed the protocol for our hour-long visit. Just moments away from seeing one of my favorite animals in the wild, I took a deep breath and followed the other members of my group back into the forest.

We had walked about 50 feet into the forest when I smelled them. Now, if you’ve ever been gorilla trekking, or visited the gorilla exhibit at a zoo, you may be familiar with the way gorillas smell. It’s not a bad odor, but it is certainly a very specific musk. It was such a familiar scent that my eyes instantly filled with tears, I could hardly believe this was actually happening!

Before I even finished that thought, I looked to my left and realized there was a gorilla sitting just on the other side of a wall of vines, only a few feet away.  My stomach dropped, the last thing I wanted to do was to startle a gorilla. I froze and looked to our guide for guidance. He started making a ‘belch vocalization’ to reassure the gorilla that we were not a threat. The gorilla replied with a similar vocalization, and I was instantly calmed. This may have been a new group of gorillas, but their vocalizations were still familiar to me.

Within a few minutes, our group was surrounded by twenty-two gorillas. I could hear gorillas singing while they ate bamboo and grunting as they play-wrestled.  A young gorilla laughed while an older female was grooming and tickling it. The silverback, the male in charge of the group, watched us out of the corner of his eye, making sure we were not a threat.  Eventually some younger gorillas got a little too noisy for his liking, so he pounded his chest and crashed into the vines to go quiet them down. Just a few minutes later, another guest tapped me on the shoulder signaling for me to move back, as a gorilla with an infant on her back passed directly in front of us! I sat in awe for the entire hour, just trying to take in every second of this once in a lifetime experience.

When our time was up, our group begrudgingly turned off our cameras and said goodbye to the gorillas. Even as someone that used to spend 40 hours a week with gorillas nearby, that hour spent deep in Volcanoes National Park was one of the most amazing moments of my life.  I was able to experience sounds, sights, and smells I thought I never would again – as well as some I could have never imagined!