So Who’s Smarter?

So Who’s Smarter?

Doreen Yashen photographing Baldy in Parcs de volcans.
Sixty-four people with broken legs and open wounds gather at Kinigi headquarters everyday to see 8 mountain gorilla families. We were no different.

I love Parcs de volcans. I love the guides, the organization, the scenery, and most of all I love the artifice we guides bring to the daily planning session with the chief guide to decide which clients will visit which families.

Some families are almost always hard, like Sousa. Some families are almost always easy, like Hilwa.

“Hard” means a trek of an hour or more, and more than once my treks have exceeded four hours. It’s not uncommon to return at dark from a day that begins just after 8:30a.

“Easy” means you’re back at your lodge before lunch.


Left to right: Bill, Doreen, Alex, Sarah & Stephen

So today I – like every other guide – pleaded in guide pow-wow that I had five people with broken limbs and failing organs. Other guides had brought one-eyed clients, the deaf, and the recently released insane. One guide even claimed his client was 90 years old but knew how to wear cosmetics well.

That over, the implacable chief guide politely began to filter the pool.

Stage one: all those who had trekked yesterday over to the side. These included two women who had been vomiting most of their lives and an old man who couldn’t remember his name.

Stage two was a general separation by age. The 90-year old was excised and presumed 60, and the under fifties with insured ailments were lumped together.

In beautiful African undertones, artifice gave way to smiles and streaks of honesty. My five were assigned to one of the easiest groups, Hilwa, in return for taking moderately hard group, Sabyinyo, for the rest of us eight.

And off we went.

We eight to Sabyinyo saw the largest silverback, Gahonda, and a week-old baby, along with what seemed to be a drunken 5-year old and others in the family of 11. The day was spectacular, the experience as always thrilling, the trek took about 16 minutes, and we were back at the lodge at 11:30a.

The five to Hilwa saw one of the most impressive silverbacks, a year-old kid, and were not the requisite 7 meters from several family members, but more like 7 millimeters. The day was spectacular, their experience particularly thrilling as they scaled 80% inclines, hung from rocks by their fingernails, and tiptoed across a 1″ ledge of the Great Rift Valley.

And the five assigned to the easy group got home at 4 p.m. Haggard is not sufficient to explain their condition. Daniel Pomerantz, a refugee into the group of five from the youth corps, arrived with most of the left leg of his pants trailing his feet.

The low road was the high road and the antics in trying to predetermine which would be which now seemed patently absurd. Cathy Colt and Hope Koncal were turned into champions, their positive and unrelenting attitudes taking them to heights they could never imagine scaling.

It’s really amazing as you sit for that short hour among these monoliths of pre-humanity. You know that they know a lot more than you think. Are they entertaining us? Are they earning their security this way, cognitively? Or, are they just having fun brushing by us and rolling out of trees?

Seeing distant reflections of our humanness in these gentle creatures makes war and aggressive capitalism and obsessions with success seem utterly trivial. They are so simple, so supremely self-confident and so survival savvy that they’ve manipulated us to preserve them.

So all the questions about what they’re doing out there turn back around onto us. It isn’t why are they so fascinating, but why have we dedicated so much of our resources to preserve them?

Is it, maybe, that we want to find the justification for preserving ourselves?

Existentialism aside, you big brutes bested us, today! And I suspect you always will.

Left to right:
Silverback Gahonda, ZooDirector Steve