This piece was received from submittable.
By Karyl Carmignani“Now we look for dung.”Our guide, tall and lithe with a jaunty red bandana around his neck, turned to us, machete pointed down. Panting like dogs, our group had reached the forest. Gingerly stepping through a gap in the berm into a stand of bamboo tall as buildings, the quiet settled around us, though the smell of cooking fires lingered. We moved forward, single file, quiet as foreigners can be on their way to see a troop of mountain gorillas. Six of us, mostly clad in pricey, “breathable” attire, followed the guide into the dim forest. Not wanting to stumble, I watched the path and discovered a thin, black and white striped stick, stark against the pale yellow bamboo casings. I scooped it up: a shed porcupine quill.The countryside of Rwanda, a tiny, land-locked nation in Central Africa, is artfully and efficiently planted with a variety of crops. Coffee, sorghum, sweet potatoes, cassava, sugar cane and pyrethrum, spring happily from the rich, fertile volcanic soils. People nimbly harvest their tiered plots, some so steep you fear the farmers will fall off the edge of the Earth. Subsistence farming has been pressing at the boundaries of Virunga National Park where the mountain gorillas live for decades, pushing the great apes further up the mountains and reducing their habitat. People slip into the Park to cut down trees for charcoal, which is used to cook their meals; sadly, poaching is still an issue. Many Rwandans have never seen a mountain gorilla and are unaware of the importance of these animals to their country and the world, and though knowledge is spreading, effective wildlife conservation is still years away.We paused to catch our collective breath, and Tony, our Rwandan gorilla tracker, once again explained gorilla etiquette: stay at least 10 feet away from the apes, avoid eye contact, be quiet, and don’t touch them. I took a draw off my water bottle and did not roll my eyes. Do you really think I came half way around the planet, hiked up a mountain, and paid a small fortune not to look them in the eye? Continuing along the path, which wound through dense forest to emerge into glades providing stunning vistas of the surrounding Virunga Mountains, the smell of moss and leaves, and human sweat filled the air. Suddenly, we halted behind Tony’s outstretched arms. I didn’t see anything except trees. He pointed to the ground, “Night nests,” he whispered. The leaf litter was dented and tapped down in odd, oblong shapes. Something caught in my throat, stinging my eyes. Gorillas had been curled up sleeping in these soft indentations a couple hours earlier. I could detect the scent of damp, dark fur… and fresh dung! We were close.We followed the telltale signs of a gorilla troop munching its way through the forest, our expert guide showing us broken stalks and torn leaves. My heart was pounding. I could smell my dream coming true. The mud sucked at our boots and we forged ahead, quiet and watchful.Suddenly, there they were, ebony tufts of fur at first, small ones in trees dangling precariously, larger ones devouring bamboo. I stopped in my tracks and looked each one in the eye, most of whom were oblivious to my presence. The guide gestured for us to sit. I plunked myself into the bamboo for a visual feast that I would never forget. I could barely hold my camera, and I didn’t want to insult the gorillas with such technological nonsense. A youngster came close enough to touch, and looked carefully at my boots before unlacing them with her hammy fingers. I held my breath. Finished with a few eyelets, she looked into my face for a moment and ambled back to her family. I looked at the guide expecting to be chided for “touching” the gorilla, though she clearly was in charge. He smiled wide.Another 55 minutes went by in presence of the critically endangered mountain gorillas of the Virunga Mountains. The silverback, startled by something, rumbled by me, causing the ground to shudder, in his ever-efficient knuckle running, shaking foliage for emphasis. Crisis averted, the troop settled back into more important matters like eating all the green stuff within reach. How can these huge, gorgeous animals make a living simply eating the plants around them? As I watched them “stalking” their vegetation, playing, grooming, I was struck by an idea: they were not going extinct on my watch. As long as I shared the planet with them, I would help them survive.The shoelace diva approached me again, and our eyes locked. Her inquisitive gaze, sweet as chocolate, peered into me. “Thank you for seeing us,” I mumbled. She gazed at me a moment longer, tugged at my foot, and ran off.Nearly two decades later, and I am still rapturously enamored of this big, benevolent ape that is suspiciously like us, yet kinder, gentler, and more fit. The porcupine quill I discovered in the forest that day sits on my desk, reminding me of those shaggy, black-haired beings. And that dreams come true. My mountain gorilla encounter inspired my college degree in Anthropology, and perhaps every decent thing I’ve ever done since. Some day, I will return to the rainy, war torn mountains of Central Africa for one more look.As a lover of wildlife, the great outdoors, and writing, Karyl Carmignani is blessed to have a day job at San Diego Zoo Global as a science writer. She grew up in Seattle, traveled the world, and graduated from the University of Washington with a degree in Anthropology. This led to more traveling and pursuing her fascination with nonhuman primates. She relocated to San Diego in 1999 to find a husband and an animal job and is pleased to have achieved both. She is fond of taking writing classes, which provide the perfect excuse to reconnect with her “core stories” and spill her honest, floundering guts on the page. Her writing has won several San Diego Press Club awards, and she recently won third place in the Mesa Visions Magazine Creative Writing Contest 2017.