Actually, the zoological name for the African mountain (or Eastern) gorilla is Gorilla beringei beringei but gorilla singular will suffice for this tale by Dougie Hodson that first appeared in the “Police World”, winter 1998 edition…
"Peering through the mist, I could see a massive black cliff towering into the clouds to my right. An upward draught of wind suddenly and magically lifted the mist like a stage curtain, to reveal ahead and to my left a backdrop of thick jungle. The taller trees were draped with beard lichen, and, in the sunlight filtering through the low cloud, the whole scene was distinctly eerie.
It was 1957 and I was standing waist deep in tree heather together with Rene Bere, Director of the Uganda National Parks Department, and Reuben, our African guide. We were at an altitude of over six thousand feet in the saddles of the Virunga volcano range, which forms the frontier between Uganda, Rwanda and the now Democratic Republic of Congo. Although just a few degrees south of the equator, at this height in those mountains it was very cold.
We were on the trail of a family of mountain gorillas, and previously, at a lower altitude, Reuben had briefed us on what to look out for. The trail, he told us, would be littered with small neat heaps of vegetable matter, which the foraging gorillas had rejected as unchewable. Also, where the gorillas had spent a night, we would find beds made from branches and undergrowth that they had gathered. Finally, he warned us that when we came upon the gorillas, the senior male would put on a fearful demonstration, which might include his charging at us. Reuben assured us that this would all be bluff, and we should stand our ground.
Three hours later, we had followed a well-established trail showing all the feeding signs that Reuben had described. Reuben was able to identify the group that we were tracking from this evidence and from their overnight beds. He told us that it was a family, comprised of a mature male, his two “wives” and three “watoto” (infants). Considering how large these magnificent creatures are, I was surprised at the small size of their beds; each was no bigger than a big domestic laundry basket, but heavily compressed from the weight of the occupant.
At each overnight spot, Reuben would plunge his hand deep into large heaps of dung, which the gorillas had deposited. At the fourth such site, he pronounced that we were close to the family because the dung was still warm.
Half an hour later, Rene Bere and I were in the tree heather (Erica arborea alpina for the green fingered amongst you) which opens this story, watching this family of gorillas going about their daily business some forty yards from us. They seemed unconcerned and possibly unaware of our presence until...
Suddenly, what I can only describe as a giant, the patriarch, stood up to his full height of about 1.8m (taller than me, and, in those days somewhat wider too) and confronted us.
His angry bellows and chest beating echoed back from the cliff face to our right, whilst his family fled noisily, crashing into the jungle with much muttering, grunting and grumbling.
Our hero was determined to defend his family, so dropping onto all fours, he made a determined rush towards us; Rene, Reuben (who had earlier told us to 'stand firm') and I beat a hasty retreat. True to Reuben’s prediction however the male gorilla stopped ten yards short of Rene and me, turned around and with his broad silver back glistening in the watery sunlight, ambled grumpily off into the jungle uttering expletives (which I have deleted). His departure was very dignified (although I guessed his language wasn't) and he left me in no doubt that we were trespassers upon his territory. It was several minutes later when I realised that the hair on the back of my neck was still bristling – but what an experience, I would not have missed it for the world."
A couple of years later, there was a sad sequel to my adventure. At the time I was a young Assistant Superintendent in the Uganda Police Force, serving in the next district to where the gorilla sanctuary is situated. Coincidentally, my police station was at the nexus of communications by telephone and Morse telegraphy between the gorilla sanctuary area and Uganda’s capital, Kampala.
Our intrepid guide Reuben had found a dead adult male gorilla, guarded by a grieving infant, which he had captured and we of course reported that to our HQ in Kampala.
The wires then became very busy with pleas from the Professor of Anthropology at the University of Kampala requesting us to preserve the gorilla’s body, so that he could collect it and take it back to the University; I can't remember but I expect it was protocol for the police to inform the Proff. about such an incident. We were pleased to be able to comply with his request and he duly collected the animal and departed our little township.
I then received a ‘phone call from a colleague in the Criminal Records Office in Kampala, asking me to stop the professor’s vehicle and to obtain the gorilla’s fingerprints!
A very strange request I thought, doubting that the gorilla had a criminal record but I did as I was asked. It wasn’t necessary for me to roar-off in my Land Rover with all “blues and twos” blazing but it might have added to the peculiarity of the situation if I had; the Proff. hadn’t got far and stopped after a polite request.
It is entirely possible I am the only police officer who has ever taken the fingerprints of a gorilla - what a claim to fame!
The poor animal’s fingerprints were required for research purposes and there were worries about the time it would take to transport him to the lab. I was told subsequently that a gorilla’s fingerprints are uniquely classifiable by their loops, deltas and whorls in the same way as are a human’s.
For collectors of surplus pieces of information, I also leaned at the same time that fingerprint science can be applied to the identification of zebras from the pattern of their stripes, which are unique to each animal, and to the woolly monkey, which has a “fingerprint” on the ventral fleshy side of its tail (now there’s a tale).
As for the infant gorilla, we named him Reuben and he spent the rest of his days in London Zoo. Even though he was well cared for and even loved there, it must have seemed like a prison sentence to him; the poor fellow passed away in 1968, which meant he died young for a mountain gorilla, as I believe they can live to their late thirties in the wild.
I should add that we were not able to say if these two gorillas had come from the same family we were so fortunate to see; I rather hoped that wasn't the case.
This Mountain species was only discovered at the beginning of the 20th century and it is a sad fact that by the end of that century they were faced with extinction.
To end on a happier note, extensive conservation efforts have stabilised their numbers, which we are delighted to report now appear to be on the increase.
Dougie Hodson, Byfield, 2016.