PARC NATIONAL DES VOLCANS, Rwanda — David Watts was 10,400 feet up Mt. Bikereri and knee-deep in a tangled carpet of wet vines and thistle when he realized, a moment too late, that he stood between his old friend Puck and a patch of wild celery she urgently wanted to sample.
With one enormous hairy hand, Puck grabbed Watts' leg and scolded him with a rumbling belch: "Huh, huh, huh."
"Puck doesn't like any nonsense from us, especially when she's in a 'mood,' " Watts explained after the annoyed gorilla let go of his ankle.
"I just wish I could tell her: 'I was trying to get out of your way but it wasn't clear where you wanted me to go,' " he said. "But part of being here is understanding that I will get treated like another gorilla."
Scientists here have been treated a bit like mountain gorillas for 20 years, ever since American naturalist Dian Fossey began studying the rare and endangered primates and subsequently revealed their shy, gentle personalities.
Despite human encroachment on the gorilla habitat, long-running battles with poachers and Fossey's mysterious murder two years ago, her research project has survived as a sanctuary of pure science on the remote, misty slopes of central Africa.
Fossey's successors, now led by Watts, a University of Michigan anthropologist, observe and record the daily soap opera of Gorilla gorilla beringei behavior and family life. And, like Fossey, they grow attached to these magnificent apes, drawn in ways more purely human than dryly scientific.
Decline in Poaching
Poaching, although still a threat, has declined and the world's mountain gorilla population has stabilized, with 279 living on the Virunga volcanoes, a 25-mile chain of peaks that forms the border between Rwanda and Zaire, and about half that many gorillas in Uganda's Ruwenzori range.
But an even more serious threat exists these days for the world's remaining mountain gorillas. The pressure for farmland is building in tiny Rwanda, already the most densely inhabited country in Africa--at current growth rates its population will double within two decades. Conservationists and Rwandese officials find it increasingly difficult to be optimistic about the gorillas' long-term future.
But the scientists press on from their remote base, the Karisoke Research Center. The center, a few cabins with green metal siding, is a two-hour climb from the nearest dirt road.
Work here begins early, in the cool, damp air. Watts, 35, pulls on a pair of rubber boots and garden gloves and shrugs on a backpack. He has spent more than four years, during two stints, studying the gorillas here.
After their morning routine, Watts and the center's chief tracker, Antoine, set out in search of the gorilla group known as Group 5. Following winding, inches-wide paths or cutting his own with a machete, Antoine leads the way.
A curtain of heavy mist hangs over mountains so wet that moss climbs high up the tall hagenia trees. Miniature rapids usher the previous night's rain away. The rubber boots slosh on through the mud.
An hour later, a rippling sound like faraway thunder echoes through the forest: the voices of Group 5.
The tracker returns to camp, leaving Watts alone with his gorillas. He approaches, warning them of his arrival with a series of throat-clearing sounds: "Huh-unnhh. Huh-unnhh. Huh-unnhh." Then he sits among them, extracts a blue notebook and pen from his backpack and settles in for the day.
Mountain gorillas, a subspecies discovered only this century, are much rarer than the lowland gorillas. They have long, straight black hair, expanded nostrils and broad chests. They may grow as tall as 5 1/2 feet, weigh 350 pounds and live 60 years.
As Fossey discovered, they are powerful, but shy and gentle vegetarians who organize relatively harmoniously into family groups ranging from two to two dozen or more. And they have distinctly different personalities.
Group 5--with 24 gorillas, it's the largest of the center's three research groups--is headed by Ziz, a 16-year-old silverback who inherited the group from his father, Beethoven, who died two years ago. (Males become fully mature at 15, and about that time the hair on their back begins to turn gray.)
Watts sits near each of the group's members for a time, jotting down his observations. He moves slowly when he's among the gorillas, trying not to startle them. Some days they ignore him; at other times they are playful, trying to steal his cameras or notebook.
Group 5, the longest-studied gorilla family, is accustomed to human contact, and a few of the apes even pat Watts on the shoulder as they pass by. Others have shown signs of real affection for humans, often hugging or sitting in contact with them.
Fossey developed very close relationships with the gorillas, and she encouraged physical contact between gorillas and humans. To be accepted by the gorillas, she even used to scratch, beat her chest, eat wild greens and hoot and grunt.