Leaders in the Mist

We trek to Rwanda to see—and learn from—rare mountain gorillas.

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We trudge through towering bamboo, stinging nettles, and vines that cover the steep sides of Mount Karisimbi, a dormant volcano in northwestern Rwanda. Our excited conversations fade to only quiet murmurs due to the exertion of hiking at nearly 10,000 feet and something else—nervous anticipation.

Looking around, all we can see is more and more green—thick, twisting, and seemingly impenetrable. Then suddenly, Augustin, the lead guide, stops us with a command: “Get back, get back now!” We scramble off the freshly macheted path and out of the way of a 400-pound silverback mountain gorilla that passes right where we were walking just moments before. The male gorilla stops and assesses us with a glance, then sits down five feet away and munches on a stalk of vegetation.

We’ve come to the Virunga Mountains on a remarkable 11-day trip to Rwanda, a tiny landlocked nation the size of Maryland that sits just above the equator. Here, our eyes were opened to this species of great ape, which few people know about and even fewer have seen. Only 1,000 mountain gorillas (a subspecies of the eastern gorilla) still exist. 

People have been studying primates and making comparisons to humans since Charles Darwin in the mid-1880s. Given that gorillas share about 98 percent of our DNA, making them our closest relatives behind chimpanzees and bonobos, it’s hardly surprising. Yet on our trek we came away with a few observations about the gorilla leaders in action.

Our mission starts in Musanze, the fourth largest city in Rwanda and home to a research campus named for the late primatologist Dian Fossey, whose life was dramatized in the 1988 movie Gorillas in the Mist. From there, in the towering Virunga Mountains, we begin to follow one of the social groups of gorillas—the Igisha Group, which is unusually large with 30 gorillas. As the gorillas forage for food, the rain forest fills with the snapping of twigs and branches and the rustle of leaves. A mischievous adolescent gorilla slaps one of us on the knee with an uncannily humanlike hand before scampering away.

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Make no mistake: these gorillas are not tame, although they are habituated to humans. There are no fences or barriers here. We came on foot—our safari jeep and driver are more than an hour’s hike away. Yet we and the gorillas are all calm. Part of it, of course, is the confidence and knowledge of our well-experienced guides and trackers. But a great deal of our comfort comes, surprisingly, from the fact that gorillas turn out to have leaders.

Indeed, this group is led by three silverbacks?—so named for the shaggy, silvery hair that covers their backs at maturity. As our guides tell us, the tone of any group is set by the dominant silverback’s distinct personality—or “leadership style.” And among the gorillas of the Virunga Mountains, there have been three iconic leaders: Shinda, Titus, and Canisbee, according to Felix Ndagijimana, the first Rwandan director of the Karisoke Research Centre that Fossey established. Shinda was a very strict leader who “did not tolerate any nonsense”; not surprisingly, his group reflected that discipline. Titus was more laid back and did not get involved in minor conflicts among his group. “But as a leader,” Ndagijimana adds, “Titus was there whenever there was a danger such as from a snare nearby or another silverback from an outside group.”

Canisbee distinguished his leadership by managing the largest gorilla group ever known: 65 members, including seven or eight silverbacks. “The fact that Canisbee was able to keep everyone together showed he had some remarkable leadership skills,” Ndagijimana says.

In the wild, this is actually quite easy to see. The primary silverback in the Igisha Group moves the farthest away from us to protect a newborn and delegates authority to the two other “lieutenants.” The second silverback takes the high ground to the rear. A third positions himself closest to us at the entrance to the bamboo thicket, where the group shelters from a sudden rain shower.

His watchfulness is palpable. Although this silverback hardly moves, his eyes scan left and right. We had been told to expect such quiet vigilance among silverbacks by Dr. Russell Tuttle, a professor of anthropology and evolutionary biology at the University of Chicago: “Watch his eyes. He’s aware of every little bit and blip. He’s very astute and alert.”

As long as there is no threat to the group, the silverbacks allow the other gorillas to carry on as normal—feeding, resting, playing—as if we’re not even there. Ndagijimana, who is also country director in Rwanda for the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund, believes human leaders can learn a thing or two from the silverbacks. “Be there to provide support and supervision and be laid back at other times.”

The mountain gorilla population has been increasing steadily through conservation efforts, but threats remain. It is no overstatement to say the mountain gorillas are being disrupted, and their ability to adapt is paramount. In leadership terms, mountain gorillas face what may be the ultimate in “VUCA”—a business acronym that stands for volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous. The best of human leaders can survive VUCA challenges and even thrive in them. The same can be said for the mountain gorillas that are coming back from feared extinction and must continuously adapt to changes in their environment.

“They are intelligent and highly flexible,” says Dr. Tara Stoinski, CEO of the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund International. One example of their adaptability is living in larger groups with multiple silverbacks, which would have been unheard of decades ago. As researchers observe the growing gorilla population within a limited habitat, it appears large groups are becoming the new normal.

Rwanda plans to expand the Volcanoes National Park and the gorilla habitat. But there is a delicate balance here between protecting the gorillas’ habitat and the need for arable land in Rwanda, Africa’s second most densely populated country. At the local level, protecting the gorillas means educating communities that are the gorillas’ closest neighbors and providing jobs such as porters for gorilla treks, as well as additional opportunities for growing food and making money. Still, human support and philanthropy aside, most agree the mountain gorillas get all the credit. As Stoinsky says, “We are very lucky to work with such a charismatic species.”