THE jungle is dense, the terrain steep, and at 8,000 feet the air thin. Sylvester swings a machete through pillared vegetation, and I follow, trudging through hanging vines and stinging nettles, pulling myself up the mountain on bamboo handholds. Underbrush and downed timber make footing unstable, and when my boots touch the ground, they're sucked deep into the mud. It's too high for snakes, but worms the size of frankfurters take their place. We're tracking mountain gorillas in the lush jungles of Rwanda's Virunga Volcanoes, where about 250 of these noble, gentle beasts remain alive in their struggle against extinction.
Four groups of gorillas have been habituated to human visitors. Each group, if it can be found, can be visited for one hour once a day by up to six guests, under the strict supervision of trained guides. Although the gorilla permit doesn't guarantee gorillas, guides know their whereabouts from the previous day. There's no trail, and the search can last from half an hour to four hours before being abandoned.
On our visiting day, we meet our guides, Sylvester and Francisco, stately young black men outfitted in green berets, camouflage suits, and shoulder-slung rifles. They explicitly outline behavior protocol -- in French:
No talking, no pointing, no eye contact; crouch when the guide crouches. Stature and eye contact are considered threats by the gorillas.
If infants touch you, don't touch back -- move slowly away.
If the silverback charges, crouch and remain silent -- never run or scream. (The silverback is the 350-pound dominant group leader, whose name derives from a saddle of gray hair that develops across the back of 12-year-old males when they reach full maturity.)
An hour of arduous climbing brings us to the nesting site where the gorillas spent the previous night -- foot and knuckle imprints and fresh droppings still visible. Not far ahead we hear thrashing, the cracking of limbs, and a low, throaty noise resembling an operatic bass clearing his throat. The gorillas! Our guides imitate their vocalizations of contentment and continue the vocal exchange throughout our hour-long visit with the group.
We crouch on a steep slope just short of the silverback, which is climbing a cluster of bamboo trees above us. He situates himself on the arbor throne, dismisses us with an acknowledging glance, and gets to the prime order of business: lunch. Despite his powerful body, he has delicate manners. He plucks one tender leaf at a time from a branch and divides each one into several mouthfuls, as we would savor a delicious cookie -- one bite at a time.
Meanwhile, in another clump of trees, a female free-falls 20 feet before grabbing a branch. One mother gives climbing lessons while another gives her offspring lunch-gathering lessons, extending the little one's reach with piggyback support. A three-year-old settles into a noon meal of tender, peeled wild celery and succulent thistle stems.
Close observation of these dignified creatures is an incomparable experience. As guests in the home of the mountain gorilla, we are one of the keys to conservation strategy. Our presence alone is a threat to poachers -- and tariffs from permits help provide the funds needed for the national park to enforce antipoaching rules. Permit fees also support local education programs aimed at preserving the small gorilla habitat, which has been shrinking as farmland spreads.
Rwanda's Mountain Gorilla Project (MGP), the organization protecting the mountain gorilla, is proud of this statistic: no poaching in 1984 or '85. Before its formation in 1979, as many as 15 gorillas were killed annually. Recently, mountain gorilla populations have not only stabilized but have seen the percentage of young gorillas increasing. Thanks to technical and financial assistance from international organizations, including the World Wildlife Fund, MGP has recently launched projects in Zaire and Uganda.
It has been a desperate fight. Poachers are after trophies, or young gorillas captured for sale to zoos. To capture the infant may mean destroying every adult in the group, as gorillas will fight to the death to defend their young. And the final blow: Mountain gorillas do not survive in captivity.
Louis Leakey early realized that the mountain gorilla could be doomed to extinction in the same century in which it had been discovered. Between 1960 and 1966, following the first study of the mountain gorilla in the wild by George Schaller, the population halved. For the next 15 years, Dian Fossey lived among the gorillas and conducted long-term field studies. She lived and died for the mountain gorilla. They lost their closest friend when Dr. Fossey was murdered, presumably by poachers, in her park cabin last December.
My experience in the home of the mountain gorilla left me in speechless ecstasy. And as we descended the mountain, I remembered something Fossey wrote in her book, ``Gorillas in the Mist.'' It was a quotation by Jody from ``The Yearling'' -- ``I done seen me something special today.'' Practical information
A Rwanda mountain gorilla expedition, including two days of gorilla tracking, requires five days and may be arranged as an extension for a Kenyan, Tanzanian, or other African safari. Animal lovers of all ages in good physical condition can make the trip. Be sure to take rain gear and warm clothes. Annual rainfall in the Virungas is 72 inches, accompanied by chilling fogs.
Focus on Nature, 5570 Inverness Avenue , Santa Rosa, Calif. 95404, tel. (707) 584-5154, offers a trip labeled Tracking Mountain Gorillas in Rwanda from Dec. 30, 1986 to Jan. 6, 1987. The firm will also arrange private trips.
Mountain Travel, 1398 Solano Avenue, Albany, Calif. 94706, tel. (415) 527-8100 or from outside California, 800-227-2384, offers a Rwanda/Zaire Gorilla Expedition Sept. 4-23.