Sanctuary -- Michael's DreamThere was wonder in the air as we stepped off the path. The emerald rain forest shimmered. Thick undergrowth parted just enough for passage. The fresh cut trail demanded vigilance, and at once we became silent. I stepped with caution over uneven terrain - picked my way through leaf litter and branches, thick underbrush, and subtle luminescence. The surrounding canopy, like a tall cocoon, generated its own climate - an aromatic blend of wood, mud, leaf and mist. Step over a fallen log. Dodge a low flying butterfly. Add anthropoid weight to the biomass. The pace of movement spun from slow to swift to slow, and I remarked "this is what it is like tracking gorilla in their habitat."
Then we treked along the fence sixty meters to the next corner post. As we approached we saw three gorillas, orphan's of the bushmeat trade, exploring their new home for the first time. A young male gorilla named Bobo came running down the path along the fence to greet us. How much Bobo had grown since I held him in diapers last December at the zoo in Yaounde. Now he is returned to the forest in safety. The Michael Leo Rion Gorilla Sanctuary has become a reality.
Sanctuary. A place of safety. A landscape serene in concept and yet dangerous, by implication. Why does anyone need sanctuary? Because somewhere, perhaps everywhere, there are threats. Dire threats. Deadly threats. Sanctuary is a place where one goes to stay alive. But the irony is, only people outside the sanctuary can make it safe. There is no sanctuary, without people willing to stand guard. Thanks to the good will of thousands of people, more and more young gorilla orphans will find sanctuary. Thanks to the dream of one great silverback gorilla, a sanctuary in this wonderful new National Park in Cameroon has been built.
Nearly thirty years ago, here in a rain forest in Cameroon,one young gorilla held tight to the corpse of his mother, and screamed. Moments earlier he had heard a terrible noise, an explosion of sound, and another. He saw his father tumble and fall like a giant hulk of muscle and kindness to the ground. He cried out, and watched his mother rise and run towards him. Another huge sound, and she stumbled, lunged forward and hit the earth face first. The youngster reached for her shoulder, tried to hide in the nape of her neck, shivering, as a hot viscous red liquid poured from her face. He screamed. And screamed.
After passing through many hands, rough and gentle, the young gorilla arrived at Stanford University and was placed in the care of a man and woman who treated him with the deepest kindness and respect. They called him Michael, and they taught him how to speak with gestures - with signs. He had many friends and teachers, but three who became his lifelong family were named Penny and Ron, and Koko.
Then one morning, young Michael woke up screaming. His friends raced into his room and sat down beside him. "What is upsetting you Michael?" asked Penny. Covered with sweat and shaking badly, Michael simply held tight to his friend and care-giver, confused and distressed.
A few days later, with Michael still showing signs of anxiety, Penny had an idea. Had Michael been dreaming? Was he remembering something of his past? She began asking him about his childhood -- something she had done before with little success. This time when she asked him if he remembered his mother, he began at once to form his hands into signs that clearly indicated his memory of his mother being murdered and butchered for meat. He signed, "noise", "trouble" and "cut-neck". Penny believed he was describing how he became a captive gorilla. He continued with a flurry of signs -- "Squash meat gorilla mouth tooth" and "Cry sharp-noise loud bad think trouble" and "Cut/neck girl look face hole."
Michael remembered the death of his mother again, and again. He was able to communicate his story to Penny and Ron, and they tried, again and again, to comfort him. In time he grew to become a huge handsome silverback, like his father. A great ape who liked music, painted fine art, and communicated his joy and his fear, his needs and his wants so that those who protected and cared for him in his sanctuary could do so at his demand. One year ago Michael died.
Hundreds of thousands of people who knew and loved Michael have grieved his passing. People who cared for him are dedicated to keeping his memory and his spirit alive. We have brought our love for Michael here, to his original homeland in Cameroon, so that his gorilla family can be protected as he was. Here in this sanctuary, in the wonderful forest of Mefou National Park, Michael has come home.
To initiate our involvement in this sanctuary program, a donation from our friends Eric and Catherine Raymond, directors of the Save the Species Foundation, has financed the construction of this new gorilla enclosure so that gorilla orphans of the bushmeat trade could have an outdoor home. This endeavor could not have been brought to fruition without Christopher Mitchell, founder and director of Cameroon Wildlife Aid Fund. Chris's devotion of his life to the cause of apes and endangered wildlife in Cameroon is already legend. The accomplishments of CWAF in this country are remarkable on all levels, from the informing of political leaders to the educating of local populace.
Under the auspices of the Cameroon Ministry of Environment and Forests (MINEF), CWAF has been instrumental in transforming the Yaounde Zoo at Mvoog-betsi into a healthy and safe haven for Cameroonian wildlife that is becoming a popular destination for local people and students who want to learn about their natural heritage. We expect the development of the facilities here at Mefou National Park to exceed the remarkable achievements at Mvoog-betsi and produce the world class wildlife reserve, sanctuary, and education center that Cameroon deserves.
This is a sanctuary for gorillas, but it is also a sanctuary for the people of Cameroon who have become our family. Scores of local men and women have worked to make this project real. Ultimately it is they who will safeguard these small orphans. In turn we at Wildlife Protectors Fund will do everything in our power to assure that all our Cameroonian friends live in harmony with wildlife and environment.
The silverback gorilla named Michael had a dream of a world where we all would be safe and sound, proud of our comrades and kin, well fed and well loved, free from danger, living in peace. Today we celebrate this wonderful manifestation of Michael's dream.
Best wishes, Tony Rose, May 26, 2001 -- Mefou National Park, Cameroon
Anthony L. Rose, Ph.D.
If you wish to support these vital new projects you are invited to make a donation to the WILDLIFE PROTECTORS FUND. Community aid professionals and corporate and non-profit leaders wishing to partner in the expansion of these programs are invited to contact Kevin Connelly, Director of Development for the Gorilla Foundation at (650) 216-6450 or by email to email@example.com.
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