Thursday, January 14, 2021

The Gorillas of Bwindi


“If the gorillas charge, don’t panic.  Crouch down slowly and do not look them in the eye.  If they seem agitated, we will have to turn back right away.  But don’t worry.  They are usually very calm and peaceful.”  Solomon, our guide for our trek into Uganda’s Bwindi Impenetrable Forest, continued his orientation.  “And don’t be concerned about the rangers with the rifles.  They are not here for the gorillas.  One of them will walk ahead of us and one behind in case we encounter any of the mountain elephants who live in the park.  That rarely happens, but if it does, they will just fire a warning shot to frighten off the elephants.” 

I turned to my husband, Rob.  “What have we gotten ourselves into? Charging gorillas?  Stampeding elephants? And if the forest is impenetrable, just how are we supposed to penetrate it?”  Rob just grinned, excited by the adventure ahead, while my imagination and nerves went into overdrive.

Our day had begun before dawn.  Rob and I rose at 5:00 a.m. and joined a few others from our tented resort, Sanctuary Gorilla Forest Camp, for breakfast and a short walk to the Bwindi National Park Visitors Center, where we joined an international group of tourists here to visit the mountain gorillas.  Before our trek, a park ranger told us about several projects that benefit the local communities and about the history of the park. 

In 1991, as part of the Ugandan effort to save the endangered mountain gorillas and to preserve the rich biodiversity of the region, the Ugandan government created the Bwindi Impenetrable National Park. The park became a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1994 and is now under the control of the Uganda Wildlife Association.  It contains an abundance of wildlife, but the big attraction for tourists are the gorillas.

            These gentle giants live only in the volcanic mountain ranges where the borders of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Rwanda, and Uganda meet.  Discovered by western explorers in 1902, the gorilla population rapidly declined due to expanding human population, agriculture, mining, war, and poaching until by 1981, there were only 242 mountain gorillas remaining.  Conservation efforts began in earnest, and there are now more than 1,060 gorillas living in these mountains.  

Eco-tourism has played a big role in the restoration of the gorillas, supplying much needed funds to pay for the national park staff, and providing income for the communities that surround the gorilla’s habitat.  In 2018, the IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature) removed mountain gorillas from the critically endangered list, but they remain on the endangered list, and it will only be through human efforts that they will continue to thrive. 

After the presentation, Rob and I joined six other visitors to form a group of eight, the maximum number allowed to visit a gorilla family each day.  Our group was accompanied by our guide Solomon, the two rifled guards, and our porters, young men from the local villages whom we hired to assist us on the trek. 

Solomon gave us an orientation on what to expect.  “We will be searching for the Rushegura family, one of the nineteen family groups in Bwindi that have been habituated to human presence.  There are trackers in the forest ahead of us who will visit the last location of the family and follow their trail from there.  We will just follow the dirt path until they radio me with the location of the family.” 

He reviewed the list of rules designed to keep both us and the gorillas safe.  Keep a distance of at least five meters.  If they approach us, back up slowly.  Speak in quiet voices.   Do not eat or drink in the presence of the gorillas.  We are welcome to take lots of photos but must not use a flash.  We will have exactly one hour with the gorilla family.  And, of course, “if they charge, don’t panic!” 

“OK, let’s go!”  Solomon led us into the jungle of my Tarzan dreams. We walked uphill along narrow dirt paths under a thick canopy of tall trees.  Giant primeval ferns waved over the trail, and the air was filled with a rich green earthy smell.  Thick, moss-covered vines hung from the trees, strong enough to carry our weight as we tried out our own best swings through the clearings. 

We stopped occasionally to catch our breath, take a drink, and examine some of the other wonders of the forest like a pair of giant snails mating at, well, at a snail’s pace.  We caught a glimpse of the Great Blue Turaco that flies above the treetops here.  On another rest stop, Rob and I stepped into the latticework of a strangler fig tree that had succeeded at sucking all the life out of its host tree.

When we passed a group of tents, Solomon explained, “This is the campsite of the rangers who habituate the gorillas to the presence of humans.”  He explained that when they find a gorilla family near enough to the villages below, they follow the gorillas from a safe distance.  Every night, the gorillas create beds out of leaves, so the rangers do the same and pretend to go to sleep for the night.  After dark, the rangers return to their campsite to sleep, but they rise early before the gorillas and pretend to wake up with them.  “After weeks of this behavior, the gorillas come to think of humans as just another benign forest creature.” 

We had been climbing higher and higher for more than two hours and I was beginning to wilt.  Although the temperature was only about 820 F, the thick foliage blocked any breeze and, in the stagnant humid air, my clothes clung to my sweaty body.  We crossed several small streams - a few by bridges of swinging wooden planks strung across ropes and others by hopping from rock to slippery rock. 

I had thought that hiring my porter was simply a way to help support the local economy, but this cheerful young man was invaluable, always ready with a hand or a push as I struggled up the muddy embankments.  I had heard of some of these treks taking four or five hours to reach the prize and was beginning to worry that this would be one of them, when Solomon suddenly held up his hand.  The trackers had called his walkie-talkie to report that the Rushegura family was nearby, and I finally learned how we would penetrate the impenetrable forest. We plunged right into the bushes, Solomon hacking at the thick brush with a machete.  Suddenly, in an open glade not twenty feet in front of us, there they were - a family of fifteen mountain gorillas enjoying a picnic.

Our group and Solomon formed a semi-circle around the edge of the open glade, cameras at the ready.  My heart was pounding, not with fear, but with the awe and delight of being in the presence of such magnificent creatures just going about their normal activities.

Gorillas “picnic” all day long.  The adult males can eat up to 75 pounds of their mostly vegetarian diet, and the females about 40 pounds, per day.  Kabukojo, the great silverback patriarch, was lying on his belly, calmly keeping watch over his family.  Several mothers held their toddlers and munched on flowers and leaves. But the real enchantment came from the youngsters.  They wrestled together in the leaves, pounding their chests with rapid loud thumps.  Several of them scrambled high into the trees, leaping from branch to branch and hanging from the vines, looking curiously down at these strangers in their midst. 

We humans were following the rule of keeping our distance.  No one, however, had explained the rules to the gorilla children.  One impish little fellow startled us all when he ran right through our group from behind.  A woman in our group was crouched down snapping photos, and the youngster knocked her off balance as he raced by, grabbing the strap of the camera bag on her shoulder.  We all gasped and tried to stifle our laughter as the poor woman toppled over, but since the youngster was not successful at taking her camera bag, she quickly regained her composure.  I suspect my animal-loving husband was a little jealous of her close encounter.  He, too, was crouched down, his index finger crooked and beckoning, and I could read his thoughts as easily as if he spoke them aloud, willing the gorilla youngsters to come just a little closer.

Our hour of visiting the Rushegura family passed quickly.  All too soon, Solomon told us it was time to go and we turned reluctantly back toward the village below.  As we walked back down the mountain, I considered what had made this encounter so powerful.  This was our third trip to Africa, and we have had many fabulous animal sightings:  the great migration of the wildebeest, a huge herd of hippos filling a shallow pool of muddy water, a cheetah cub spoiling the hunt for his mother in his eagerness for the chase.  But enclosed in our safari vehicles, we had been separated from the other animals, and they had been indifferent to our presence.  This encounter was far more intimate.  This time, we shared the jungle glade with the gorillas, and they were as aware of us as we were of them. 

We share 98% of our DNA with these intelligent creatures, and that close kinship was clear.  Watching the behaviors of the youngsters was like watching the antics of rowdy human children on a school playground.  The patient mothers hugging their babies resembled any group of mothers visiting together in a park, keeping a close watch on their older kids.  The eyes of Kabukojo were the eyes of a wise old grandfather, aloof and magnificent, but somehow comfortable and familiar.  I returned from our adventure grateful and humbled that I had been able to spend time with my gorilla cousins and that our visit had, in some small way, contributed to their welfare -  and I returned with the determination to share their story so that others may also be inspired to do the same.  They are worth saving!


Sadly, the Covid-19 crisis has worsened the situation again, both for the gorillas and for the people of Uganda.  With the lack of tourist dollars, some Ugandans have once again turned to poaching, and Rafiki, another of Bwindi’s silverbacks, was killed in June of 2020.

My friend, Manase Twinamatsiko, the founding director of Rescue Africa UgandaBwindi Heritage High School, and Bwindi Grand Haven Orphanage Primary School, explained more about the effects of Covid-19 on the gorillas and the local community.

“The gorillas are so much feeling lonely due to lack of visitors.  They are much happier to host visitors because this is their only way to practice their relationships with humans.  They are much happier to play and show off.  When no clients come, they start becoming somehow wild.”

Mr. Twinamatsiko described the even greater devastation to the human population of the area.  “The people who suffer the most are dependent on tourism, like the orphans who dance and entertain clients for their daily living, food, clothes, pens, books, and medications.  The craft sellers have also suffered.  Communities neighboring these sectors have benefitted from tourism to see the gorillas whereby the government used to bring back some percentage to be shared with the community.  Those funds cannot now be accessed.” 

This lack of income has led to terrible consequences for much of the community.  Many children dropped out of school.  Some have been jailed for stealing food, while other young people have left the community to search for work in richer households.

There are hopeful signs in this crisis.  Manase said that some tourism from European countries has resumed.  The search for a Covid-19 vaccine appears to be successful.  It is my hope that, within a short time, tourists will once again return to Bwindi to visit the gorilla families living in its mountains.


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