Gorillas in the Midst
How Uganda is winning the battleto save its mountains gorillas
A 200-kilogram mountain gorilla should not be difficult to spot. But there’s one right next to us in the bushes of Uganda’s Bwindi Impenetrable National Park and, were it not for the expertise of our local trackers, we wouldn’t even know. For such an iconic animal, this massive silverback, the leader of the Nshongi group – one of 14 gorilla families tourists can visit in the park – is surprisingly elusive.
Uganda, however, is full of surprises. They begin in Entebbe, on the lush shores of Lake Victoria, which is low-key, and cooled by the largest tropical lake on earth. Its attractions include vibrant birdlife, where red kites, kingfishers, weavers, fish-eagles, lapwing, squacco herons, African jacanas, hamerkops and blue-breasted bee-eaters are all upstaged by the massive and primeval-looking shoebill, lurking among the papyrus of the lake’s Mabamba Swamp.
There are flights from Entebbe, but the road to Bwindi Impenetrable, at the edge of the Rift Valley in the country’s south-west, offers a window on Ugandan life - and an unmissable photo opportunity crossing the Equator. Trade and transportation are everywhere, and anything can be carried on two wheels it seems, from bananas to beds. Numerous roadside stalls sell just two products - sweet potatoes and tilapia fish. Maribou storks eye butchers’ carcasses hanging in the breeze. Improvised locust traps harvest one of the fastest of foods. There is woodwork, wickerwork and pottery. Hand-made bricks smoke in cauldron-like kilns. Rough quarries and neat tea estates are worked by hand. Animals range from zebras to the culturally important Ankole long-horned cattle.
In Queen Elizabeth National Park, the sights keep coming. Hatching white ants are gathered by local people for seasonal feasting, and scoffed on sight by birds, baboons and monitor lizards. In Kyambura Gorge, we track fast-moving chimps along the banks of the hippo-infested jungle river. Beneath our feet squirm giant millipedes and in the treetops perch colobus monkeys, like eagles ready to strike.
And yet – surprise, surprise - nothing prepares you for meeting (well, almost) the biggest star in Uganda’s wildlife pantheon, the mountain gorilla - ‘gorilla beringei beringei’- eight metres away, and blissfully unaware of his role as a symbol of the might and fragility of the natural world. You hold your breath with good reason. Placid but powerful, he can lift ten times his body weight, and strike with devastating speed.
Mountain gorillas don’t survive in captivity, and this park in the Kigezi Highlands hosts one of only two populations in the world. Mists shroud its 25,000-year-old rainforest, a World Heritage Site of no less than 400 plant species, 300 bird species and 200 different butterflies. We had met early at Rushaga Gate, the still forest morning disturbed only by tropical birdsong, as the rangers prepared for another day protecting the gorillas and hosting their visitors. They operate on conservation’s frontline. To find our appointed family, we plunged into the gorillas’ sanctuary, sliding down into a verdant flat-bottomed valley crisscrossed with hidden trails through ‘impenetrable’ foliage. Thick with spindly plants and watery mud containing worms the size of small snakes, at times just staying upright was a challenge.
After 90 minutes’ toil, crossing fast-flowing streams on slippery logs, we ascended through steep forest to meet our trackers. They had already located the group, and we would spend one hour with them. Mountain gorillas travel by day, foraging for fruits and plants, like bamboo, thistle and wild celery; by night they sleep in a fresh nest in a new location. The trackers find them each morning, virtually guaranteeing tourists a sighting.
“There he is! Can you see?!” Hearts pounding, we can just observe the silverback’s huge bulk amid the shrubs, trees and roots as he chews mouthfuls of his daily diet of 60 pounds of vegetation. He and his ‘habituated’ family have been made accustomed to seeing humans as non-threatening – as long as people behave, there will be no problem. The silverback heads the family, dictating where they travel, rest and eat. Just at the moment it’s the eating he’s focussed on. We stumble silently around in the forest, trying to get a peek or picture, as he lazes, grunts and grazes, unperturbed by us. ‘He’s the daddy’ and he acts like it.
After ten minutes, completely unmoved by his uninvited guests, he rouses his rippling, muscular, silvery-backed frame, and slinks away to a tall tree. In seconds, he slides gracefully up its trunk to the high branches, to take a seat – and carry on eating. Bwindi’s gorillas climb more than others for food and, when they do, it’s a graceful display of controlled strength.
The troop are dotted around, detectible from roars, grunts, cries and less savoury sounds associated with a high-volume vegetarian diet. But soon adult females and smaller males move in, some shinning down trunks to investigate our presence. The forest ground is tricky, but they move easily over it. Following at a distance, we pass directly beneath the silverback perched on a narrow branch above.
Ahead I can make out a female’s face in bushes. She’s staring skywards, her gaze one that can only be described as contemplative. It’s hard to get a good stance, let alone a good picture. I prepare for a shot of another female lounging in an armchair of vegetation but instead, camera in hand, I pirouette backwards and disappear downhill into the bushes. The smiling tracker hauls me out in time to see the same female playfully rolling headfirst into the undergrowth. I’ve just been aped by a gorilla.
Youngsters appear, one 18 months old, the other aged three. The trackers know them well. Their heads bob in and out of the foliage, but soon it’s time for some serious attention-seeking. Some gymnastics does the trick, out-climbing each other, swinging on branches until they snap, plunging into the undergrowth for fun. The youngest balances on a bough to beat his little chest but falls off after three and disappears below again. He’s soon back for more. Chest-beating is an important defensive gesture for these gorillas’ future, and a reminder that, thankfully, they have one. The hour flies by. Returning through the forest, what we have witnessed feels increasingly precious – wild animals, living wild. But even in this managed setting, these remain the most endangered of all gorillas.
Historically, pressure from people forced gorillas up the mountains, making ‘mountain gorillas’ to some extent ‘man-made.’ Those pressures continue: subsistence farming destroying habitat; so-called ‘development’; poaching (gorillas often suffer from traps targeting other animals); charcoal production and human conflict. Even gorilla tourism carries a health warning. Introduced by researchers to save the gorillas, visitors bring a constant risk of human disease transmission, and habituation, by definition, makes gorillas lose their instinctive fear of people.
But overall this is a stunning story of conservation success. Essential habitat gets protected; guides, trackers and porters earn a living; local communities enjoy benefits, including a cut of tracking permit income; and the visitors keep coming.
Census returns suggest total mountain gorilla numbers could now be as high as 1,000 for the first time since counting began. It proves the right kind of tourism, managed in the right way, can give endangered wildlife a chance. Gorilla tracking can be physically and even emotionally demanding. Our short trek left me feeling exhausted, but also deeply satisfied. It’s not everywhere you can go face-to-face with an iconic animal - and help to save the species. That could be Uganda’s best surprise of all.
- Home to Africa (www.hometoafrica.com) in Kampala combined competitive pricing with excellent planning and communication. Ask for Hedmond.
- Entebbe’s Airport Guesthouse offers pleasant gardens, accommodation and welcome. If a swimming pool is a must, try The Boma nearby.
- Uganda’s gorilla permits cost $600USD per day. Reasonable fitness and mobility, appropriate clothing and strong footwear are essential. Tracking may take several hours, depending on the gorillas’ location.
- Follow the rules when viewing gorillas, remaining at least seven metres away, not using a flash, not eating or drinking, and staying away if unwell.
- Useful websites include: www.bwindiforestnationalpark.com