As I mentioned in a prior post, the reality of tracking the critically endangered mountain gorilla in the Bwindi Impenetrable Rainforest in southwestern Uganda is not for the easily frightened or for the faint of heart. My naïve assumption, like everyone else I was hiking with, was that the mountain gorilla tracking day would unfold much like something one would find on the Travel Channel: we would hike for a bit, then come upon a clearing. At this clearing we would witness a bucolic scene of a mountain gorilla family calmly feeding and playing with their young. After our allotted amount of time with them, we would move on, hike back to camp, and have a glass of wine to celebrate having seen one of the world’s most endangered mammals. I couldn’t have been more wrong.
The Ugandan Wildlife Authority [UWA] now allows only sixty or so permits for gorilla tracking per day and these must be arranged for well in advance. They are costly – approximately US$500 – and the proceeds support the conservation efforts. On the day of your scheduled permit, you must make your way to a “check in” center at the edge of the rainforest, where a representative of the park will take your passport details, assign you to a gorilla family, and introduce you to your guide. After the paperwork formalities, I was assigned to track the Kahungye gorilla family, a group of twenty-seven individuals that is newly habituated and has only been open to tourism since September 2011.
Habituation is a process of preparing the gorilla families to be open for tourism – in other words, to acclimatize them to humans so they are comfortable and do not see you as a threat or attack [i.e. rip your arm off while you are not looking]. We were told that it takes anywhere from 18 months to two years to complete this process before a particular gorilla family is open to tourism. Each family can receive a maximum of eight visitors per day, ergo the number of permits issued by the UWA.
Two hours before I began my 9:00am hike, a tracker had gone into the rainforest to locate the Kahungye gorilla family. Communicating with my group’s guide via SMS and walkie-talkie, once the family was he was to radio the guide who would then instruct us to proceed toward the family. After two and a half or so hours of hiking deep into the rainforest, our guide received the word that the family had been located, and that the gorillas were approximately forty minutes away.
The group’s anticipation grew as we hiked the forty or so more minutes deep into the rainforest with the help of our guide, two more individuals with machetes, and a man with an AK47, just in case. Once we neared their location, we were told to leave our backpacks and that we would roughly have an hour to view the gorillas.
The experience briefly began as the bucolic scene I had imagined. The first image I saw was of an adult mountain gorilla in a tree feeding, and then climbing down [see photo]. However, this calm soon turned. In the world of mountain gorillas, a Silverback, or dominant male, leads the family. Sometimes there is more than one Silverback within a family, and sometimes they fight, resulting in one of them being ostracized. The ostracized Silverback then roams the rainforest looking for another family to disrupt and to hopefully take control of. Unfortunately, the bucolic potential of extended mountain gorilla viewing clashed with the reality of an errant Silverback trying to horn in on the action within the Kahungye gorilla family.
What would have been a restful Kahungye Silverback was in fact quite agitated. The Silverbacks can weigh in excess of 350 pounds and are ten times stronger than any human, and they are quite loud when agitated. This is the point where adult diapers would have come in handy for our group of hikers. As can be seen on my video post from that day, we were much closer to the Silverbacks than we were supposed to be [fifteen feet is the minimum distance recommended but we were within five feet at a few points along the way], and it took almost forty-five minutes for the Gorilla family to calm down.
At one moment I felt like I was in the scene from Jurassic Park in which the humans were surrounded by Velociraptors – there was rustling 20 feet away at 9 o’clock, at 11 o’clock, at 3 o’clock, and at 5 o’clock. At one point one of the Silverbacks jumped at us and I grabbed an Aussie as another blurted out spontaneous expletives. I had seen “Rise of the Planet of the Apes” on the long flight to Uganda, and this was turning out to be a real-life version in the Bwindi.
After the errant Silverback left and the Kahungye family calmed down, we were allowed another forty-five minutes with them, extending our time with the family to almost two hours – double the normal time allowance. Thereafter, we had another four hours’ hike up and out of the rainforest. Altogether, we hiked more than nine hours in the Bwindi, only taking twenty minutes for lunch.
On the quite silent hike back, I experienced mixed emotions about these amazing creatures – sadness that human carelessness and habitat encroachment had relegated them to a population of one for every ten million humans on earth, awe in the sheer power of them, and respect for them and their survival.
I feel privileged to have been able to see these amazing creatures in person and, in a small way, to be able to tell their story.