Great Apes Watching: Gorillas in Our Midst

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Gorilla in Bwindi

No one could tell Nikos what to expect on his snaking gorilla trek through the Bwindi Impenetrable Forest. But his expedition into the double-crossing Ugandan thicket is all worth it when he meets the gentle giants living within.

Looking out through the window of 11-seat Cessna plane, I fixate on the beautiful aerial views of this vibrant lush green landscape that ascends and descends dramatically, forming a roller coaster of terraced hills and valleys dotted with tiny villages. Just like the Ugandan weather that changes within minutes the dazzling landscape is gone, swallowed by a dense, dark, unyielding forest.

“That must be the Impenetrable Forest,” one of us says. A sea of trees covers the ground like a blanket, forming an opaque roof over whatever species lies below. The mist rushes in and spins around the trees, which now resembles perfect little heads of broccoli boiling in a pot. On one side of the plane, it’s a gorgeous, sunny day. Down in the forest jungle, it’s dark.

After the plane lands at Kihihi Airstrip, it’s an hour-and-a-half transfer to Buhoma Lodge.

From the window view of my thatched-roof banda at the lodge, I have a much different view of the forest. It stretches uphill and disappears into the mist, taking whatever wildlife it protects with it. I study it carefully on a brief walk later in the day, noting that the eucalyptus trees have been stripped of their bark by little hands.

Uganda is mountain gorilla country, and gorilla trekking is the main tourist draw. In the significance of preservation, the process is forcefully regulated; only a limited number of trekking permits are issued for each day, so visitors have to apply at least three months in advance. Each trek involves a maximum of eight tourists, plus an official armed park ranger as a group guide. Trekkers are advised to hire a porter each for the day for USD $15 – both as one way of directly employ local people (some of whom were formerly poachers) and to help hikers go through the difficult and dangerous landscape as well. Time with the gorillas is limited to an hour a day.

Fearing their total extinction over 50 years ago, American ecologist Dian Fossey established the well-known Karisoke Research Center on the Rwandan side of the Virunga Mountains. Still, by the 1980s, the rare mountain gorilla population had decreased to roughly a total of 250.

In 2012, Billy Safari founded Rwanda Gorilla Trek with the intention of preserving this delicate region so its gorilla populations could recover. In its 6 years, Gorilla hub tours has become a world-renowned company in responsible tourism in Uganda and Rwanda including DR.Congo, part of company revenue is remitted to the community as a way of making them know the advantage of preserving the impenetrable forest as Habitat destruction is mainly due to farming and logging which is the biggest threats to the forest and mountain gorilla existence at large.

In a bid to supplement to the local communities around these endangered parks and persuade people to guard and protect the gorillas’ natural habitats, the Gorilla hub tours Partnership Trust uses tourism, employment and special charitable initiatives to teach them the importance of wildlife and reduce human-wildlife conflicts.

Nobody could tell our group what to expect on our trek next morning inside this great Bwindi Impenetrable Forest. The route keeps changing constantly because animals while in the wild like to wander. For two tough hours, seven of us had already scrambled through mud, over rocks, into thorns, then directly up the slope of a mountain. The jungle is so thick it requires an expertly wielded machete to get through. This, the guide says with a wink, is “the shortcut.” The trackers have made it to the right spot, and we are battling to join them.

Finally, the sight of one dark, furry back in a tree right away dissolves all memory of the difficult journey here. Everybody stares intently, Igor to see this gentle giant turn around. Swiftly, the thick vegetation behind crunches loudly under the weight of something big, which lets out deep, awkward grumbles. A tracker hysterically  motions for me to move about. As I pass the confusion of ferns and branches, a leathery hand pulls flipside some leaves while a pair of dark eyes observe me.

Once the silence of the jungle is broken, they shift fast. A heap of ferns sways as a long, furry arm systematically strips leaves off vines and shoves fistfuls into a mouth. Fingers enfold around branches and faces peer out, while the now-familiar sound of spliting leaves and cracking branches resumes. Soon, the crunching of bark and the gnashing of teeth rises to a comical din. It’s lunchtime in the jungle.

A smaller figure sits in a tree slightly downhill, ripping up leaves with slightly more grace. A small arm wraps around the tree trunk, tiny fingers searching blindly for some kind of grip. The rest of a furry little body follows, clumsily hugging the trunk. Without pause, the mother uses one arm to keep eating and the other to snatch up her baby when those inexperienced long toes lose their grip.

There are fewer than 1000 mountain gorillas on the planet, and here I am surrounded by eight of them. This is the Bitukura family, a troop of 12 led by a 25-year-old silverback. Most people will never see a mountain gorilla, because they can’t survive in captivity like their lowland relatives. They live only in a small radius of high-altitude cloud forests and bamboo groves that make up the national parks of Volcanoes (in Rwanda), Bwindi and Mgahinga (in Uganda) and Virunga (in the Democratic Republic of the Congo).

Mountain gorillas are shy, gentle giants. The ranger and trappers read the gorillas’ body language and whisper instructions for ours, to make sure we never appear too large or move too quickly. Within minutes, most of the gorillas are bored with us and go back to what they were doing.

The gorilla mother swings effortlessly down from her tree and sits in open ground, a short distance from us. The baby/infant follows, stumbling along and trying to imitate everything her mother does. After feasting on vines and vegetation shoot outs, and now confident in the fact they are safe, the mother rolls over and goes to sleep on her side, pulling the anxious baby tightly into her chest like a squirming teddy bear. Once asleep, she involuntarily releases her grip. The baby wriggles away, grasping her mother’s fur tightly with her tiny hands as she climbs all over her. In a miscalculated move, the baby slips and tumbles off, then runs straight to her mother’s large sleeping face out of shock. Without even opening an eye, she raises a giant palm and strokes her daughter’s small head. The baby grabs the folds of her face and gingerly plants a tiny kiss.

For a privileged one hour, I live in the moment, observing these critically endangered and rarest creatures experience all of the same emotions we feel each day: hunger, fatigue, boredom, wariness, tolerance, respect, trust, curiosity, love, happiness.

In a while, every person automatically gravitates to the picturesque windows of Buhoma Lodge’s living room inside Bwindi impenetrable forest, mesmerized by the jungle panorama and its soft light. As a fire dries us off and scorching mugs of Ugandan tea warm us up, we chat excitedly about what we saw and the diverse experiences we had, as if all of us hadn’t been in the exact same place only hours before. The wind picks up, bringing with it the smell of rain through the windows and open door. The living room goes silent as a mixture of fatigue and curiosity sets in. Within minutes, a storm battles downhill right toward us, raining down on the treetops of the Impenetrable Forest. This time, it doesn’t seem so ominous and unfamiliar. It’s gentle and beautiful.

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