There are less than 900 individual mountain gorillas left in the wild. Yes you read that correctly, less than 900 left in the whole world. If you have been to a zoo or safari park and think you may have seen one, sadly you are wrong, the species you have seen is the western lowland gorilla. No mountain gorillas are held in captivity.
Mountain gorillas live in the Virunga Mountains and the Bwindi Impenetrable Forest. Most people go to Rwanda to see them in the Virunga volcanos, however I decided to make the trip to Uganda, which has many other national parks I wished to visit along with Bwindi. The name is a bit frightening to be honest; impenetrable forest does not sound too inviting, yet this was our destination and we were incredibly excited about it.
Having learnt how few gorillas there are left, I understood why it was so costly to visit them – US$ 500 per person for one hour with the gorillas. But being very interested in conservation, I was desperate to learn how these beautiful animals were being helped and what had caused such horrifyingly low numbers.
Upon reaching the impenetrable forest – on some questionable roads that even our Land cruisers had a tough time negotiating – I became bitterly disappointed with the landscape set out in front of me. Don’t get me wrong it was scenically beautiful, but where was the forest?
Finally, after travelling through open farmlands and banana plantations that spread for miles and miles, a wall of forest appeared before us. Such a clear division between forest and farmland was really odd, and with no fences anywhere the gorillas could cross this boundary and potentially come into harm’s way with the humans and their farmlands. More frightening than this however was the thought of the easy access people had to this relatively small and fragile forest, and the special wildlife inside it.
But once at our lodge in the forest, the sounds and smells just overwhelmed my senses; this was an incredible place, full of life. It was easy to forget the farmland and deforestation I had just witnessed now that I had become immersed in the rain forest.
Early the next morning we woke to a very early breakfast, before setting off to the park headquarters. Meeting our guides along with many other excited guests from around the world, we were briefed on the group of gorillas we were to trek to and how to act around the them. We also met the porters who would carry our bags because us weak Europeans could not make it carrying our own equipment. Doing this everyday with heavy bags is a difficult feat! They are the villagers from around the area and the idea is to give them jobs and therefore incentives to protect the forest.
There was a strict seven meter rule, nobody was to approach a gorilla or get closer than this because a huge threat to habituated gorillas is the transfer of human diseases, which they do not have the immune system to fight off. In fact, 76% of gorilla deaths in these habituated groups are caused by human infection or disease. This is sad to hear as one of their only hopes of survival is the money generated from tourists to the area. It’s a kind of a catch 22 in this case but the seven meter rule stands to protect the gorillas against this threat, as most airborne diseases are unlikely to travel such distances.
Our group of gorillas were the furthest away, having just been in the Congo the previous two days, they had now made their way back to Uganda at the edge of Bwindi Impenetrable Forest. The scouts had left very early in the morning to track the gorilla groups from where they left them the previous day, so that they could radio the tourist group guide their position and suggest shortcuts in order for us to get to the gorilla family as fast as possible. This takes an intimate knowledge of the forest and its paths. If you have ever been in a rain forest you will know this is not easy and these places are extremely disorientating. Our gorillas were moving around a lot on this particular day, so we had to back-track to different paths and consequently it took us seven hours to find the group.
When we first saw a wild gorilla everything else became a blur and we were mesmerised by their presence. Everyone forgot their manners and their morning training and simply wanted to rush in and see them. The seven meter rule was very hard to keep with gorillas, they move around everywhere and combine that with excited and sometimes scared humans and your seven meters become a very hard measurement to stick to.
After what seemed like five minutes with them we were told that our hour was up, something that the Ugandan guides are very strict on. So with heavy hearts we departed our new friends and headed back to camp, ready for a good nights sleep and the prospect of returning tomorrow.
The next day, we decided to go out for a second trek and found a group just at the bottom of a valley, with a pretty sheer drop to get to them. There began the most ungraceful descent in human history, with porters trying desperately to save us from tumbling all the way down. Much of the trek down was spent on bums sliding on vegetation.
We spent our hour moving in-between and around the gorillas. Some of them had real character, even in one hour you could see this and I soon fell in love with them all. A particularly small female had the grumpiest face as she watched us, while an old male had a broken middle finger meaning it was stuck in an unfortunate position (this caused endless laughs). Another old male was in the tree above farting every five seconds. Let me tell you, gorillas do not have the best aroma, they stink! Old farty in the tree was not helping the situation either. Sadly all too soon we were climbing up the steep valley back to the camp, dreaming about our beds, but also of the amazing encounter we had been fortunate enough to be a part of.
From this experience I can truly say that the Ugandan authorities are doing a brilliant job conserving these wonderful creatures! They have successfully incorporated the locals into the conservation project, bringing value to the gorillas and showing exceptional professionalism. The gorilla numbers are growing slowly, though having said that, we need people to continue to visit these places and support them in their efforts through sustainable tourism.