Gorilla Trekking in Bwindi: Sharing space and time with Uganda’s critically endangered apes

Like most, I’ve carried a rucksack of dreams as I’ve trekked through life. I’ve had to rearrange things in my bag a few times; remove a few pipe dreams, shelve some I’ve been lucky enough to fulfill, and reorganize those important enough to keep. I’m now scaling the peak of my fifth decade. I hope my bag is light when I reach the top.

One dream I never could discard is my dream of Africa. As those who’ve been there know, Africa – that single word — connotes an unimaginable fullness. Africa is sand, savannah, mountains, forest, farm, tea, coffee, and potatoes. Africa is color: the brilliant palette of sunbirds in the dark green canopy, the bold contrast of women’s frocks against the rich soil, the toothy white smiles radiating from beautiful black faces. Africa is wild and large: it is lion, leopard, monkey, wildebeest, and baboon. It is larger, still, with hippopotamus, rhinoceros, and elephant.

African elephant at Mubumbo Marsh, Uganda. World Wildlife Fund estimates that about 415,000 African elephants remain from a historical population estimate of 3-5 million.  About 100 elephants are killed each day by poachers. © Brian Zwiebel Nov 2016

African Lion, Murchison Falls National Park, Uganda © Brian Zwiebel

African Lion, Murchison Falls National Park, Uganda © Brian Zwiebel

Regal Sunbird © Johnny Kamugisha

The Regal Sunbird is a kaleidoscope of color © Johnny Kamugisha

Africa is a sanctuary of large and bizarrely shaped and printed animals that, when you lay eyes on them, don’t seem of this planet, or at least not of this epoch. Who painted this zebra with black-and-white stripes? This orange-spotted mammal with an impossibly long neck? Or this behemoth that picks things up—and hugs its brethren— with its nose?

Zebra Lake Mburo National Park, Ugandam, Nov 2016 © Brian Zwiebel

Zebras are hunted for their meat and their distinctive skins. Plains Zebra is listed by the IUCN as Near Threatened and is close to qualifying for Vulnerable © Brian Zwiebel

Being on the continent of Africa, sharing space with these animals rather than reading about them in a book, gave me a startling fresh perspective on their existence on our planet, at this moment and time. I suddenly didn’t take their existence for granted, and I marveled at the works of evolution that brought them here.

Giraffes Murchison Falls Uganda FB _E1U8663 Nov 2016 © Brian Zwiebel

The Rothschild’s giraffe is the latest charismatic African mammal to be declared “Endangered” by IUCN © Brian Zwiebel/Sabrewing Nature Tours

This shift in perspective, for me, was the gift of Africa.

Lion In Road Murchison Falls National Park Uganda _E1U9496 Nov 2016 © Brian Zwiebel

African lion populations are estimated to have undergone a reduction of 43% over the past 21 years (IUCN). © Brian Zwiebel Nov 2016

But the gift did not arrive without strings attached. What we know about evolution is that the beasts of one era don’t necessarily hang around for the next. For example, 65-ton dinosaurs once dominated the planet. Fast forward millions of years and we see that evolution has gifted with a remarkable diversity of large land mammals, especially on the continent of Africa. But, just as the bell rang on the dinosaurs, adaptive forces are working, at a much accelerated rate thanks to humans, against our large land mammal cousins.

I shudder to realize how very temporary many of these animals are. While I feel incredibly lucky, even privileged, that my time on earth overlaps with theirs, I am crushed by the pending truth: that their demise will surely come. We are living during what some call the Anthropocene era, the period during which human activity is the dominant influence on climate and the environment. Human activities will drive thousands of species to extinction during my lifetime, including a number of these magical beasts of Africa. Many others will be gone before my children expire, and so on.

What stories do we tell our grandchildren when these giants are no longer around? What hope will replace that of wanting to seeing an elephant, calmly flapping its ears in the savannah, giving itself a sand bath? Or extending its long trunk to help its baby crawl up the muddy river bank? What hope for humanity is left, when we know we were the cause of this extinction, and we did nothing? Or at least we did not do enough?

I am at a loss to say.

Emily Dickinson once said hope is a thing with feathers. Yes. But hope is also a thing with a trunk, a long tail with a bushy mane, a tall crane with a golden crest, and much more.

Gray Crowned-Crane Murchison Falls National Park Uganda FB _E1U9803 Nov 2016 © Brian Zwiebel

Gray Crowned Crane, Uganda’s national bird. Murchison Falls National Park, Uganda Nov 2016

As for me, my greatest hope was a black, 500-pound ape with a flat nose and amber eyes.

Male silverback Mountain gorilla at Bwindi Impenetrable Forest. Note the wound on the left shoulder. © Laura Kammermeier.

Male silverback Mountain gorilla in the Bwindi Impenetrable Forest. Note the wound on the left shoulder. © Laura Kammermeier.

IN THE BEGINNING

When I was barely five years old, I’d sit at my mother’s knee as she sat on our orange-and-black naugahyde couch and watch TV. She would brush my Breck-girl hair while Marlin Perkins and Jim Fowler acted out some contrived wildlife drama on Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom. As grainy images flicked on the console TV, Mom was giddy with amazement at wildlife miracles large and small, such as when a cheetah would chase an antelope through the savannah. Or when a Nile crocodile, which has the strongest bite force on the planet, would capture a riverside antelope and drag it underwater.

My teachers took our classes on regular field trips to the Cleveland MetroParks Zoo. I’d follow a long line of kids up to the primate exhibit, which was to me the most exciting and hopeful corner in all of northeast Ohio, a place I never wanted to leave. Every time, I wished the silverback would come closer to the window where I could see every wrinkle, count every hair, and catch the light in his eye. I wanted to kneel next to the glass — that cold, hard liquid-solid that separated us — and stare into his eyes. How I wanted him to see me, really see me. I wanted to sit there forever until I could know him completely. And until he knew the depths to which his life, and lives of his kind, mattered.

 

TREKKING GORILLAS IN BWINDI

On the morning of November 11th, 2016 I woke at sunrise at the Gorilla Safari Lodge, which is situated near Bwindi Impenetrable Park in the chilly, western mountains of Uganda. I quickly threw on my khakis and mud-encrusted boots, checked the batteries in my camera, and hustled to the lobby for breakfast.

After breakfast, our group packed into the van and drove a short distance to the Ruhija gate, where we would meet rangers from the Ugandan Wildlife Authority who would guide us into the bush. Dozens of other travelers were there, also hoping to score a gorilla sighting that day.

We convened in a thatch hut for a ranger briefing that took approximately 30 minutes. Our ranger discussed the life history of Mountain gorillas (Gorilla beringei beringe). The rangers taught us about their habitat, their social lives, and what to expect on the trek. They also went over rules and etiquette. Two important rules are: maintain a distance of seven meters (21 feet) and let the rangers know if you are sick. Disease transmission is one of the greatest risks that tourism brings to these animals, and one that rangers do not take lightly.

If you are sick of the day of the trek, you cannot go on the tour. No exceptions. Refunds are sometimes possible but if you can’t manage one, consider your fee ($600 USD in Uganda) a donation to the cause of gorilla conservation and don’t look back.

Our rangers separated us into groups of eight. Each group would track a different gorilla family. The rangers have come to know these troops well and monitor their habits, health, and locations on an ongoing basis.

Gorilla troops in Bwindi have been “habitualized” by park rangers and researchers. This process takes from one to three years and consists of rangers making daily contact, at increasingly shorter distances, until the troop learns that the rangers present no harm.

Bwindi has eleven habituated gorilla families which include Mubare, Habinyanja and Rushegura in the northern section of the park (Buhoma); Bitukura, Oruzogo and Kyaguriro in the east (Ruhija); Nshonji, Mishaya, Busingye, Bweza, Kahungye in Rushaga; and the Nkuringo gorilla troop in the south. (link)

We were assigned to the Oruzogo family, which consists of fifteen gorillas and two silverbacks (only one is the alpha male). The Oruzogos are loosely named after a plant and, we were told, is the only family in this forest that includes this plant in its diet. Phytochemicals in the plant put the gorillas in a somewhat euphoric, drunken state, turning these gentle giants into silly bumpkins.

Porters can be hired to carry your things and help you navigate the tough trails. Your $15 goes a long way to support their families. © Laura

Porters can be hired to carry your things and help you navigate the tough trails. Your $15 goes a long way to support the local community. © Laura Kammermeier

Earlier that morning, a group of trackers, men whose job it is to locate and follow the gorillas and report back to rangers, had set out on foot to find our troop. The main concern to most of group of was how strenuous the trek would be. We were told the trek – which would take place in thick forest on steep slopes in high humidity – would last anywhere from one to five hours. Walking sticks in hand, we piled on the insect repellant and secretly hoped ours would be on the shorter side!

Because of the hike’s potential to be very long, and because it helps put food on the table of the locals, most of us hired porters (for $15 USD) to carry our rucksacks and cameras. They provided the added value of helping us over logs, or cutting branches out of the way with machetes.

I wondered why the rangers were carrying AR-15s. The stated reason was to fend off charging forest elephants. Forest elephants are the smaller brethren of the African savannah elephants that share the same habitat as the Mountain gorilla. They enter Uganda from the west, through a wildlife corridor from the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) right through this forest and eventually leads them as far north as Kibale Forest.

It was an incredible feeling to be walking through this forest knowing that I could happen upon an elephant or a massive gorilla. My mind was official blown.

There may be unofficial reasons for the firearms, too, such as keeping us safe from illegal wildlife traffickers. Unfortunately, the ivory of forest elephants is more valuable than that of savannah elephants—it’s hard, yet still malleable, quality makes it ideal for carving and able to fetch a higher price on the black markets. Poaching is rampant in the DRC and sometimes a problem in Uganda, though the Uganda Wildlife Authority has placed considerable pressure on poachers and weakened their efforts.

After what seemed an eternity, our ranger received a radio call from his trackers and said we were ready to begin our trek, so we set off for the trailhead. I got chills as I stepped forward, prepared to dive deep into an experience that I’d waited for my entire life.

Just minutes into the walk our ranger took another radio call and paused. He asked several questions in his native tongue (there are 40 tribal languages in Uganda) then looked back at us and began to tell us more gorilla life history. This didn’t seem an ideal time for chit-chat; I think we all silently implored him to get a move-on.

After several more minutes our ranger finally looked back at us and said, slowly, “Well, as I told you sometimes the gorilla trek takes many hours.” Yeeeeeessss…?

The ranger pauses on the trial to discuss gorilla life history at Bwindi Impenetrable Forest © Laura Kammermeier

The ranger pauses on the trial to discuss gorilla life history at Bwindi Impenetrable Forest © Laura Kammermeier

Pause…

 

“I have spoken to the trackers.”    Yeeeeeessss…?

 

Pause… Why was he torturing us!?

 

“The gorilla family is just fifteen minutes this way,” he smiled. At that point, confetti exploded in my head. I straightened up and bounced forward and my mind struggled to comprehend the truth of what I was about to witness.

We trekked just five or ten minutes when suddenly, the low, hoarse grunts of a male gorilla sounded from the bush just ahead.

Hu-hu-hu-hu-hu.

The soundscape floored me.

“Oh my god, oh my god, oh my god,” was all I could think.

Ten steps later we saw him, a large male Mountain gorilla, in full glory. What a massive, terrifying creature. He was a black, hairy hunk of muscle with a gently curved back. His head was the size of a toilet bowl and he moved, unrestrained and on all fours, through the forest, trying to keep pace with the younger gorilla in front of him.

I was wide-eyed with amazement. There he was—with no leash, no glass, no safety net—nothing but this magnificent, huge, powerful creature roaming free, in a thick, leafy, forested habitat in the middle of the African continent. He was alive and free in the dignified sanctuary of his own home.

On the flip-side, there I was, twenty-some feet from a magnificent, powerful black beast with no leash, no glass, and no safety net! I was scared for a moment, and my instinct was to back off and leave him be, but the rangers pushed on using their delicate tracking procedures.

I soon realized how gentle this giant was, and how very common and routine this encounter was for him and the trackers. It was clear that, at least on a normal day, we didn’t have to worry about an unprovoked attack. I moved deeper into the forest, closer to the gorilla.

We tracked the beast for several minutes until he plopped down in the grass, quite near to us. Here, he seemed to take a breather, completely disregarding, verging on unaware, of our presence. He rolled onto his belly and propped himself up on his elbows in the most interesting and human manner. I watched his black, wrinkled fingers—the diameter of a fat cigar—pluck grass blades from the damp earth. He lifted the blade to his dexterous black lips and drew it in over his tongue like he was a licking a straw from an ice-cream shake.

Gorilla face 6 © The Biggest Twitchers

Gorilla sitting on elbow © The Biggest Twitchers

Then he just got lazy. He rolled on his back to the right, then to the left. He yawned, which exposed his long, yellowed canines. For a brief second, he appeared fierce! Eventually, the male rose to his knuckles and moved on. We followed.

Gorilla male on side bare teeth @ Laura Kammermeier

Gorilla male baring teeth @ Laura Kammermeier

Gorillas are almost exclusively herbivores. They use their canines as display, in altercations with other mammals, and to tear off tree limbs and branches.

Soon we were startled by a loud, primal screech and saw a young ape, about three-feet tall with long, lanky arms, falling from a tree. He crashed down through branches – snap! snap! snap! – and sent off a loud distress call that was answered by a chorus of grunts and cries.

Juvenile gorilla in tree @ Laura Kammermeier

Juvenile gorilla in tree @ Laura Kammermeier

Again, the soundscape of this troop was incredible and other-worldly.

Gorillas live in troops comprised of 2-30 individuals. A typical troop is ruled by one male silverback, but it can contain other mature males (blackbacks or silverbacks, but each subordinate to the alpha male), several females, and children of several age groups. The role of the silverback, which is the oldest and strongest male in the group, is to protect the group, resolve conflicts, defend the group against aggressors, produce offspring, find new sites to feed, and more. Their day is rather quiet, spent foraging through the forest, with the male silverback defining the home area and where the troop will rest each night, since troops do not spend more than a day in the same spot. Gorillas nest in trees or in the grass. Sadly, infant mortality nears 38% in Mountain gorillas; infanticide is a common cause.

We followed the breathy heh-hu-hus until we found several members of the family in one area. We convened around a group of five, which if I counted correctly, included an adult male, a female, two juveniles, and a nursing and very playful infant.

Gorilla family in the day’s nest © The Biggest Twitchers

Like the paparazzi, we raised our cameras and began the photoshoot of our lives.

Our gorilla trekking license, which was obtained by our tour company via the Uganda Wildlife Authority, covered a one-hour visit with the troop. We spent it wisely, watching them play, roll, fall, slump, chomp, slide, push, twirl, and generally amuse themselves in the peace and quiet of their forest home.

The baby gorilla, which was still finding its footing, couldn’t decide if it wanted to be nestled at its mother’s breast (where it watched us with one eye) or tackle its older brother. Without the strength of propulsion, however, he just fell onto, rather than tackled, his brother.

Gorilla infant suckling its mother © The Biggest Twitchers

Gorilla infant suckling its mother. Gorillas breastfeed for up to five years.  © The Biggest Twitchers

The infant watched its older brother intently, trying its best to mimic him by standing up to beat its chest but without enough strength in his legs he just fell to the ground.

The older brother was equally playful. He reached out with his long arm, cupped the baby’s head with his hand and pulled it to his chest, where it collapsed with a gentle haroomph! The juvenile stood up and twirled around in a circle several times while softly beating his chest, making a precious-sounding bap bap bap bap, before falling into the grass. The brothers were trying on their best silverback moves, which produced nothing but coos and giggling from their adoring audience.

All this time, the mother gorilla sat calmly at a protective distance, hands folded on her lap.

 

THE GREATEST SELFIE OF ALL TIME

As I kneeled before this impossibly tender and revealing scene, my friend Neil Glenn tapped me on the shoulder and pointed to his camera, saying “Look here!” I gladly turned around and smiled — heck, I hadn’t stopped smiling in the last hour — when suddenly Neil goes, “Do not look behind you.”

My eyes widened. “What’s wrong?”

“He’s coming toward you,” Neil said in his proper English accent. “Be still, and turn around slowly.”

I tentatively, excitedly turned around and met the quizzical gaze of the playful male — he was now just feet away. Our eyes met briefly before he returned to the den. What was he thinking as he looked at us tall, skinny apes with metal pressed to our faces? I feel confident that, if we had had the presence of mind to put down our silly cameras and just sit, the young male would have come even closer. Perhaps he would have touched me on the leg or picked bugs from my black hair.

Author Laura Kammermeier enjoys time with a juvenile Mountain gorilla. @ Neil Glenn

 

A CURIOUS, BUT MISGUIDED, STATE OF ENVY

As I watched this family of apes, gently musing in the deep forest surrounded by thousands of square miles of wilderness, I envied them. Their days are simple. Their food easy to obtain. Their family bonds strong. Their pleasures intact. Their social hierarchy seems clear, at least until it’s not, then it’s resolved again by the oldest and strongest males.

In this magical section of Bwindi Impenetrable Forest, which is just one slice of the greater ecosystem that supports Mountain gorillas, their forest paradise seems intact.

Gorilla female with young © The Biggest Twitchers

But mountain gorillas are not lucky at all. There are only 880 left on the planet (according to the IUCN Red List, September 2016).

I tried to put that in perspective. I live in a tiny village with a single stoplight, yet it has three times the population of gorillas. We could fit the world’s population of mountain gorillas in our high school gymnasium. I could house them all on my street.

The truth is, four of the six great ape species – Eastern gorilla (which includes mountain and eastern lowland sub-species), Western gorilla, Bornean orangutan and Sumatran orangutan – are now listed as Critically Endangered, whilst the chimpanzee and bonobo are listed as Endangered (reference). Let that sink in a moment.

Gorillas would have a chance if their habitat wasn’t becoming smaller every day, if their hands weren’t chopped off and molded into magic ashtrays, and if their meat wasn’t consumed by people who should know better. Uganda has seen the value in protecting gorillas, but these problems are severe in the Congo, just across the border, and sometimes impact Bwindi, as well.

There is much riding on the survival of gorillas through this extinction crisis: their right to exist, their role in the ecosystem, and the hope of generations of children who knew that their parents and grandparents could do something. But didn’t.

 

REACHING THE END

Our precious hour was coming to a close. With this dream fulfilled, my bag is lighter, but my heart heavier. I’ve never wanted to hold on to a moment so badly. Never wanted to stop the clock on extinction so desperately.

As that playful young male gorilla looked at me from the protective den of his family circle, this was my chance, after five decades of dreaming, to let him know, really know, the depths to which his life, and the lives of all his kind, matter.

— The end

Mountain gorilla © Brian Zwiebel

Mountain gorilla © Brian Zwiebel

 

PLEASE DONATE TO THE GORILLA FUND

To help researchers and conservationists conserve gorillas, please join or donate to the GorillaFund.org. Dian Fossey’s legendary gorilla research work spawned this research and conservation association. They have a 3- out of 4-star ranking from Charity Navigator.

 

HOW TO BOOK A GORILLA TREKKING EXPERIENCE:

Contact a qualified wildlife tour operator in Uganda that offers gorilla or primate tours. They will secure you a trekking license through Uganda Wildlife Authority. Chimpanzee tours are also available at Kibale National Forest.

Reliable Ugandan wildlife tour operators include:

Tell them Laura from Nature Travel Network sent you!

ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS

We are grateful to the Uganda Tourism Board for sponsoring this tour. We are in debt to Crammy Wanyama from Bird Uganda Safaris for his expert guiding and the Uganda Wildlife Authority for their commitment to sustaining wildlife and promoting wildlife tourism. Thank you to the photographers who contributed photos: Alan Davies and Ruth Miller from The Biggest Twitch,  Neil Glenn from Avian Adventures, Brian Zwiebel from Sabrewings Nature Tours, Hugh Powell from Cornell Lab of Ornithology, and Mark Garland from Cape May, New Jersey.