Meeting mountain gorillas in Uganda may not only be an extraordinary experience - it may be their best chance for survival
I was working in Uganda recently and couldn’t resist dropping in to see the relatives. They live in Bwindi Impenetrable National Park, on the border with the Democratic Republic of Congo, in the south-western corner of the country.
A tiny island of 331 sq km of equatorial rainforest surrounded by a sea of banana and tea plantations, Bwindi is home to roughly half the world’s remaining mountain gorillas – some 320 to 330 individuals altogether.
The Uganda Wildlife Authority has patiently and sensitively habituated four gorilla families (out of about 26) to receive human visitors. Every morning, the latest influx of their distant relatives gather on the lawns near the forest entrance for a detailed briefing, before setting off chaperoned by trackers, guides, armed guards and porters.
The super-human porters will carry anything. I remember gorilla tracking with Douglas Adams many years ago in the Congo and, among other things, his porter had to carry a suit, a pile of dirty laundry, dozens of computer magazines, a thesaurus, most of the collected works of Dickens and a large wooden model of a Komodo dragon. I won’t even attempt to explain why.
In Uganda, we’d been warned that the previous day’s trek had taken 11 hours. Within minutes we were sweating and panting, clambering our way along slippery, precipitous mountain tracks. The dark, wet Impenetrable Forest is aptly named. It’s a riot of green where things grow on top of other things that grow on top of more things in layers of ferns, mosses, creepers and lichens. In places, the forest is so thick you have to hike on solid mats of vegetation that tremble and flex with every step, threatening to break through and dump you into the unseen depths below.
We were searching for the Rushegura family, which had 14 members. And we were incredibly lucky. No more than 35 minutes into the trek, our guides signalled for us to keep quiet. It was a moment or two before I saw anything at all, but then at last a slight movement caught my eyes. About 30m away down the hillside, standing in plain view, was something so big that I hadn’t even noticed it. It was a mountain gorilla – or, more aptly, a gorilla mountain, standing propped up on his front knuckles. He assumed the shape of a large and muscular sloping ridge tent.
We followed our group of gorillas to within 100m of where I was staying. I could almost have watched them from my bed. In fact, I saw them again later that afternoon on the forest path behind the garden –and that time there were 15 of them. In the few hours since my ‘official’ visit, one of the females had had a baby.
The business of gorilla tourism is a vexed one. I know people who have wanted to visit the gorillas for years, but have been deterred by the worry that tourism must be causing disturbance or exposing the animals to diseases to which they have no immunity. But tourism is the one thing that can guarantee their survival, by providing an income for Uganda’s parks and for the local people – quite simply, making gorillas worth more alive than dead.
And it is very carefully controlled and monitored. Each habituated gorilla family can only be visited once a day, for a maximum of one hour, by a party of no more than eight people (all of whom have been approved fit and healthy). And there are no guarantees of a close encounter.
But we still have a responsibility that goes well beyond tourism. Think of it this way. We are the rich, successful members of the primate family. We are the ones who made good. We should, by any standards, be looking after our less well-off relatives.
Mark Carwardine is an award-winning wildlife writer, photographer and broadcaster