There’s nothing quite like the majesty and sheer dignity of mountain gorillas. The gaze of their soulful brown eyes sends shivers down your spine. Encountering these great apes in their remote rainforest homeland in Rwanda, Uganda and the Democratic Republic of the Congo is perhaps the ultimate wildlife-watching experience. Kanyonyi, silverback of the Mubare gorilla group in Bwindi National Park, is no exception. Fred Nizeyimana knows him well, describing him as “young and charismatic, but a daring fighter” who frequently raids other gorilla groups for their females. The field vet for the Gorilla Doctors project in Bwindi, Fred has treated this primate Lothario for life-threatening injuries sustained in skirmishes with other silverbacks. It’s hard to reconcile Kanyonyi the fighter with the calm, seemingly docile, ape that ambles nonchalantly past me – almost close enough to touch.
Mountain gorillas have become one of Africa’s greatest conservation success stories. In the mid-1980s, renowned primatologist Dian Fossey estimated that
only 250 individuals remained, their rapid decline the result of habitat loss and extensive poaching. Today they number around 880 (though are still classed as Critically Endangered). Mountain gorillas, Gorilla beringei beringei one of the eastern gorilla’s two subspecies have an average lifespan of 35 years and live in troops of up to 30 led by a dominant silverback, so-called due to the broad band of hair across their backs denoting sexual maturity.
Kanyonyi’s family, the Mubare group, were the first to be habituated to humans in 1993 when mountain gorilla tourism began i Bwindi, a dense forest spanning 321km2 of western Uganda. Around 400 gorillas now roam Bwindi’s rainforest, with 12 of its 36 groups fully habituated for tracking. A maximum of eight tourists visit each group for one precious hour a day.
But a new four-hour gorilla experience offers visitors an extraordinary insight into the complexities of familiarising gorillas to people, tracking two semi-habituated groups used to their trackers and rangers, but not to strangers. And this experience, which I’m on, is very different…
First, we track the Mubare. For two hours, we walk swiftly along muddy paths to join trackers who have already located our gorillas. A blissful scene greets us: Kanyonyi looks totally chilled as he munches stalks and stems. Mothers keep a watchful eye on three toddlers.
For 4,000 years, Bwindi was home to the Batwa people, often known as ‘pygmies’, but when the national park was created in 1993, they were evicted without compensation. With no prospects, they were ostracised, leading to homelessness, malnutrition and alcoholism.
In 2000, the Americans Scott and Carol Kellermann concluded that Batwa life expectancy was just 28 years, so they set up a makeshift clinic under a fig tree, treating 5 0 0 patients daily. It has become one of Uganda’s most respected hospitals, the Bwindi Community Hospital.
The Keliermanns also began a development programme to establish income-generating projects such as the Batwa Experience, a ‘living museum’ offering a fascinating glimpse into this people’s former forest life.
Community health also concerned Dr Gladys Kalema- Zikusoka, who in 2 0 0 0 discovered the first confirmed case of scabies spreading from human to gorilla. A young gorilla died of the disease, which was traced to dirty rags on a scarecrow intended to deter the apes from crop-raiding. Scabies thrives on poverty and poor hygiene. In 2002, Gladys founded Conservation Through Public Health to help educate local communities and improve the health of people, wildlife and livestock. If the surrounding communities are in good health, gorillas will be too playing a game of jungle tag, and even new m u m Mitunu shows little concern as we take photos of her gently cuddling her nine-month-old baby.
THE TOURISM EFFECT
Although tourism has been a significant factor in gorilla conservation, it also adds to their vulnerability because of their susceptibility to h u m a n infections. In DR Congo, it is mandatory for tourists to wear face masks when they encounter mountain gorillas, but there are no such requirements in Uganda or Rwanda. “Recently, respiratory infections have been frequent in Bwindi,” Fred tells me. “We’re undertaking research to establish whether they are of human origin.”
Gladys Kalema-Zikusoka, UW A’s first wildlife vet and founder of an NGO called Conservation Through Public Health, sits on the Mask Task Force, a transboundary initiative between the three countries. “Wearing masks protects gorillas from human diseases,” she explains. “Some sides want masks and some don’t, because they feel it would put tourists off. I hope that they will be approved eventually.”
Tropical field biologist, conservationist and gorilla expert Ian Redmond believes the jury is still out. “We must minimise the risk of droplet infection to an immunologically naive population,” he tells me. “But keeping them that way also presents a risk, because one day a flu virus will get through and the impact might just be greater. Any non-lethal exposure to novel pathogens actually strengthens the immune system.”
It’s a complex issue. “Fiddling with a m a s k detracts slightly from the sometimes very moving experience of meeting gorillas in their natural habitat for the first time,” Ian admits. “For years, some ape-viewing sites have required mask use and others have not. It seems logical to compare incidences of suspected disease transmission in both sites to establish whether mask-wearing actually makes a difference and keeps the apes safer.”
Bwindi’s new experience tracking the two semi- habituated groups is limited to only four visitors, and involves a lesser risk of close proximity to the gorillas. Yet, it affords a deeper, more immersive and edgier encounter with our closest cousins. Pontious Ezuma, UWA’s Conservation Area Manager, explains the thinking behind it. “Normally, trackers have already found the gorillas and tourists just have their hour and leave,” he says. “We realised that visitors were missing out on preliminaries such as gorilla behaviour, what their nests look like, how we find their trail. All this was being lost…”
It takes about three years to fully habituate a troop of gorillas. Having identified a suitable group, usually of 10- 20, trackers follow them every day. At first, they just ‘talk’ to the gorillas, vocalising their 12 main sounds, but stay out of sight: wild gorillas can be particularly aggressive and will charge if they feel threatened. Gradually, the trackers let the gorillas see them and over time, get closer, staying longer in their company until they’re eventually accepted. Then, it’s time to introduce different people – and this is where visitors play their part.
At 7am we set off from Rushaga in Bwindi’s southern sector to track the Bikingi group, which is about 18 months into the habituation process. Together with our all- important trackers, we walk past shambas (plots) of crops and banana plants, through pine trees and eucalyptus with Rwanda’s Virunga Volcanoes in the distance. As we enter the park, the habitat changes dramatically. “Now you see why they used to call it impenetrable,” our guide Augustine Muhangi laughs as we battle through dense jungle, nettles and brambles, with roots and vines seemingly grabbing at our ankles.
We walk to where they left the Bikingi group the previous day and, from there, our four-hour countdown starts. Learning all about tracking, we look for bent vegetation and broken plants, piles of leaves and stalks, knuckle prints and droppings, following our gorillas’ trail until a pungent smell of urine pervades the forest. Mounds of leaves and branches are perched on top of shrubs: we’ve reached their nests.
“Every adult makes a new nest every night,”
Geoffrey Twinomuhangi, Bwindi’s Assistant Warden, tells me. “We learn so much from them, like how many individuals we’re following, who they are and whether they’re healthy. The silverback and black- back can be identified from hairs on the nest; babies always sleep with their mums. And we check their poo for signs of ill-health.
RECORDING THE EVIDENCE
Samples of hair and faeces are collected for analysis, bagged and recorded on data sheets. “This is probably Rushenya, our silverback,” Augustine says, pointing to a giant turd. Seemingly, most silverbacks’ droppings measure 5-7CIT1 in diameter. This one measures an eye-watering 8cm. “He’s a big boy!” Augustine smiles, proud of the 26-year-old that he personally named. Rushenya means ‘destroyer’, so- called because of his immense size and the fact that he breaks everything around him.
“They probably left the nests around an hour ago,” he comments as we follow the gorillas’ fresh morning trails. We listen for their vocalising, smell the air for fresh faeces and look all around us until we see our first gorilla high up in a tree. She rushes down, disappearing into the undergrowth. Following the sounds of breaking branches, we soon find her and her tiny baby with Rushenya about 15m away from us, sitting on a narrow path and basking in the sun.
I’m stunned by Rushenya’s size. Even for a silverback, he’s huge, weighing in at around 250kg, while most are 200—220kg. I’m stunned, too, by his quiet composure – he doesn’t seem remotely bothered by our presence. “That’s because they could see us coming,” Augustine explains.
TALKING TO THE ANIMALS
I start vocalising to our group in quiet coughs that signify contentment, hoping they’ll accept us. It feels utterly surreal to hear Rushenya reply in similar guttural rumbles. To our right, a more high-pitched ” m m m m m m ” noise emanates from a female gorilla. Augustine translates. “That means she’s appreciating her food, telling the others it’s good there.”
On average, gorillas, predominantly vegetarians, eat up to 25kg a day in between taking naps and wandering a distance of about 1km from their previous night’s nest to their new abode. Daily movements depend on the availability of food and their safety: if other gorilla groups or forest elephants are around, they move on fast.
As Rushenya takes his mid-morning nap, two toddlers crawl onto his back and a mum curls up next to him for protection, her baby’s tiny fingers just visible on
her shoulder. With 24 members in the entire Bikingi group and a feeding range of dense forest, it’s proving quite a challenge to habituate. Every individual has to be relaxed with strangers at a distance of 7m and babies are normally the first to relax, getting curious and moving closer to trackers: this hasn’t yet happened with Bikingi. When Rushenya awakes refreshed and hungry, he moves rapidly grabbing at tree fungus, leaves and stems. The point of habituation is to stay in constant sight of the gorillas and gradually move closer so that they become comfortable with people. Following him as if our lives depend on it, we slowly inch nearer until we achieve our objective: he is just 7m away.
After two and a half magical hours with the Bikingi group, our time is almost up. They stop in a clearing and all seems calm. Suddenly, the female with the baby appears, tumbling downhill between Rushenya and me. He rushes towards me as I crouch down, terrified but averting my eyes as I’d been briefed. His reactions still unpredictable, he stops, shouts “uh uh” loudly, and waits – then slowly moves away. “He’s just warning us to stay away from the baby,” Augustine reassures me.
Exhausted but exhilarated, we reluctantly head back to Rushaga, learning on the way that Bwindi has been experiencing a baby boom, with 29 having been born in habituated groups alone in the past two years.
Africa’s greatest conservation success story continues to go from strength to strength.
HOWTO SEE UGANDA’S MOUNTAIN GORILLAS
WHEN TO GO
It’s possible to track mountain gorillas ‘ all year round. Permits for regular tracking, allowing an hour with the gorillas, cost US$600. Permits for the four-hour’Gorilla Habituation Experience’ cost US$1,500; it’s likely to continue in 2018.
‘ UK tour operators offering the Gorilla I Habituation Experience are Steppes I Travel (www.steppestravel.co.uk) and Natural World Safaris (www.naturalworldsafaris.com). Travel Local (www.travellocal.com) offers gorilla encounters accompanied by Gorilla Doctors’ vet Fred Nizeyimana.
WHERE TO STAY
For access to the Gorilla Habituation Experience, stay in Nkuringo. There are I two lodges here: Clouds MountainGorilla Lodge (www.wildplacesafrica.com) and Nkuringo Bwindi Gorilla Lodge (www.mountaingorillalodge. com). Upmarket lodges in Buhoma, ‘ near the Uganda Wildlife Authority, ‘ include Volcanoes Safaris Bwindi
Lodge (www.volcanoessafaris.com), Mahogany Springs (www.mahoganysprings.com) andSanctuary Gorilla Forest Camp(www.sanctuaryretreats.com).
By Sue Watt