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Uganda: Big beasts of the Impenetrable Park

Intelligent, gentle, vulnerable. No one who looks into a gorilla’s eyes can remain unchanged. It’s a mind-blowing experience, but in Uganda’s Bwindi Impenetrable National Park, it’s one you may have to work for

Uganda: Big beasts of the Impenetrable Park

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I’m expecting my first sighting of a mountain gorilla to be a hint of a black or silver coat, glimpsed in the forest shadows, somewhere far in the distance. But, it’s not like that at all. The trackers whisper that they’re close.“How close?” Seeing that I’m still fumbling with my cameras, they answer with a gentle ‘are-you-ready?’ smile. Then they part the foliage like a curtain, and there he is. An adolescent male, the size of a small armchair, in plain view, right in front of us. Just sitting there. Munching.

I’m astonished to find myself almost within touching distance. These days, nobody gets to do an Attenborough, lolling in the greenery while mountain gorillas make themselves at home around them. Since the BBC filmed those unforgettable sequences for Life on Earth almost 30 years ago, experts have agreed that humans and gorillas should remain at least 23ft apart to protect these critically endangered animals from stress-related illness and viral infections. Glancing behind me, I try to reverse, but the blackback, relaxed in human company, simply edges his handsome shoulders forward, intent on plucking the juiciest myrianthus leaves he can find. He clearly hasn’t read the guidelines.

“This is Kaganga,” murmurs tracker Elisha Kastama. “His name means big and strong.” It’s a fine name indeed. Mountain gorillas are a sub-species of the eastern gorilla, the world’s largest primate, and Kaganga, when fully grown, will weigh more than a motorbike. I gingerly move away, keen to give him space. It’s time to meet the rest of the family.

Ten million years have passed since the common ancestors of humans and gorillas roamed forests like these, but we still share 98% of our DNA and echo each other in looks and habits, from our sociable lifestyles to the way we examine our fingernails. The remaining 2% covers specific adaptations, such as the layer of reinforcing keratin that allows gorillas to walk on their knuckles. Reflecting on his own early encounters, George Schaller, the naturalist whose pioneering study inspired Dian Fossey to dedicate her life to the cause, described his profound sense of kinship and respect, writing, ‘No one who looks into a gorilla’s eyes — intelligent, gentle, vulnerable — can remain unchanged.’ Today, I’m gripped by similar emotions. As the curious youngsters, peaceful females and Bakwate the alpha male, a magnificent silverback, emerge and settle down to browse, the more accepted and humbled I feel.

Part of the joy of being here, deep in the tangled folds of southwest Uganda’s Bwindi Impenetrable National Park, is the sheer relief of making it. Bwindi is home to almost half the world’s population of mountain gorillas and around 45% of these — 13 groups — have become habituated to visitors through the quiet daily presence of rangers over several years. For the tourists who now pay US$600 (£480) to track gorillas, sightings are pretty much guaranteed, but there’s no guarantee that it’ll be easy.

Yesterday, at a luxurious eco-lodge near the park headquarters in Buhoma, I met a party of well-dressed American retirees enjoying an après-trek lunch. They were beaming. After a straightforward hike, unspoilt by mud, heat or bloodthirsty insects, they found their gorillas within a few hundred yards. Yet, for others, the experience can be tougher. Bwindi is slightly lower in altitude than Volcanoes National Park in Rwanda, Africa’s better known gorilla-watching destination, but its terrain can be exhausting. If the group you’re seeking has moved to a remote part of its range, you must hike for hours through a steep, roadless maze of thickly vegetated ridges and valleys for your precious 60-minute audience. It’s an adventure for some, but an ordeal for others, and once it’s over, there’s no helicopter rescue for the fit-but-footsore — everyone has to hike back again.

Image: Emma Gregg

So, when I hear I’m visiting the Oruzogo group, it feels like the short straw. The Uganda Wildlife Authority (UWA) describes their patch as ‘challenging’ and to get there, I must set off before dawn. Little do I know, as I shake myself awake, that the group has a secret I wouldn’t want to miss for the world.

My journey begins with a drive along the park’s northern boundary. The mountain road from Buhoma to Ruhija is newly surfaced, one of the many changes brought about since gorilla tourism commenced in 1993. Below the once-treacherous hairpin bends is a patchwork of smallholdings, quilted with bananas, sweet potatoes and tea. As the sun comes up, the villagers are already at work.

Our pre-trek instructions are part military-style briefing, part pep talk. “We’re tracking gorillas, but we’re also protecting them,” says Stephen Migyisha, our guide. Like all the UWA rangers, he’s wearing dark khaki fatigues with the Ugandan flag on one sleeve. “I want you to be prepared, physically and mentally. At the moment, you may look smart, but don’t be surprised if, at the end of the day, that’s all changed.”

A neat line of freelance porters are waiting at the trailhead. Most of them are students supplementing their studies; all have been vetted for their skills. When Stephen asks if I’d like to hire someone, I don’t hesitate; but when Divotah Katusime steps forward and introduces herself, I pause. At barely five feet tall, will she cope? Loaded with cameras, water and lunch, my bag weighs a ton. I needn’t have worried, though. To demonstrate her muscle power, she practically pulls me over.

Right from the start, Divotah proves a godsend. On the steep descents, she checks I’m not slipping; on the climbs she lends an arm; and, when Stephen and the armed scouts abandon the path and start hacking through the forest with their pangas, she’s there to untangle me from stray branches and deflect me from stinging vines.

Meanwhile, Stephen keeps one ear on the radio. With each exchange with the trackers, who left 90 minutes before us, he accelerates. The gorillas are moving uncharacteristically fast; the pace is relentless. We’re battling the heat, but adrenaline and anticipation push us on. And then, at last, three hours into our trek, we catch up with the trackers. Handing our hiking sticks to our porters, we prepare to meet the family.

The key thing the trackers don’t tell us at this point, before they part the foliage to reveal Kaganga, is that they’re not entirely sure what to expect. They’ve seen some blood on the ground and are concerned that a gorilla might be wounded.

One by one, members of the 17-strong group emerge from the dense bush — youngsters, females and the alpha male Bakwate, sitting confidently in the hot sun.

A pair of researchers from the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, which has been studying Bwindi’s gorillas since 1998, take notes. Nothing appears to be amiss.Suddenly, towards the end of our hour, Elisha and his colleague Stanley Bashobeza gesture urgently for us to come over. They point to a patch of deep shade under a shrub around 30ft away, where a female gorilla called Nyakina is reclining on her back, hugging something to her chest. The ‘something’ moves. Could it be…?

With eyes on stalks, we watch as the newest Oruzogo member squirms its tiny, sticky body. Born just before we arrived, the baby gorilla is an incredible surprise — even to the trackers and researchers who see the group every day. Since the leaf-eating gorillas are naturally rotund, pregnancy can be hard to spot; the only clue to Nyakina’s condition was that she hadn’t been climbing much in recent days.

“We’ve never seen one this tiny,” says Elisha. “Normally, the mother gives birth at night, then hides for a while. But Nyakina is very confident. It’s not her first. And she’s always been very friendly.”

To prove it, Nyakina gets up and moves a few paces towards us, then sits between two youngsters who watch, intrigued, as she delicately cleans the newborn and offers them parts of the placenta. It’s as if she’s introducing the new baby to the toddlers — and she considers us to be honorary toddlers, too.

On the trail
Miraculously for a sub-species with a birth interval of three to five years, mountain gorillas are the only great apes whose numbers are increasing. However, like all too many endangered animals, they’re being hemmed in by human population growth. Their two remaining strongholds, Bwindi and the Virunga Massif (which covers parts of Uganda, Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of Congo), are like islands in the sky, smaller than the Isle of Wight, separated by 15 miles of intensively cultivated farmland. Before long, they may contain as many gorillas as they can handle.

Bwindi’s precious forest habitat is far better protected now than it was between 1902, when science first ‘discovered’ mountain gorillas, and 1991, when it was declared a national park. Tourism has helped save it — at a price. Safeguarding gorillas is a complex process which, controversially, limits or bans traditional forest activities, from collecting firewood to living among the trees, as in the case of the Batwa, a tribe formerly known as Pygmies. What’s more, gorillas that have been deliberately trained to suppress their natural fear of humans don’t always make the best neighbours.

As I stroll through the leafy grounds of my eco-lodge in Buhoma, just outside the national park, an unmistakeable pile of dung stops me in my tracks. Twitching vegetation confirms my suspicion — gorillas have come to visit. My heart thumps. While it’s extremely rare for gorillas to attack humans, I’ve no wish to disturb them and hastily back away.

While gorillas in the garden may be a novelty, gorillas munching crops is no joke. An adult male can eat 30kg of plants each day. Bwindi’s smallholders have had to develop intriguing solutions to this: buffering the park with tea plantations works well — it’s a useful cash crop, and gorillas seem to hate the stuff — and Hugo, short for Human-Gorilla Conflict Resolution, Bwindi’s crack team of volunteer gorilla-scarers, is effective, too.

So much for keeping gorillas inside the park. Keeping local people out, to prevent disturbance and the spread of infections, is a more delicate matter. “It’s not just that people here are poor,” says Buhoma-based wildlife vet Gladys Kalema-Zikusoka of Conservation Through Public Health (CTPH). “Some people argue that the benefits of conservation — gorilla trekking fees, job opportunities — aren’t being fairly shared. So, they feel justified in entering the forest illegally to take wood or set snares for duikers [antelopes].”

CTPH tries to adjust the balance through healthcare and education programmes and has launched a new social enterprise, Gorilla Conservation Coffee, through which ex-poachers now make a decent living from growing coffee beans, which are sold in safari lodges all over Uganda.

In all the villages I visit around Bwindi, I discover a similar sense of purpose. Some community-run craft shops and activities are still rough around the edges, but plans are afoot to help them mature via a ‘Gorilla-Friendly’ accreditation scheme. The Batwa Experience, a demonstration of barkcloth-making, fire-making and honey-collecting by Batwa cultural performers determined to keep their ancestral forest skills alive, turns out to be a highlight of my trip.

Image: Emma Gregg

While my first gorilla encounter was supremely satisfying, that one fleeting hour leaves many wildlife enthusiasts wanting more. With this in mind, UWA now offers an in-depth alternative, the Gorilla Habituation Experience. For US$1,500 (£1,200) per person, four visitors at a time can join a team of trackers, scouts and rangers as they follow one of two semi-habituated groups through the forest in southern Bwindi, monitoring the gorillas’ behaviour, collecting data and helping them get used to humans. Once they’re fully habituated, the activity will continue as a demonstration of research techniques.

I cross the park to Nkuringo via the River Ivi Trail, a beautiful nine-mile hike through towering mahogany trees and giant ferns, then, on a cool, misty morning, continue south to meet the team at Rushaga. “On your trek to the Oruzogo group, there was an advance party,” says assistant warden Geoffrey Twinomuhangi. “Today, we’re all in it together.” I’m in capable hands. My guide for the day is UWA ranger Augustine Muhangi and we’re joined by field vet Fred Nizeyimana of the Mountain Gorilla Veterinary Project, aka Gorilla Doctors.

As we enter the forest fringes, tinker birds chime peacefully and a colourful turaco glides overhead. Beneath the trees, the air is fresh with the scent of wild bracken and herbs. Augustine is a mine of information. As we walk, he points out some of the details they look for on habituation expeditions, from fresh elephant dung, a clear sign of potential danger, to half-stripped urera shoots, indicating gorillas.

We turn off the path and wade downhill through chest-high foliage. Below, we find the spot where the Bikingi group was last seen, and the real tracking begins. A subtle trail of bent vegetation leads us to the camp they made last night, each adult gorilla having folded leaves and branches into a springy mattress. We don surgical masks and the team demonstrate how, during a census, they identify each nest by its proportions and what the occupants left behind — grey hairs from the silverback, black hairs from a baby cuddled up to its mother, dung in sizes which roughly indicate each animal’s age — before taking samples for DNA testing.

Some nests are on the ground, others part-way up trees. “This can mean they were scanning their surroundings for danger,” says Fred, who’s alert to any indication of disturbance. Whether caused by disputes with rivals, fear of elephants or intimidation by duiker poachers, stress makes gorillas susceptible to malnourishment, infections and parasites.

“Habituated gorillas are increasing in numbers faster than non-habituated gorillas because they benefit from ‘extreme conservation’ measures such as veterinary care. We monitor them closely. We don’t want people tracking sick animals,” he says. If a gorilla shows signs of illness, Fred will intervene by administering a shot.

The gorillas are just a half-hour away. The first ones I see are a female, shyly eating mimulopsis leaves, and a youngster, high in a bendy sapling. Staring down with a giggling face, he makes a cute, high-pitched attempt at the pok-pok chestbeat which, coming from an adult, would send shivers down the spine. Delighted, we sit down to watch. The silverback, Rushenya, guards his family like a tank. When he decides it’s time to retreat under a shrub for a siesta, he makes it clear we’re not welcome to follow, rushing forward a few paces with a terrifying roar. Immediately, we follow the drill: freeze, look submissive, make reassuring mm-hmm noises.

“For now, this is his character, and it’s not a bad thing,” says Augustine when I’ve caught my breath. “It’s easier to habituate the silverbacks who are confident than the ones who run away.”

Moments later, we see a totally different side to Rushenya. Reclining in the shade, he’s every inch the tender and tolerant father, allowing a pair of boisterous infants to treat him as a trampoline. “He’s such a great dad,” says Augustine, admiringly.

“Does watching this ever get old?” I ask.

But, I already know the answer. The team are clearly as enraptured as I am.

Image: Emma Gregg

Essentials

Getting there & around
Ethiopian Airlines and Kenya Airways fly daily from Heathrow to Entebbe via Addis Ababa and Nairobi.
Average flight time: 12h.
Bwindi Impenetrable National Park is around 275 miles from Entebbe by road. Alternatively, fly from Entebbe to Kihihi (25 miles from Buhoma) or Kisoro (21 miles from Nkuringo) with Aerolink.

When to go
It’s possible to track gorillas at any time of year. Many visitors avoid the rainiest, muddiest months (Mar-May and Oct-Nov), so UWA may discount tracking permits from US$600 (£480) to $450 (£362) during this period.

More info
ugandawildlife.org
visituganda.com
Uganda (Bradt Travel Guides). RRP: £17.99

Where to stay
Volcanoes Bwindi Lodge
Clouds Mountain Gorilla Lodge
Nkuringo Bwindi Gorilla Lodge

How to do it
Natural World Safaris offers an eight-day Gorilla Habituation Safari in Bwindi Impenetrable National Park, including full-board accommodation, domestic flights, private transfers, park fees, one gorilla tracking permit and one Gorilla Habituation Experience, from £5,035 per person, based on two sharing.

Gane and Marshall offers a six-day private safari in Uganda, visiting Queen Elizabeth National Park and Bwindi, including full-board accommodation, domestic flights, private transfers, park fees and one gorilla tracking permit, from £2,355 per person, based on two sharing.

Published in the June 2017 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)

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