Hello! Today we bring you the second part of the feature article written by Canadian travel writer, Johanna Read on her experience tracking the mountain gorillas in Uganda. Enjoy…
The trek to see mountain gorillas can be challenging. Bwindi National Park is at altitude and the lower pressure and oxygen levels make exertion harder. Some groups find their gorilla family in less than an hour, while others take a whole day. Almost everyone, though, manages to see them.
The majority of our trek is through dense forest amongst gorillas’ favourite foods. Our ranger, John Tugumisirize, needs to clear a path with his machete. The terrain is rough. Peaks and valleys undulate through the forest thanks to its volcanic origins. “Bwindi”, from the Kitara language group of western Uganda, means “impenetrable”, and the forest almost is. Without the help of our guides we have no chance of finding our way in or out.
We walk through dried leaves and around ferns, small bushes and trees, vines, bamboo, and vast hardwoods. The vines come in handy. We grab them to lower ourselves down and to pull ourselves up the steep slopes. Slips and falls aren’t unknown.
Once we find the gorillas, the difficulty is forgotten.
Gorillas are beautiful. Looking into the brown eyes of a 150-kilogram female, I can see intelligence. I wonder what she thinks of our group trying to photograph her and her one-year-old baby in the dim light of the forest.
While the older gorillas eat, the juveniles charm us with their acrobatic tricks. They slide down vines, turn somersaults, and wrestle. None seem at all bothered by our presence. As they move through the forest to find food, several gorillas come far closer than the prescribed seven metres. Sometimes they even sit down right in front of us.
Tourism helps protect mountain gorillas
Tourists’ interest in mountain gorillas provides funding to keep the animals and their habitat safe from threats like deforestation, political strife, and the antelope snares of poachers.
It can take two years to habituate a family of gorillas to humans. Once habituated, trackers spend about four hours every day with each family.
Shortly after the sun rises, groups of trackers, one for each habituated gorilla family, set out from the Ruhija base camp. They walk through Bwindi back to the spot where they left the gorillas the day before, removing any snares they may find.
From there, they search for the trails the gorillas left — crushed vegetation from where they walked or sat, footprints in the sometimes muddy ground, droppings, and branches stripped of the tastiest leaves.
The trail eventually leads to the spot the gorillas slept. As the day ends, each gorilla over the age of three makes a nest out of leaves and branches. The trackers count these nests to be sure they’ve found “their” gorilla family, and not stumbled onto the nests of an unhabituated group. The trackers follow the trail again until they find the family, and then radio the rangers waiting with their eight excited tourists.
Trackers can tell when they’re getting close to gorillas. They hear movement through the trees (which they hope is not a forest elephant) and sometimes hear the gorillas’ calls and grunts. Swarms of gorilla flies follow the animals (but don’t seem to bother gorillas and, thankfully, rarely come close to humans).
The trackers know their gorillas well. They look for signs of illness and disharmony, and report this to park rangers. Veterinarians are called in it to treat injuries and illnesses that don’t seem able to heal on their own. Trackers also report changes in group membership (silverbacks can steal females from other groups), deaths, pregnancies, and births.
Without tourism, the population of critically endangered gorillas would be decreasing, not increasing.
…to be continued…
Johanna Read is a Canadian freelance writer and photographer specializing in travel, food, and responsible tourism. Writing for a variety of Canadian and international publications, she likes to encourage travel that is culturally, economically, and environmentally sustainable. Links to all her travel stories are at www.TravelEater.net.