Recently, Uganda held its annual Pearl of Africa Tourism Expo (POATE 2018) – one of the first trade shows of the year on the annual tourism calendar in Africa. Today, we bring you the first part of the main feature of an article written by Canadian travel writer, Johanna Read from her experience in Uganda last year at POATE 2017, which was published in S.E.E. AFRICA® Vol II. Enjoy…
Of the Pearl of Africa’s many treasures, the most magnificent and unique are its mountain gorillas. Over half of the world’s 880 mountain gorillas live in Uganda, in 30 different families. They are divided between Mgahinga Gorilla National Park, in the Virunga Mountains bordering Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and Bwindi Impenetrable Forest. I was lucky enough to spend a morning learning about, tracking, and seeing them in the rainforest of Bwindi.
Bwindi is a 330-square-kilometre national park and has the largest number of gorilla families habituated to humans. This UNESCO World Heritage site is home to an impressive list of animals: 350 species of birds (23 endemic to the Albertine Rift), 310 butterflies, 51 reptiles, and 120 mammals including the largest primate, the mountain gorilla.
Mountain gorillas are critically endangered and are one of the rare world creatures that can’t be seen in zoos. Scientists don’t know why, since their lowland gorilla cousins even breed successfully in captivity.
In order to protect them, the rules surrounding seeing mountain gorillas are strict. These protections seem to be working — their numbers are increasing.
An information sign from 2006 at Bwindi’s Ruhija basecamp describes the population of mountain gorillas. In 2012 someone took a black pen and wrote in an update by hand. The sign now reads “In Bwindi we have approximately 300 400 gorillas”. The correction is heartwarming. It’s hoped that the census in 2017 will confirm even greater numbers.
“I see by your faces that you are all obedient citizens,” says Benson, the park ranger giving an orientation to our group. He explains the gorilla-trekking rules:
- Follow all instructions of park rangers.
- A maximum of eight visitors can observe each gorilla family per day, for one hour. Visitors must have a gorilla trekking permit ($600 US).
- Speak quietly within 200 metres of gorillas.
- When approaching gorillas, leave your walking stick with the trackers (gorillas can get aggressive when they see sticks).
- Don’t use flash photography.
- Don’t smoke, eat, or drink in front of gorillas.
- Don’t leave any garbage in the park.
- Try to keep a distance of seven metres, although the gorillas are free to move around as they wish.
The biggest risks to gorillas are habitat loss and human disease. Tourism helps preserve the forest, but minor human illnesses can kill gorillas. Park rangers ask visitors not to trek if they feel unwell. They will arrange a new trip or refund 50% of the cost of the trekking permit. Should rangers deem someone too sick to participate, there is no refund.
For our safety and comfort, Benson asks us to tuck our trouser legs into our socks to prevent safari ants from stinging or biting. “They’re not poisonous, but they make people dance,” he explains with a grin. Long sleeves and, for those of us that brought them, gardening gloves also protect from the forest’s stinging nettles. Good hiking boots, rain gear, and, of course, a camera, are other essential equipment.
Benson reminds us to ensure we each have at least two litres of water and a packed lunch. We don’t know how long we’ll be in the rainforest and we don’t know how many hills we’ll need to climb.
…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, such as S.E.E. Africa magazine, she likes to encourage travel that is culturally, economically, and environmentally sustainable. Links to all her travel stories are at: www.TravelEater.net