July 27, 2011

Trekking for Gorillas in Uganda


Like much of the world's mega fauna, Highland (Mountain) Gorillas are endangered.  Their range is in the Congo, Uganda and Rwanda (the green areas in the map.)  My trek was in the Bwindi Impenetrable Forest (What a cool name, but it is obviously a misnomer.)

Home Range of the Mountain Gorilla

The Scientific Name:  Gorilla Berengei Berengei
Mass: 200 kg - 230 kg (400 lb - 500 lb)
Height: 1.5 m - 1.8 m (5 ft - 6 ft)
Life Span: 35-50 years
Conservation Status:  Critically endangered due to habitat loss and poaching.
Behaviour:  Social in groups of 5-30 with a mix of males and females.  The silverback male (alpha male) rules and defends the group with a reign of roughly 5 years.
Predators:  Humans and leopards.
Food Source:  Leaves and seeds.


I was told that there were only 650 of them left.  I really wanted to see them (before they might go extinct).  I was told that some of the hefty sum of the permit I was paying to see them would go to conservation.  I had to justify the cost somehow!

Since we were tracking wild gorillas, there was no guarantee as to when we would find them or if we would find them at all.  If we did, we would only get 1 hour with them to minimize the stress on the gorilla group.  We could not get closer than 6 feet, and were under no circumstance to try to touch them due to the interspecies transmission of disease that could harm them.  We can give them the flu!

The trackers would only take us to groups that were habitualized to seeing humans.  Non-habitualized gorilla groups would pose a danger to us and themselves if they came into contact with humans.

The first thing I remember when our tracker led us closer to the gorillas was his question "Do you smell them?"  I paused and sniffed the air.  I was searching for some foul smell, but all I could smell was something spicy.  I said "I smell cinnamon".  The tracker smiled and said, "Yes.  That is them."

We trekked for another 10 minutes before we saw our first gorilla, and to this day I shake my head at my ignorance.  I had expected to burst through the thick forest into a clearing and see a group of gorillas sitting in a ring engaged in some social grooming.  Yes, there's a lot of television's influence there.  Instead we came upon a male gorilla obscured in the dense underbrush.  There was nothing but dense underbrush for miles and miles around.  No mediation circle of gorillas for me.

My first ever sighting of a wild mountain gorilla.

This big guy tolerated our stares and non-flash cameras for a while.  Then he climbed over his log and then unexpectedly made a mini-rush at us.  It was just two steps, but the speed of it was shocking after such a long period of slow grazing on the foliage.  We were told that they might bolt towards us, but that the last thing we should do was run.  (Here's a party trick.  Try to hold back feelings of mortal fear and keep your feet planted at the same time!)  We were told that the charging (or mock charging) was just a display to warn us.

He then stopped, stared at us for a bit before dismissing us to delicately choose choice leaves for his afternoon tea.

We bushwacked just a bit further into the forest and came upon a couple of juvenile gorillas.  They were hanging just a couple of metres up in the trees.  They, like their elder group member, were just chomping away slowly on leaves.

Juvenile Female Enjoys Her Time in the Trees.

If you can't tell that this one is a juvenile, just notice that the small branches around her can actually still hold her weight.  Again, she tolerated our delighted presence until she tried to move on.  She climbed slowly across her branch until something funny and odd happened.  In slow motion, I saw the branch bend more and more under her weight until she was hanging just a couple of feet from the forest floor.  The branch then snapped and she tumbled down and did a couple of slow forward rolls down the slight decline of the forest before stopping to knuckle-walk away.

The more I observed these creatures the more I marveled at how clumsy they seemed.  Not majestic, but simply neat, clumsy and funny.  Kinda like us humans.

This impression was cemented later when we ended up finding the silverback male of the group who proceeded to turn his back on us, release a near never-ending stream of urine and emit a couple of well aimed farts in our direction.

At the time I went, there were less than 60 permits available a day for tourists to trek for Mountain Gorillas in Bwindi.  The permits get sold out months in advance.  I am never that well planned in advanced...but I lucked out due to someone's last minute cancellation and due to the fact that my partner is friends with a Gorilla Trek tour operator in Uganda.  Thanks Wim!   The regular operators offer packages that vary in price (mainly due to accommodations and transportation), but the going rate for most tour operators is between $800 - $1200 USD for one day of trekking.  Save your pennies!

Was it worth it?  YES!

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