The magical, magnificent mountain gorillas

I would like to thank the David Attenborough 1001 gorillas campaign for inspiring me to finally write this blog post. It has 7 days left on IndieGoGo – if you haven’t checked it out, please do :)

Gorilla conservation background

I wasn’t always in love with the mountain gorillas. I didn’t even know about them, really. Short of watching Gorillas in the Mist some years ago, which was eye-opening and upsetting, but not in a way that really stuck. I don’t know why.

People talk about moral proximity as a motivator for action. The idea that we’re more likely to help the people we see, our people, than people far away. That injustices, even great injustices, far away, are easily forgotten, while the people we know and love are what actually moves us. And that when someone is in our moral sphere, they can’t just be shrugged away any more.

The gorillas and I ended up in the same orbit when I was planning my trip to Uganda this summer. A quick search showed them as one of Uganda’s main attractions, especially for animal lovers. And I consider the rare chances to see animals in the wild to be one of life’s greatest privileges. So I read on.

And honestly, I read on and cried. I read on and cried a lot. I didn’t know there were so few. Even today – there are only 880 left in the world, and they only live in two places. Nowhere, a small arts festival in Spain that I like very much, was quickly approaching gorilla numbers the last time I went there, and may well have outnumbered them in the meantime. And there were times, not so long ago, when there were even fewer gorillas, and people weren’t even sure if any of them would make it to the 21st century.

I found out how brutally, how pointlessly they were killed. I found out how precariously they lived, in unstable regions and conflict zones. That they were endangered, and that their remaining habitat was so limited, and in danger of shrinking. How, with only 2 populations of 300-400 gorillas each, all it would take is one major infection to wipe them out completely. And they’re so closely related to humans, that our infections can jump to them very easily. What “critically endangered” means for the mountain gorillas, is that the continuation of their existence has been and continues to be a close call.

Thoughtful gaze

I also read about good things. Or sometimes tragic things, but the other tragic – the tragic of touching sacrifice, rather than the broken tragic of brutality. I’d like to believe there’s a difference. I read Dian Fossey’s book. I read about gorilla initiatives existing today. I read about people who loved them, and who continue to love them. I read about the 140 people who died protecting them. And people continue to die doing so today. Conservation on the ground can be a bloody battle, with the other side sometimes much better armed. Funded. Organised. Somehow through that, the gorillas survived, and people protected them, often at great personal sacrifice. The story of the mountain gorillas is rightfully told as a conservation success story. In the words of an artist friend – there’s beauty and there’s tragedy, and there’s space in the heart for both.

I learnt about silly things too. Dian Fossey’s book is full of humour, mishaps and detailed mountain gorilla facts. I admired her determination as well as her ability to laugh at herself, and to throw herself into her passions with abandon. I also enjoyed the gorilla anecdotes – like how having made a lot of noise climbing a tree, she turned around to find that the usually shy and reclusive gorillas were all sitting in a circle watching her curiously, having deemed her no threat (and all that was missing from the scene was popcorn).


The gorilla trip

Finally, after months of incubating in gorilla lore, it was time to visit Bwindi Impenetrable Forest Park in southwestern Uganda.

Even the name, Impenetrable Forest, somehow emanated mystery. It whispered to me, of mysterious paths, quiet, untrodden. Of a wilderness thick, pulsing with life. Where somewhere, in amongst the mountains, the life, the sounds of the forest, gorillas would roam. If anything, the real thing was as good or better. The first sight of the thick forest in the mountains more than matched what my imagination had summoned. I felt touched and awed by it.

Bwindi impenetrable forest

The night before trekking, I got a briefing from my tour guide, as well as from the people in the hotel I stayed in. I got a flyer of Gorilla Rules (yay), told about the risk of transmitting infections, that numbers of visitors are limited, and that we will spend no more than an hour with the gorillas. That if you’re ill, you really really shouldn’t go, but that you can cancel or reschedule. All things I knew about already, but it was good to see that people were making a big effort to educate visitors about gorilla conservation. In fact, all the guides I had at various National Parks in Uganda were just stellar – incredibly knowledgeable about the animals and the area, and very happy to educate people. The gorilla guides were no exception.

In the morning, the same briefing was repeated. I breathed a sigh of relief that I felt in perfect health. For about a month or more leading up to this, I’d been freaking out about getting ill and missing it – a fear mainly expressed in the form of hand sanitiser and copious amounts of vitamin C. Anyway, it worked, and I made it, and it was really happening. I was really there, in my best gorilla top (black, baggy, and I’m still very attached to it!).

I was in a group of 8 people, tracking the Bitukura family. We were accompanied by a number of official guides. Trackers go out early every morning to find out where the gorillas have moved to, and the guides later keep contact with the trackers via walkie talkie in order to be able to locate them in the jungle. Porters were also with us – these are local people you can hire to carry your backpack for you. I wasn’t originally going to (it seemed strange to have someone carry my bag for me!), but what changed my mind is finding out that the porters come from extremely poor villages (the area around Bwindi is particularly poor), and that they often walk a really long way to get there every day, and most of them don’t get work. I’ve also been told that tipping your porter generously is one of the most direct ways to encourage the appreciation of gorillas in the local communities. The local people were unlikely to ever see the gorillas, but the money brought into the villages this way was a very tangible benefit of their existence in the forest.

Me with my tour guide Robert, and my porter on the right.

Me with my tour guide Robert, and my porter on the right.

We set off into the forest, with its wonderful huge vegetation, spotting several smaller monkeys on our way. It was a beautiful sunny morning, though the walking sticks that were lent to us at the beginning were still appreciated – even in the dry season, the forest is quite humid and slippery. The trek can last between anything from a few minutes to 8 hours of walking, so I’d been training for it a bit in advance just in case. It turned out I didn’t have to worry though – in the case of our group, we got our first sight of gorillas in just half an hour.

First sight of a gorilla

An adult male silverback

The first gorilla I saw was an adult silverback male. My jaw dropped and my breath stopped. Perhaps I got a quick excited “Oh. My. Goodness.” out. I just couldn’t believe I was seeing this in real life – I was so happy. The gorilla was very clearly visible, and seemed content enough staying in place for a bit and munching on leaves while we watched in amazement. He was huge, and fluffy, and just magnificent. I watched as he skilfully picked the leaves, stripping a bunch of them off a branch. And when he moved and wandered away up the hill, it was with a certain smoothness and easy grace. He glided slowly up the slope and through the undergrowth that our group had been somewhat more ineptly trampling through.

Gorilla feeding

As the gorilla moved away, we continued moving towards the rest of the group. Gorillas are social, and tend to live in groups of up to 20 or so individuals. The family we were tracking was a group of 22, and we soon came across other members. While adults could be seen ahead, there was also a baby in a tree to the left of us. It was about the size of a human toddler (i.e. up to my knees), and absolutely adorable. It climbed the tree in a way that seemed very skilful for its age, and also happily munched on leaves. And then the magical thing happened.

Baby gorilla climbing a tree

Baby mountain gorilla climbing a tree

You do not approach gorillas, and if they approach you, you make space for them to pass. At this point I was at the back of the column of people, and the baby gorilla decided to climb down from the tree and walk through our group and to the other side. It happened to pick my side of the line of people – as instructed by the guide, we parted to make space, and the next thing I knew, there was a baby gorilla passing by right in front of me.

There are no pictures. As the baby gorilla walked past me on its way to wander the hills some more, I couldn’t stop smiling, and at the same time, tears started streaming down my face. It didn’t pay any attention to me at all – it was just there, being magical and graceful and magnificent in its own way. And fluffy! So fluffy. It was the most wonderful moment. There are no pictures, but I remember it perfectly. I’ve replayed it so often in my mind since.

The baby gorilla wandered off on its way, and I tried to recompose myself. And there was more trekking to come.

We followed the gorilla family as they wandered the hills and fed on leaves. I love the smooth way they move. We also had our next baby gorilla encounter. In general, adult silverbacks first try to intimidate intruders away by thumping their chests with their hands. This didn’t happen at all – the gorillas seemed to either not notice or ignore us for the most part. However, there was a small baby gorilla that first stared at us, and then thumped its chest to scare us away. I have to say, such a serious adult gesture from such a small, fluffy creature was just about the most adorable thing ever.

Scary baby gorilla

Baby mountain gorilla chest thumping

We also spent a while watching a mother play with its baby. The way they interacted seemed very sweet, and very loving. The baby gorilla was learning how to climb trees, and the mother would occasionally stroke and tickle it, and push it down from the tree, and then the baby would climb again… Gorillas are for the most part gentle creatures, but they are very attached to their families and will go to great lengths to defend them. It was wonderful to see some of that love.

Mother and baby playing

Mother and baby gorilla playing

The last gorilla I saw that day was again a male silverback, sitting on the hill slightly above us and gazing into the distance, looking really rather iconic in his own way. While of course the allocated hour seemed to pass at lightning speed, it was a beautiful way to finish what was an absolutely amazing experience.

The gorilla gaze

The trek back went quickly, and I was greeted upon return by my lovely tour guide. And after picking up my gorilla trekking certificate and stocking up on a fair share of postcards and locally carved gorilla figurines, it was sadly time to leave the home of the mountain gorillas behind. Gazing at the glorious thick mountain forest, I felt as touched by it as I did when I first lay my eyes on it. It’s rare to find such a perfect moment in the world, as I’d encountered with the gorillas. And I think it’s even more rare to find a place that so perfectly captures and lives up to your imagination, and invokes an almost childlike sense of wonder. When I was little, one of my favourite books was about an adventure of two kids, through the jungle and through the desert. Now that I’m an adult, I’m incredibly privileged to be able to live my dreams.

A few days later I returned to my hotel in Ishaka, Bushenyi. I was still floating from the experience. I kept daydreaming about it with a big smile on my face. The gorilla figurines from Bwindi were scattered across the bed. I imagined them wandering. I lined them up, facing away from me. The gorillas don’t care who I am. They just are.

The aftermath

As well as incredible memories, I also came back with much more hope about the mountain gorillas and their fate. I still understand that their position is precarious. But it was also reassuring to see that the conservation, at least in Uganda, appears to be carefully managed.

The gorilla permits are expensive, and the tourists who come see them also bring a lot of money into the country in other ways. As such, the gorillas are a carefully guarded resource – they pretty much have 24 hour guards. Occasionally bad things still happen, but overall, gorilla numbers in Bwindi have been steadily on the rise for a number of years now, I believe thanks to the efforts of the Uganda Wildlife Authority. Furthermore, measures are in place to prevent infection spread, and the guides seemed to enforce the gorilla watching rules. There are also efforts to engage the local community, rerouting some of the money from gorilla permits into local development projects. Infrastructure such as roads and electricity is also gradually spreading to more of the country, and that in turn should help communities develop and become more prosperous over time.

I believe that as well as the active protection efforts that are ongoing, the long-term future of the gorillas is intimately connected to the prosperity of the local communities and whether gorillas are important to them. Dian Fossey was very much opposed to gorilla tourism, which I can understand – it’s true that it’s disruptive to the gorillas and there is a danger of infection. In an ideal world, they should just be able to live in the wild and survive. However, I also have the impression that the tourism and the massive financial incentive that it brings results in very practical protection, keeping the gorillas alive and thriving. And at a time where everywhere else we’re seeing a massive environmental disaster and a huge decrease in endangered species’ populations, I believe that this is an impressive achievement. This only works if people continue to go and see them, so I would recommend the trip as a particularly fun way to contribute to gorilla conservation, as long as you don’t carry any contagious illnesses at the time.

I also understand that 880 gorillas is still only a small number of gorillas, and that conservation efforts need to remain active in order to ensure their future. Not all gorillas are as well protected as the ones in Uganda, and I love the work that the Dian Fossey gorilla fund has been putting into keeping anti-poaching patrols on the ground where needed. A gorilla adoption makes a lovely Christmas present too :)

I believe the surrounding communities are part of the key to this, which is why I particularly like the Conservation Through Public Health initiative. Healthy people and healthy gorillas are both important, and in this case connected. I also like the Gorilla Doctors charity, which sadly does not train actual gorillas to be actual doctors :)

For my part, other than that gorilla adoption packages are now a totally awesome and desired present for any occasion, I’m still thinking about whether there is a way to contribute further to gorilla conservation efforts. I’ve been trying to find out more about conservation in general, and also to what extent genetics or computational biology might be helpful. And there’s always spreading the word about the wonderfulness of gorillas. Other suggestions very much welcome.

I wasn’t always in love with the mountain gorillas. But now I am. And the gorillas are not the only thing I care about. But… I do care. Maybe it’s moral proximity. Or maybe it’s just that they’re wonderful and majestic and magical. And that a part of me strongly feels that we should make sure there’s still some magic left in the world.

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