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Gemma visits the gorillas

Gorilla Trekking in the Impenetrable Forest, Bwindi. Uganda is a country blessed with such a diverse landscape and culture. It is a gloriously green ... Read more
Gemma visits the gorillas

Gorilla Trekking in the Impenetrable Forest, Bwindi.

Uganda is a country blessed with such a diverse landscape and culture. It is a gloriously green land encompassing the snowcapped Rwenzori Mountains, the great Lake Victoria and Murchison Falls National Park - the largest National Park in Uganda. This East African country has many attractions on offer, however, there is something else here that cannot be found in many other areas of the world and I was lucky enough to get the chance to meet some of them - the Mountain Gorilla!

Bwindi Impenetrable National Park is located in southwestern Uganda and is part of the Bwindi Impenetrable Forest. Situated along the Democratic Republic of Congo border next to the Virunga National Park and on the edge of the Albertine Rift, the park is made up of 331 square kilometres of jungle forest and is only accessible on foot. It is a rich ecosystem and is a haven for various species of mammals, birds, butterflies, plants and trees but more notably it is a sanctuary for the Bwindi gorillas and the park itself holds half of the world’s population of these endangered creatures.

Gorilla tracking has become a main tourist attraction for the park and brings in revenue for the Ugandan Wildlife Authority, however it is also key to the conservation of these gorillas. For anyone wanting to track the gorillas, a permit must first be obtained. Additionally only certain gorilla families can be visited by tourists and only by a certain number of people each time. This is because only selected groups of gorillas have been habituated to the presence of humans and the number of visitors able to go to the gorillas is tightly controlled to prevent damage to their habitat and to avoid any risk of disease to the gorillas.

I was staying in Buhoma and here there are just 3 families of gorilla that tourists can visit - Mubare, Habinyanja and Rushegura. The Mubare and Rushegura families are normally closer to the briefing point than the Habinyanja family, so any tourists that are unable to trek for a long time or who find walking on steeper terrain more difficult, usually go to visit these two. Only those able and prepared to have a longer and more taxing hike to find the gorillas track after the Habinyanja group as this family tend to be located on more steep terrain or in swamp areas. Always up for a challenge, this is the family I went in search of.

The Habinyanja or ‘H’ group of gorillas is the biggest of these 3 groups with 18 members and a Silverback named Makara. The group gets its name from the Rukiga word of ‘Nyanja’, which means ‘a place with water’ as the group were first visited near a swamp in Bwindi. Before setting off on our trek, a couple of trackers had already been sent out to locate where the gorillas were so that we knew the best point to start from. Our guide had been advised that the gorillas were on the other side of the park and so we had to drive for about 45 minute before we could start and this is where we would also join up with our porters.

Once we were all ready to go we headed off through some of the villages and then towards the thicker and more dense areas of the forest. We trekked for about 2 hours before we came across the two trackers that had been sent out much earlier. At this point the gorillas were only about 30 minutes away from us. They were down by a stream feeding on one of the open grassy slopes by the edge of the forest. We carefully started our approach. The terrain also started to get a bit more tricky here but this is where the porters do a great job. They really help to overcome any difficult terrain either by giving you a helping hand up a steep slope or supporting you as you descend. Just before we reach the gorillas we have to leave our porters as they cannot join us whilst viewing the animals. We then get our first glimpse of a Mountain Gorilla!

The gorillas are visited at roughly the same time each day by a maximum of 8 people for no more than 1 hour. A distance of 7 metres must be maintained at all times and the trackers always stay at the front of the group. As we started to observe the gorillas, they appeared to be very much aware of our presence but so long as we maintained the 7 metre gap, they also seemed unperturbed by our presence and actually quite relaxed. One of the first gorillas that we saw was the Silverback, Makara and most of the group became transfixed on him as he munched on the new shoots that surrounded him. Our guide then pointed out that the Blackback (a younger male) was watching us from behind. He suddenly started to approach us! We were advised to stay where we were but to move out of the way if he wanted to get past. Incredibly he made his own way round us and simply went down the slope to rejoin the rest of the group. He was literally within touching distance of us - amazing!

The gorillas only stayed with us for a short time in the open as the heavens opened but as we had only been there about ten minutes we also followed them back into the forest to observe them further. There are no paths in the forest just thick bush, so the trackers have to make a way through for us with their machetes so that we can follow the gorillas. It took us quite some time to catch up to the gorillas and it was astonishing to me how quickly they can move in such dense vegetation. We continued to follow the gorillas for as long as we could, but eventually our time with them came to an end and they began to move away from us so quickly that we were unable to keep up with them. Although sad to leave the gorillas, I found the whole experience both fascinating and very humbling. It was an absolute privilege to see these creatures in their own surroundings and to get so close was simply incredible!

Not only are these animals a joy to watch, but also to see how content and protected the gorillas are in Bwindi, confirms to me that we must continue to visit these gorillas to help with their conservation. In previous years there has been some conflict between the conservation projects and the local people as the local people were excluded from the area and its resources. However, now the local community are much more actively involved in conserving the area as connecting the local people to a resource that generates a steady stream of benefits has increased their willingness to manage and protect that resource over the long-term. Tourism is now a key part of this as well as the revenue generated not only helps to protect the animals from poachers and disease, it also helps to create employment opportunities for the local people such as the porters. I would therefore urge anyone to go and visit these amazing creatures as you would not only be helping to save the gorillas themselves but also the local people that live with them!


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