Recently my attention was brought to the Mountain Gorillas again. National Geographic has been releasing pictures, facts and programs about these wonderful animals, and like an 80’s band groupie, I follow and click on every article published. They all bring me back to 2012 when I saw them in Uganda.
There are varying estimates of the actual number of these animals, but consensus is that the current number is less than 900. This is the last statistics provided in September, 2015. The number hit the lowest in the 1990s due to several reasons like poaching, disease, wars, and removal of habitats. But local and international measures to protect these animals have resulted in the population steadily albeit slowly increase in numbers. Nevertheless International Union of Conservation for Nature (IUCN) Red List has included them as critically endangered species.
The are two populations of these magnificent creatures. One population inhabits mainly Virunga volcanic mountains, in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo, in north-west Rwanda and in south-west Uganda. The other population is located in Bwindi Impenetrable National Park in Uganda. This is where I met them for the first time.
Landing in Entebbe International Airport is already a mixture of positive and negative feelings. I was excited to see the country, but I was also fully aware of the place and it extremely turbulent local history. That year, visitors could still witness a presence of UN airplanes there.
The road from Entebbe to Bwindi was surrounded with extremely green and lush landscape. The fields and forest were incredibly green, and I was strangely fascinated by the density and the colour of the forests. The Other Me was glued to the window when we drove through the coffee plantations. I think his coffee craving hit the peak at that moment. I need to make a note here: despite Ugandan coffee beans being quite famous internationally, the actual coffee in Uganda was a simple Nescafe-type of instant drink. For the Other Me, who is a true coffee aficionado, this type of “coffee” was almost an insult, especially given the amazing quality of high altitude coffee that is produced in Uganda.
But I am digressing from the main topic. Our camp was high up in the Bwindi Impenetrable National Park, near by the border with Rwanda. The name of the forest is quite an apt one: the tropic forest there was truly dense!
The night before trekking the plan was simple: we would have a good night sleep before the early start to the day, before commencing the long trek. But this was Africa. Unfortunately the bed in our room was occupied by the lizard, and after 2 hours of trying to shoo it away, we gave up, left it comfortable in between the sheets, and we changed the room.
Next morning, after briefing by the guards of the National Park, we began the trek. We did not know how long time we would need to walk to meet the family of the mountain gorillas we were assigned to. And importantly, it was not given that we would see them at all. The groups of trekkers are always in a maximum of 8 persons, always accompanied by the park rangers, and a vet, who is obviously not there to help us, but to look after the animals.
We spent almost 3hours walking up the mountains, down the mountains, through the bushes, the forest, to finally hear the movements beside us. And there they were… a family of 18 females and babies, and one magnificent male, a silverback, sitting on the side watching over his family.
The rules of approaching the family were very simple. It was forbidden to come closer than up to 3-5 meters, and if you see them approaching you, lower your gaze and kneel down. But I can tell you that when you see a 200kg of pure muscles, munching on the leaves, overlooking his family and allowing us to enter his territory; you simply freeze in the awe. At least I did. It took me few moments to gather my thoughts and to take the camera out.
The females and the little ones were on the trees, by the trees and in the bushes, ignoring us completely. I realized at the time, that park guards had forgotten to mention one thing: to watch where you were when gorillas enjoyed their time on the trees. They tend to do their toilets from the high up, so you may end up with results of it on yourself! I learnt it in a hard way, jumping to the side in a last moment.
We were allowed to spend only 1.5 hours with the family, so as not to disturb their daily routines too much. I walked back with a head full of live images, and 500 pictures on the memory card.
Four years later, I still find them powerful, yet gentle by the way they handle their babies, each other, and the nature around them. The series of National Geographic also triggered a need to see them again. But this time I may choose a different location to witness the magnificence of mountain gorillas.