Uganda's Other Great Apes
Recently, a dear friend came to visit us here in Uganda, so we decided to take the opportunity to visit Bwindi Impenetrable National Park, home to one of the world’s only two populations of mountain gorillas (Gorilla berengei berengei). The other population lives in the Virunga Massif, a volcanic range that straddles Uganda, Rwanda, and the Democratic Republic of Congo. There are only a little over a thousand mountain gorillas* in the world, making them an endangered species. Threats such as habitat loss, political instability, and disease transmission have the power to wipe out these fragile remaining populations. Like chimpanzees, gorillas are very closely related to humans and can easily catch the illnesses we carry. Just one outbreak of a respiratory infection could be enough to wipe out an entire gorilla group, or worse.
Though this may seem like a bleak state of affairs, mountain gorillas are actually heralded as a conservation success story. Their numbers have increased significantly in recent decades as a result of conservation efforts linked to ecotourism. Tourists flock to Uganda each year to visit these famous residents. Now it was our turn.
The drive to Bwindi Impenetrable National Park was convincing evidence that this whole gorilla-tracking thing is not for the faint of heart. We crawled along muddy roads with steep drop-offs as we inched higher and higher into the mountains. Each hairpin turn revealed a new, breathtakingly beautiful view of the landscape. When we finally arrived at our camp, we were greeted by staggering views of Bwindi and the nearby Virunga Volcanoes, shrouded though they were in a chilly evening mist. We settled in with hot tea and dinner before heading to bed early in anticipation of gorilla tracking the next morning. Soon after going to bed, rain began tapping heavily on our tents. A downpour continued through the night. By morning, it trailed off to a drizzle as we excitedly ate breakfast and checked to make sure we were ready to go.
We set off in a group of eight tourists. Group sizes are limited to this maximum number in an effort to minimize stress to the gorillas. We weren’t quite sure what to expect. We heard that this trek was so difficult that people often had to be carried out on stretchers. This wasn’t just Bwindi legend. The day prior, a man was carried out of the forest on a stretcher because he was ill and the hiking proved to be too much. As we walked through the village, we saw children carrying another child in a wheelbarrow. Our Ugandan friend explained that they were imitating carrying a mzungu (white person) out on a stretcher. One of the local lodges even has a sculpture in the sitting room depicting the same scene. Just how difficult would our hike into this so-called “Impenetrable Forest” be?
As we went on our way, our guide informed us that we would receive information on the gorilla group’s location from trackers who had set out early in the morning to find the group. Not long after beginning our trek, which began along a village trail shared with local residents, we received word that the gorillas were not very far off. Indeed, as it turned out, they were less than an hour’s hike away in an area outside the national park. Of course, gorillas don’t recognize national park boundaries the way we do, so it’s not uncommon to find them ranging beyond its borders. It began to look like we wouldn’t be hiking through dense forest at all.
As we hiked down a steep path through uncultivated hillside, we suddenly saw their hairy black figures emerge from the mist. Though I study our nonhuman primate relatives, I still have moments of awe and giddiness from time to time in their presence. This was definitely one of those moments. As we observed them, our guide informed us of the names of each of the gorillas. We eventually saw the entire group of fourteen. Gorillas live in relatively small groups consisting of a single or a few adult males, a number of females, and offspring. This is in stark contrast to chimpanzees, which live in fission-fusion communities consisting of anywhere from 20 to over 180 individuals.
We watched and followed them for one hour as they fed on leaves and dead wood, foraging slowly and relaxing. They were absolutely fascinating and majestic, and their habitat was absurdly beautiful and rugged. I marveled at it all and jokingly fancied notions of leaving the chimpanzees behind to study these lovely gorillas instead. All too soon, however, our time with them ended. Visits with the gorillas are limited to one hour, which may help lessen both gorilla stress and disease transmission risk.
On our hike back to camp, I couldn’t help but laugh about the setting in which we found the gorillas. We were prepared for a serious hike through the so-called “Impenetrable Forest.” Instead of deep forest, however, our visit with the gorillas was situated in steep hillside outside the national park in gardens and uncultivated lands. We were disappointed about not seeing more of the forest. Given our usual work studying chimpanzees in degraded and cultivated habitat, however, it seemed all too appropriate that we should find the gorillas in such a place. In the end, it did nothing to lessen what was a gorgeous and awe-inspiring day. Long live the mountain gorillas!
Author's Note: This post was originally published at Scientific American in 2013.
*This estimate has increased since this post originally appeared, when the population was estimated at 880 individuals. Their status was formerly critically endangered and is now endangered.