There are many things about Uganda and its people which will take me some time to process, you’ll hear more in the future about that, but today’s experiences take very little time to digest— I’ve so eagerly awaited today’s adventure, I can’t wait to share. Waking at 4:30 in the morning to bush whack through the Bwindi Impenetrable Rainforest (appropriately named, by the way) en route to track mountain gorillas (aka “Silverbacks,” more about that later). Even after talking to a family who had been yesterday, my friend Frank and I, the only two from our group of Habitat leaders to take on this adventure, were completely surprised and delighted by the experience. The thick forest intimidates you before you even enter it, lush with plants growing plants, growing on other plants growing on trees. there is life everywhere you look, everywhere you step the earth seems to move beneath you— possibly thanks to the millions of forest ants waiting to invade your pant legs, drop into your shirt, and crawl up each of these to invade your hinder parts. The clouds lifted from the forest floor as we made the final turns up the dirt road to the ranger station.
Meeting with a ranger for our orientation, it was clear that the rangers’ primary loyalty is to protecting the mighty mountain gorilla, and therefore the forest that is their habitat. When Uganda established the preservation area for the protection of these endangered species 30 years or so ago, Rwanda and Congo quickly followed suit, respecting the fact that the gorilla does not respect the borders between the 3 countries which run directly through its habitat. With only 800 left in the species, 480 live in Bwindi, the remaining families roaming in the surrounding countries.
Like so much other Eco-tourism, the protection of the lands did not immediately impress the locals, who are subsistence farming on the steep slopes of the mountains and need increasing amounts of land in order to do so, but by now, they are well employed far beyond what would have happened had they continued clearing the forest .
After 2+ hours mostly on a dirt road, we were given an orientation “briefing” to be sure we wouldn’t be the ignorant, photo-hungry tourists itching to get a little closer to the wildlife. We learned that the forest was home to 3 of the great apes— Chimpanzees, mountain gorillas, and humans. The latter a tribe of Batwa Pygmies— nomad hunter and gatherers who have been moved off the land and relocated nearby to continue forest preservation. The other two species remain here- the wild chimpanzees afforded us a quick glimpse just before we caught up with a family of 15 gorillas. This family, the Bitikura gorillas is one of 15 families which have been habituated to humans— going through a 2 year process of acclimation led by park biologists where they are exposed (in their existing habitat) to observing humans (not sure who is observing whom) for up to 4 hours at a time. They are never fed, never interacted with directly— but the continual exposure without threat or food association creates an experience much like that which happens in the Galapagos— it is as if we are not even there— they may look at us, but they do not otherwise interact.
When I booked this adventure, I thought we would be viewing these amazing apes from far below and trying to make out a limb or a face through the trees. I thought they’d be together as a group, and we would watch them as outsiders. Instead, we were completely surrounded at times with gorillas above us, behind us, in front of us, and on each side. They came as close as about 5 feet from us. While we aimed to keep a distance of at least 7 meters, they had other ideas at times, and approached us— making it clear we were in the path they intended to take.
This experience was not a bucket list item for me. Not something I will simply check off my list. It will live with me forever. Being in the midst of a family of beings which shares more than 99% of our genetic make up is unmistakably spiritual. When the silverback (the term given only to the dominant male in each family) locked eyes with me, those big brown gorgeous eyes let me see a new piece of him. My heart shifted, my soul filled. Watching a newborn cling to her mother’s back, and an adolescent tumble and somersault down the mountain with pure reckless joy, there was no mistaking the connection— their tribe is akin to my own in countless ways.
There will be some who question this practice of habituation get the animals to human observers, and still others who may disagree with this bio-tourism entirely. It strikes me that this is the same path I’ve taken many times over in understanding humans who may not look or behave at all like me. Yet when you are in their midst, when you spend enough time to truly understand them, you will forever want to help them, protect them, and to ensure they are allowed to live as they were intended— in a forest with plenty of food, space to be the nomadic creatures they were created to be, and room to nurture their families. From what I understand the same passion for preservation is also true for the locals who once wanted fewer acres allotted to the gorillas— they’ve reaped the benefits of employment and the resources it ensures. If we humans don’t protect these great beings, we will kill them. I am so grateful economics found a way to create a safe haven.