FACE-TO-FACE WITH A WEEPING MOUNTAIN GORILLA

Saving the endangered Mountain Gorilla - The most dangerous conservation project in the World 
Early morning en route to see the gorillas
Early morning en route to see the gorillas
Bumpy, narrow and windy road up the mountain yet beautiful views
Bumpy, narrow and windy road up the mountain yet beautiful views
Setting off on the steep accent up the mountain
Setting off on the steep accent up the mountain
The daily trek for farming communities in the mountains
The daily trek for farming communities in the mountains
Rangers offering a helping hand
Rangers offering a helping hand
A young gorilla peeking out the bush to get a closer look at us
A young gorilla peeking out the bush to get a closer look at us
A male gorilla feeding with the family
A male gorilla feeding with the family
A crying gorilla
A crying gorilla
Our trekking team with our certificates of completion
Our trekking team with our certificates of completion

In 2017 I ticked off one of my bucket list dreams and went trekking in Uganda for one of the world’s most threatened primate; the mountain gorilla. A day of determination, reflection, adventure, triumph and heartache. This is my story of a day I will never forget, my journey to find the gorillas, coming face-to-face with a crying gorilla and why gorilla conservation is deemed one of the most dangerous conservation projects in the world.

THE JOURNEY UP THE MOUNTAIN

As the name implies mountain gorillas live in forests in the mountains. Today, as  humans have expanded into the gorillas habitat, gorillas can only be found in two isolated sub-populations; the Virunga Massif and the Bwindi Impenetrable National Park, that straddle Rwanda, Uganda and the Democratic Republic of Congo.

On the morning of my trek in the Bwindi Impenetrable National Park, Uganda, we were welcomed by a park ranger and given an informative talk about the gorilla conservation programme and how our gorilla fee was utilised. At the time, the fee for transfer and permit was US$600. To me, this was an astounding amount of money to spend just 1 hour with the gorillas and I debated for a long time whether I could justify spending such a large sum. But the ranger explained that the permits were costly because only 10 permits are issued per gorilla family per day to ensure the gorillas exposure to humans is limited. And 100% of the permit cost is used to help finance patrols that are needed in protecting the gorillas from poachers and their lethal snares.

We were split into small groups of 8-10 people. Each group was assigned a different gorilla family and delegated 3 rangers all dressed from head to foot in army green combat clothes and carrying machetes. The gorilla family we were tracking was called the Kahungwe group and was habituated to human presence. One of our rangers, the "tracker", ran ahead to find signs of the Kahungwe family whilst the rest of us set off in single file on a narrow track that ascended up a steep cultivated valley. It was an exhausting climb and the heavy rainfall the night prior had made the track extremely muddy and slippery underfoot adding to the challenge. The Bwindi forest is surrounded by a human matrix of agriculture and as we struggled up the steep muddy slopes, I was amazed by the local farming families that ascended the slopes with ease. As our group stopped regularly to rest and catch our breath, local women and children passed us wearing ragged dresses and barefoot carrying heavy tools over their shoulders and balancing baskets on their heads. My heart went out to them thinking of the luxury I have at home in comparison to their lives of poverty.

We followed the track into the rain forest until it disappeared behind a wall of dense trees, bush and vines. The lead ranger proceeded forwards, swinging his machete before him to make a small clearing. We followed, scrambling through the thicket of vegetation. The rangers monitor the gorillas on a daily basis so have a good idea of their location but they are free roaming animals and seeing them is not guaranteed. After 4 hours, the rangers stopped and changed direction more frequently. Communicating with the tracker via radio he told us the gorillas were ahead of us but they were moving quickly away from our location. Our hopes of seeing them were starting to fade.

1 HOUR WITH A FAMILY OF GORILLAS

Eventually the gorillas did stop for a feed which gave us a chance to catch up. We proceeded through the forest almost on tip toe, holding our breaths trying to listen for any sounds, other than the gentle hum of insects. Suddenly there was a deafening roar which made us all jump with fright. There was no doubt the gorillas were close.

Moments later we were surrounded by the entire Kahungwe family which is made up of 16 members including 3 silverbacks. They did not appear fazed that a group of humans were standing in the middle of their forest. The adults laid back in their beds of vegetation busy picking out the best leaves to eat. The juveniles were a little more curious, watching us intently as they climbed and swung through their jungle playground. If they came too close, they were disciplined by their mothers. Our first sighting of a silverback took us by surprise. He charged towards us at full speed with a deafening roar, stopping in front of us at the last minute. It was a warning that this is his territory and he's the boss. The rangers had not flinched. They knew it was a mock charge. But most of our group had stumbled backwards and fallen over each other in a heap on the floor. Despite the gorilla family being habituated, they are still wild animals and are not tame.

I am a keen wildlife photographer and spent most of the hour capturing this magical moment through my camera. I know they share >95% of their DNA with us but it still took me by surprise their human-like appearance, from their finger nails to their facial expressions. One gorilla caught my attention as it appeared to be crying, wiping away tears that fell down its cheek. Many people have dividing opinions as to whether non-human animals, share emotions like our own. Since gorilla’s are one of our closest relatives, it would be logical that this species would share human-like emotions. But all scientific articles I have found state humans are the only species that cry, if crying is defined as ‘tears falling from the eyes’. My photo may well be the only piece of photographic evidence to disprove this theory.

Crying in humans tends to occur to express emotion (e.g. sadness, distress or pain). I then started to question… why would this mountain gorilla, surrounded by family in a beautiful forest be crying?

GORILLA CONSERVATION

Gorilla’s have endured years of civil war, hunting, habitat destruction and disease, threats so severe that up until 2018, the species was listed as critically endangered with a high probability of imminent extinction. Due to recent collaborative conservation work between the three countries and their partners, a survey in 2018 found that the total population had increased to at least 1,004 individuals. As a result of this increased population trend, they were downgraded to Endangered.

However, they only occur in two locations, so are high risk to disease and natural disasters that could wipe out the entire population very quickly. Millions of people live in communities surrounding the parks and hundreds of thousands of people enter the parks annually. 60% of the gorillas are habituated to human presence and come into close/direct contact on a daily basis. High genetic relatedness between humans and gorillas pose a dangerous risk for disease transmission and even the common cold can kill a gorilla. Outbreaks of the deadly Ebola virus have occurred in Uganda and the Congo. This can result in mortality rates greater than 95% very rapidly which would be detrimental to the gorillas’ survival.

60% of the total gorilla population live in the Virunga Park but conservation efforts are hindered by a long history of civil war. In 1994, over a million people were brutally murdered in neighbouring Rwanda as part of the horrific ethnic genocide. More than a million refugees and fighters fled across the border and settled in overcrowded camps around the Virunga Park. Today, some 4 million inhabitants live in extreme poverty around the park and thousands of fighters remain in the jungle and have been joined by local militia. Conservationists and tourists value the forests for its spectacular biodiversity, but local communities and fighters resent that they are prohibited from using its natural resources. Many, in defiance or ignorance to the law, cut down the trees for charcoal, plant crops in the forests and kill its wildlife for personal consumption or bush meat sales. There are frequent outbreaks of violence. Attempts by rangers to stop illegal activities have led to deadly reprisals. Only last month (March 2019), 2 rangers were murdered driving the death toll of park rangers to 152 since 1996. One of the most dangerous conservation projects in the world.

A security team of 80 rangers are required to protect the 250-300 habituated gorillas in the Virunga which contributes to the $8 million annual operating budget. This sum of money cannot be generated by gorilla trekking permits alone – especially as tourist numbers constantly fluctuate due to outbreaks of violence, kidnappings and murders. The gorillas’ protection is reliant upon continued donations from the EU, US government and international non-profits.

The survival of the species will remain dependent on conservation for the foreseeable future.

In 2017 I ticked off one of my bucket list dreams and went trekking in Uganda for one of the world’s most threatened primate; the mountain gorilla. A day of determination, reflection, adventure, triumph and heartache. This is my story of a day I will never forget, my journey to find the gorillas, coming face-to-face with a crying gorilla and why gorilla conservation is deemed one of the most dangerous conservation projects in the world.

THE JOURNEY UP THE MOUNTAIN

As the name implies mountain gorillas live in forests in the mountains. Today, as  humans have expanded into the gorillas habitat, gorillas can only be found in two isolated sub-populations; the Virunga Massif and the Bwindi Impenetrable National Park, that straddle Rwanda, Uganda and the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Bumpy, narrow and windy road up the mountain yet beautiful views
Bumpy, narrow and windy road up the mountain yet beautiful views

On the morning of my trek in the Bwindi Impenetrable National Park, Uganda, we were welcomed by a park ranger and given an informative talk about the gorilla conservation programme and how our gorilla fee was utilised. At the time, the fee for transfer and permit was US$600. To me, this was an astounding amount of money to spend just 1 hour with the gorillas and I debated for a long time whether I could justify spending such a large sum. But the ranger explained that the permits were costly because only 10 permits are issued per gorilla family per day to ensure the gorillas exposure to humans is limited. And 100% of the permit cost is used to help finance patrols that are needed in protecting the gorillas from poachers and their lethal snares.

Setting off on the steep accent up the mountain
Setting off on the steep accent up the mountain

We were split into small groups of 8-10 people. Each group was assigned a different gorilla family and delegated 3 rangers all dressed from head to foot in army green combat clothes and carrying machetes. The gorilla family we were tracking was called the Kahungwe group and was habituated to human presence. One of our rangers, the "tracker", ran ahead to find signs of the Kahungwe family whilst the rest of us set off in single file on a narrow track that ascended up a steep cultivated valley. It was an exhausting climb and the heavy rainfall the night prior had made the track extremely muddy and slippery underfoot adding to the challenge. The Bwindi forest is surrounded by a human matrix of agriculture and as we struggled up the steep muddy slopes, I was amazed by the local farming families that ascended the slopes with ease. As our group stopped regularly to rest and catch our breath, local women and children passed us wearing ragged dresses and barefoot carrying heavy tools over their shoulders and balancing baskets on their heads. My heart went out to them thinking of the luxury I have at home in comparison to their lives of poverty.

The daily trek for farming communities in the mountains
The daily trek for farming communities in the mountains

We followed the track into the rain forest until it disappeared behind a wall of dense trees, bush and vines. The lead ranger proceeded forwards, swinging his machete before him to make a small clearing. We followed, scrambling through the thicket of vegetation. The rangers monitor the gorillas on a daily basis so have a good idea of their location but they are free roaming animals and seeing them is not guaranteed. After 4 hours, the rangers stopped and changed direction more frequently. Communicating with the tracker via radio he told us the gorillas were ahead of us but they were moving quickly away from our location. Our hopes of seeing them were starting to fade.

Rangers offering a helping hand
Rangers offering a helping hand

1 HOUR WITH A FAMILY OF GORILLAS

Eventually the gorillas did stop for a feed which gave us a chance to catch up. We proceeded through the forest almost on tip toe, holding our breaths trying to listen for any sounds, other than the gentle hum of insects. Suddenly there was a deafening roar which made us all jump with fright. There was no doubt the gorillas were close.

A young gorilla peeking out the bush to get a closer look at us
A young gorilla peeking out the bush to get a closer look at us

Moments later we were surrounded by the entire Kahungwe family which is made up of 16 members including 3 silverbacks. They did not appear fazed that a group of humans were standing in the middle of their forest. The adults laid back in their beds of vegetation busy picking out the best leaves to eat. The juveniles were a little more curious, watching us intently as they climbed and swung through their jungle playground. If they came too close, they were disciplined by their mothers. Our first sighting of a silverback took us by surprise. He charged towards us at full speed with a deafening roar, stopping in front of us at the last minute. It was a warning that this is his territory and he's the boss. The rangers had not flinched. They knew it was a mock charge. But most of our group had stumbled backwards and fallen over each other in a heap on the floor. Despite the gorilla family being habituated, they are still wild animals and are not tame.

Our trekking team with our certificates of completion
Our trekking team with our certificates of completion

I am a keen wildlife photographer and spent most of the hour capturing this magical moment through my camera. I know they share >95% of their DNA with us but it still took me by surprise their human-like appearance, from their finger nails to their facial expressions. One gorilla caught my attention as it appeared to be crying, wiping away tears that fell down its cheek. Many people have dividing opinions as to whether non-human animals, share emotions like our own. Since gorilla’s are one of our closest relatives, it would be logical that this species would share human-like emotions. But all scientific articles I have found state humans are the only species that cry, if crying is defined as ‘tears falling from the eyes’. My photo may well be the only piece of photographic evidence to disprove this theory.

Crying in humans tends to occur to express emotion (e.g. sadness, distress or pain). I then started to question… why would this mountain gorilla, surrounded by family in a beautiful forest be crying?

A crying gorilla
A crying gorilla

GORILLA CONSERVATION

Gorilla’s have endured years of civil war, hunting, habitat destruction and disease, threats so severe that up until 2018, the species was listed as critically endangered with a high probability of imminent extinction. Due to recent collaborative conservation work between the three countries and their partners, a survey in 2018 found that the total population had increased to at least 1,004 individuals. As a result of this increased population trend, they were downgraded to Endangered.

However, they only occur in two locations, so are high risk to disease and natural disasters that could wipe out the entire population very quickly. Millions of people live in communities surrounding the parks and hundreds of thousands of people enter the parks annually. 60% of the gorillas are habituated to human presence and come into close/direct contact on a daily basis. High genetic relatedness between humans and gorillas pose a dangerous risk for disease transmission and even the common cold can kill a gorilla. Outbreaks of the deadly Ebola virus have occurred in Uganda and the Congo. This can result in mortality rates greater than 95% very rapidly which would be detrimental to the gorillas’ survival.

A male gorilla feeding with the family
A male gorilla feeding with the family

60% of the total gorilla population live in the Virunga Park but conservation efforts are hindered by a long history of civil war. In 1994, over a million people were brutally murdered in neighbouring Rwanda as part of the horrific ethnic genocide. More than a million refugees and fighters fled across the border and settled in overcrowded camps around the Virunga Park. Today, some 4 million inhabitants live in extreme poverty around the park and thousands of fighters remain in the jungle and have been joined by local militia. Conservationists and tourists value the forests for its spectacular biodiversity, but local communities and fighters resent that they are prohibited from using its natural resources. Many, in defiance or ignorance to the law, cut down the trees for charcoal, plant crops in the forests and kill its wildlife for personal consumption or bush meat sales. There are frequent outbreaks of violence. Attempts by rangers to stop illegal activities have led to deadly reprisals. Only last month (March 2019), 2 rangers were murdered driving the death toll of park rangers to 152 since 1996. One of the most dangerous conservation projects in the world.

A security team of 80 rangers are required to protect the 250-300 habituated gorillas in the Virunga which contributes to the $8 million annual operating budget. This sum of money cannot be generated by gorilla trekking permits alone – especially as tourist numbers constantly fluctuate due to outbreaks of violence, kidnappings and murders. The gorillas’ protection is reliant upon continued donations from the EU, US government and international non-profits.

The survival of the species will remain dependent on conservation for the foreseeable future.

EMAIL5k
Facebook3k
Facebook
Twitter
Instagram2k

9 thoughts on “Mountain Gorillas

  1. Hey! I’m at work surfing around your blog from my new iphone!
    Just wanted to say I love reading your blog and look forward
    to all your posts! Keep up the great work!

  2. Pretty great post. I simply stumbled upon your blog and wanted to mention that I have really loved browsing your blog posts.
    After all I will be subscribing for your feed and I am hoping you write once more soon!

  3. Hello there, I fouhnd your website by the use of Google whilst searching for a comparable topic, your web site
    got here up, it appears to be like great. I have bookmarked it in my google bookmarks.

    Hello there, just was aware of yoyr weblog through Google, and foud that
    it’s really informative. I am goonna be careful for brussels.
    I’ll be grateful if you proceed this in future. Numerous other people shall be benefited out of your writing.
    Cheers!

  4. It’s a pity you don’t have a donate button! I’d most certainly donate to
    this outstanding blog! I guess for now i’ll settle for bookmarking and adding your RSS feed to my Google account.
    I look forfward to fresh updates aand will talk
    about tis blog with my Facebook group. Talk soon!

  5. Hi, I do believe this is a great web site. I stumbledupon it ;
    ) I will come back once again since i have saved as a favorite it.
    Money and freedom is the greatest way to change, may you be rich
    and continue to help others.

  6. This design is wicked! You most certainly know how to keep a
    reader amused. Between your wit and your videos, I was almost moved to
    start my own blog (well, almost…HaHa!) Excellent job.
    I really loved what you had to say, and more than that, how you presented
    it. Too cool!

  7. Having read this I believed it was extremely enlightening.
    I appreciate you taking the time and energy to put this informative article together.
    I once again find myself spending way too much
    time both reading and leaving comments. But
    so what, it was still worth it!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *