Trekking with Wild Mountain Gorillas
As a lifelong animal lover, I have dreamed of trekking with gorillas in the wild. I always wondered how such a powerful animal could be safe to visit on foot, with no protective barrier or way to escape. As a Master’s student in my final year of the Advanced Inquiry Program, I was able to follow my dream and turn my curiosity about visiting gorillas in the wild into an independent study project. With the help of my instructors, I developed a project to study the importance of tourism for mountain gorilla conservation.
Mountain gorillas are only found in two locations in the world: Bwindi Impenetrable Forest in Uganda, and the Virunga Massif, which spans the countries of Rwanda, Uganda, and the Democratic Republic of Congo. There were only 250 mountain gorillas left when Dian Fossey moved into the jungle to study them in the 1970’s. Photos of her sitting with gorillas in the pages of National Geographic Magazine introduced the general public to the plight of the mountain gorillas and cultivated the gorilla tourism industry. Today, there are 1000 mountain gorillas, indicating the increased awareness and financial resources from tourism are having a positive impact on the mountain gorilla population. Visitors pay a daily permit fee to see the gorillas, which funds all of the resources needed to protect both the habitat and the gorillas. Without this source of revenue, it is very likely that mountain gorillas would already be extinct.
But how do you find the gorillas, and get close enough to see and photograph them in the dense African jungle? They are wild animals - aren’t they dangerous? Yes, mountain gorillas are capable of causing harm, but as herbivores with no predators (other than humans), they are not naturally aggressive.
Gorillas live in groups of up to 30 individuals, headed by a male gorilla called a silverback. There are at least 50 mountain gorilla groups, but not all can be visited by tourists. Gorillas are shy, and they will naturally move away from humans unless they are habituated. Habituation is the process where scientists and park rangers slowly increase the length of time and proximity that gorillas are around humans. The goal is for the gorillas to accept that humans will not harm them, become indifferent to their presence, and carry on about their daily business without fear or altering of their behaviors. The habituation process can take anywhere from 2-5 years. There are approximately 32 habituated mountain gorilla groups today, and one new group, called Bikingi, is currently undergoing habituation in Bwindi Impenetrable Forest. The Bikingi group is 2.5 years into the habituation process. I was able to join the habituation team for a day to participate in the daily routine, which is no casual stroll through the jungle!
We set out at dawn to find the Bikingi group, which consists of 12 individuals. Gorillas make a new nest out of leaves every night to sleep in, and set off every morning to forage for food all day. Our goal was to find their nest before they left for the day. We hiked for two hours before we reached the area where the gorillas were seen the previous afternoon and began looking for signs such as broken branches, eaten leaves, and gorilla poop. After 2.5 hours, we found the nest, but the gorillas had already left. The rangers picked up their trail and we followed it for another 30 minutes, when we caught our first glimpse of the silverback. During habituation, you focus on the silverback. He is the boss, and the group stays near him and takes their cues from his behavior.
Contrary to what I would have thought, you are supposed to make a lot of noise announcing your presence to avoid surprising the gorillas. This also helps them become accustomed to the sounds humans make, including voices, camera clicks, walkie talkies, and machetes cutting paths through the jungle. You want to stay in view of the silverback as much as possible so he can easily keep track of you, and get used to you. Acting like a gorilla is another protocol. The trackers would mimic a “mmmmmmm” sound, which means “good food” in gorilla speak. These mimic sounds are meant to calm the silverback, and indicate we are not challenging him in any way. Avoiding eye contact, remaining calm, and not making sudden movements are important to signify our subservience to him. The trackers would pretend to eat leaves like the gorillas, too.
The silverback would sit facing us, pretending to ignore us, but it was obvious he was completely aware of us at all times. After a few minutes, he would move away into the thick jungle. We would hack our way along after him, until he stopped again. Meanwhile, the rest of the group was foraging away but still near him. Two infants played in the trees, sometimes falling out of them! The females mostly stayed out of view, except for an arm sticking out of the thicket to grab a branch every once in a while. The silverback spent the next four hours slowly moving, stopping, staring, and eating, seemingly amazed we continued to follow him through the thickest forest. At the end of four hours, it was time to go and leave the Bikingi group alone to relax in peace until the next morning.
There is little research about the amount of stress humans cause the gorillas, but there are strict guidelines that are followed regarding groups being habituated. For example, habituating groups are only subjected to humans a maximum of four hours per day, and fully habituated groups are only visited for one hour per day. There are also concerns about humans passing diseases and illnesses to gorillas, which could be devastating for them because they are in such an isolated and restricted area. A common cold can be fatal to a gorilla. Therefore, people who are, or have recently been sick are not allowed to go on a trek. Visitors must stay at least 21 feet away from the gorillas to help in avoiding the spread of germs.
It’s a delicate balance of meeting the needs of tourists to secure funding for continued conservation and maintaining the well-being of the gorillas. Both aspects are needed to protect the future of mountain gorillas.
It was another two hours of hiking out of the forest before we made it back to the starting point, nine hours and ten miles after we began. I was repeatedly stabbed by sharp plants, stepped in muddy forest elephant footprints and tripped over several logs under the dense foliage. But I would do it all over to witness these incredible creatures in person again.