“Stand your ground. Stand tall and don’t look him directly in the eyes,” said the guide, calmly.
That’s all very well, but when standing in front of a six foot 500 pound silverback gorilla it was difficult to compose myself and follow his instructions. One minute I had been observing the silverback sitting quietly in a glade; the next minute he stood up, ran over and mock-charged me. He let out a deep, grumbling rumbling sound from deep in his belly: a silverback warning intended to intimidate without becoming physical.
It was all over very quickly and seemed quite surreal. My heart skipped a few beats even though I knew the guide and rangers were beside me. They interpret the gorilla’s behaviour and tell you what you are watching.
Bweza, a magnificent gorilla, calmed down, turned and rushed off into the dense foliage.
I am in Bwindi Impenetrable Forest, an exceptional UNESCO Natural World Heritage Site in south-western Uganda bordering the DRC. Renowned for its superb gorilla tracking the 321 km² park was established in 1991. I am trekking alongside the Nghongi gorilla family, named after the river where they were first found. The dominant silverback who mock-charged me is called Bweza. I went in July, a perfect time to visit as there was no rain and it was not unbearably hot. It was actually a bit chilly in the early mornings and evenings. The park experiences two wet rainy seasons: February to May and September to December.
The park has exceptional biodiversity: over 160 species of trees, more than 100 fern species, and ten species of primate (including chimpanzees, red tailed and blue monkeys and black and white Colobus monkeys), bush babies, baboons, elephant and various small antelopes. The beautiful Blue and White-tailed flycatchers, African emerald cuckoo and Red headed bluebill are some of the 23 bird species endemic to the Albertine Rift. An impressive 310 species of butterflies, 51 reptiles, 88 moths and 120 types of mammals have been identified. The park is a model for community management of the site, developing ecotourism programmes that support community livelihoods while contributing to the protection of the gorillas.
A shout went up and I was led to another silverback lying in the bright green ferns on his front exposing the light grey colour of the soles of his feet. It was a tender moment for me. I have never seen a gorilla in that pose; he looked so humanlike.
I left him to rest and followed Bweza. I could see the vegetation shaking and moving and hear it breaking as he wandered through it. He led us to the other members of his troop: three adult females, one sub-adult and an infant. They were feeding, playing and interacting in a thick area of plants. Gorillas are vegetarians and spend most of their day searching for leaves, stalks and plant shoots.
I realized that the silverback was the centre of the troop's attention. He makes all the decisions, mediates conflicts, determines the group’s movements, leads them to feeding sites and takes responsibility for the safety and well-being of the whole troop. The bond a silverback has with his females forms the core of gorilla social life. Those bonds are maintained by grooming and staying close together.
Bweza decided to move. The troop followed, some walking “bipedally” with others running sideways; two- to four-legged. Youngsters were swept up by their mothers and rode on their backs; there was no way they would have been able to keep up with the pace. What a fantastic scene to witness! I followed them, but the terrain of this park, with its series of steep ridges and valleys, is more difficult than that of Mgahinga. The Afromontane vegetation is much denser and the rich earth very slippery in the humid conditions. When most of Africa’s forests disappeared during the ice age Bwindi was one of the few “refugia” that persisted. So while most of today’s forests are no more than 12,000 years old, Bwindi’s vegetation has been weaving itself into tangles for over 25,000 years. Although my progress was slower I was determined to keep up with the family. I could smell a mix of green plants and decaying vegetation, damp soil, a hint of animals and their faeces; the combination is both unique and intoxicating.
I found them in an open space close to a cluster of trees. I sat on a fallen log festooned with lichen and moss and watched them. The swarms of flies were something else, but after a while I did not notice them as there was so much going on. An adult gorilla has to eat around 30 kg of food every day consisting of bamboo, thistles, stinging nettles, wild celery, certain fruits and ants. I had not seen them drinking, and the guide told me gorillas rarely drink water because half the succulent vegetation they consume comprises water. They also get water from the morning dew.
Younger males, known as “blackbacks”, are subordinate to the silverback. Suddenly, and totally unexpectedly, an infant with bright shiny eyes came running over and started playing with my leg. The guide told me to stand up and grab my camera equipment: “just in case”. A baby gorilla is called an infant, just like a human baby. At birth gorillas weigh about 4½ pounds. They develop quickly and are walking within six months.
What an experience that was! My first instinct was to play with the infant, but it is not allowed due to transmission of disease. He was very friendly and curious in an infant way, not aware that I was a human. I was able to examine the gorillas from different angles. It really struck me how the adult males have such a prominent sagittal crest (a ridge of bone running lengthwise along the midline of the top of the skull) that I had not noticed before. It means they have exceptionally strong jaw muscles.
One of them decided to climb up one of the trees and the rest of the family joined him. He sat nestled on a tree branch, his back resting on the large trunk.
The infants were surprisingly agile for their young age and strength and climbed higher than the blackback. Very swiftly the trees were filled with gorillas climbing upwards and sidewards along branches. Their huge arms easily wrapped around the branches, heaving them up towards to the tree tops. In the bright sunlight I noticed they have longer fur than the western gorilla and are darker, making them look slightly dishevelled and, I think, less aggressive - and cuter. As they climbed I could appreciate just how wide their arm span is; around 2.7 metres for an adult. That is one big enormous gorilla hug. From the tree tops they surveyed the land at an altitude of around 2,600 meters. They did not seem perturbed that I was at the bottom of the trees watching and taking photographs of them.
Observing the family group I could see that the male gorillas are almost twice as heavy as the females and around 1-2 feet taller. The whole experience was rather awe-inspiring as I was able to pay attention to the small details; tender and gentle family interaction or just how they use their hands; that really demonstrates how close they are to us (sharing 98% of our DNA profile). Sitting on the forest floor I was overwhelmed by the variety of smells, more than when I was trekking in the under storey layer.
I felt very privileged to see the gorillas as no more than thirty people per day are allowed to visit these apes in Bwindi and Mgahinga National Parks. The money raised from the permits enables them to be monitored 24 hours and for their habitat to be protected and conserved. Gorillas were discovered as a new species in 1902; by 2008 they had become critically endangered.
If they lose their habitat we will lose them. Forever.