No. 8: Uganda and Rwanda
Intimate, exhilarating encounters with endangered mountain gorillas in East Africa
A Tale of Three Gorilla Treks
Fact: There are just 1,063 mountain gorillas living on this great big planet. That’s according to an intensive undertaking, the just-released 2018 census counting our remarkable primate cousins living across Rwanda, Uganda and Democratic Republic of Congo in Virunga Massif and Bwindi Impenetrable Forest. (Not one single mountain gorilla lives in captivity, or outside these three African nations.) That number is considerably higher than the 880 counted in 2011, an improvement that’s taken the species from critically endangered to regular endangered. But can you imagine any other population of 1,000 that would be considered robust? It certainly doesn’t seem secure when you compare it to humans. We’re not imminently imperiled: There are 7.8 billion of us on Earth.
This year I’ve “met" some 28 of these mountain gorillas—roughly 2.5% of their entire population. That certainly doesn’t make me Dian Fossey, but it does mean I’ve spent 180 minutes more than most people with some of the most fascinating—and human—creatures alive. In three separate treks, two in Uganda and one in Rwanda, I’ve watched in awe as a mother calmly breastfed her three-month-old infant while picking ticks from the back of her gargantuan silverback mate, Maraya, leader of the Mubare group. I’ve stared in disbelief at an adult who gently placed her fur-topped hand—creased in all the same places as our own, with nails that could pass for manicured in black lacquer—on the thigh of a fellow trekker as if welcoming him into her home.
I’ve gazed back intently at the furrowed brow and pair of deep-set eyes peering out from a gap in thick emerald foliage, and been startled at how penetrating they are even through a camera lens. I’ve nearly jumped out of my skin as a silverback roared, flashing a mouthful of jagged yellowed teeth, to scare off a wild gorilla approaching his family. And I’ve giggled with delight as an attention-seeking adolescent—aren’t they all?—scrambled to the top of a branch, taking the wide-legged stance of an outlaw who’s just walked through swinging saloon doors, and beat his chest playfully.
Mountain gorillas are really quite like us—we share 98.4% of our DNA. They converse, yawn and stare, chew with their mouths open, make the “bed,” pass gas, wake their moms from naps, and engage in silly antics to get attention. They slide down trees like firemen, and climb up vines like Tarzan. They even sneak around to, as they say in Rwanda, jiggy jig behind the silverback’s back. He’s supposed to be the only one in a group (ranging from a few to 18 or 20 individuals) to mate with the mature females—they’re like his harem. But that doesn’t keep gorillas from having clandestine affairs. I witnessed the aftermath of one silverback learning of such a dalliance: The blackback, as non-dominant males are called, had a deep gash across his face and wounds he was literally licking.
Agustine, who promised a “fantastical day” when seeking the three-silverback-strong Oruzogo family on my first-ever trek, taught me about staying calm in the face of fear. Softly walking, almost tiptoeing, up to a group of gorillas for the first time is a memory that will stay with me forever. Anticipation dominated me. They, however, seemed unbothered by our presence. But still, these are wild, 400-pound beings and they don’t know me! I personally don’t love the idea of a stranger barging into my house. The gorillas weren’t hostile in the least, though. If anything they were a bit shy, and eventually those of us with large cameras sat. The dense flora and low light made photography difficult, and our cousins seemed quite relaxed—legs stretched out, hands hammocking their heads.
Our time was up, Agustine announced as I clicked the shutter one last time. With that, the beat-up adulterer Bwengye, whose name means “wise guy,” rose abruptly, took a few long strides in my direction and suddenly slammed his open palm into my lap. Forceful energy reverberated through my bones. Remembering instructions not to make eye contact, I lowered mine quickly and saw that hairy hand still hovering as Agustine softly asked me to stand up and quickly back away. Dizzy with adrenaline, I was shaken, thrilled and grateful to have not melted down. He was only asserting his dominance, as it turned out. No big deal.
From Medhi, my second ranger in Uganda—who could have been Don Cheadle’s dad, with kind eyes and a wide smile—I learned about appreciating peaceful moments. “Some people say we Africans do not have watches, but we have time,” he said, reminding us we would have exactly one hour to view the family. “So take your time.” Those words helped put me in a more present state of observation and avoid the stressed rush to take as many photos and videos as possible of the serene individuals and infant adorably enjoying sun-dappled naps, snacks and grooming. I marveled at the humanity of their expressions. Their quiet beauty was bewitching.
My animated Rwandan guide Francois, nicknamed Nine and built like a silverback but energetic like a juvenile, was a personal porter for Fossey herself in the early ‘80s. He’s spent 37 years with these primates and at 63 is the oldest guide in Rwanda, the human-gorilla conduit for president Paul Kagame and countless international VIPs (like Bill Gates). As soon as he began modeling behavior and teaching us vocalizations I understood why he is so requested: charisma and dedication. He didn’t tell but showed us—with green-tinged liquid streaming down his chin—how gorillas stay hydrated, not by drinking water but by sucking it from juicy thistle stalks. As he bounded up a hill at 8,500 feet I commented this work is clearly keeping him young. In response, Francois jumped up and down, slapped the moss-covered earth, beat his chest (the powerful drum-like sound adult gorillas create comes from air sacs that develop as they age, which they inflate with gasps of breath) and then dug into a stalk of bamboo with his teeth.
He and Edward, a taller and less hyper but no less knowledgeable guide, took us between dombeya tree–draped volcanoes and stinging nettle patches (which actually do sting!) to find the Sabyinyo group, named for the oldest peak. Appropriately, its patriarch, Guhonda, is the oldest-known silverback at 48. (The usual lifespan is 45 years at most.) “Today it’s not so easy because the gorillas are in the mist,” Francois laughed as we paused for a water break, a reference to Fossey’s book and our protracted hike. We didn’t see his longtime friend but spent the hour with much of Guhonda’s offspring, from his silverback son trying to stage a coup to an eight-week-old, curly-headed infant with hands so tiny her mom also seemed awed while inspecting them.
“Oh my god,” cooed Francois when we spotted the baby, a frequent refrain he used when genuinely thrilled about what we were seeing. I was equally tickled, breathless throughout, and supremely entertained by the group dynamics and ongoing conversation between the club bouncer–like silverback and Francois, whose contagious excitement helped make the wild ride one of my most rewarding. My camera infuriatingly malfunctioned as we trailed, climbed and crawled after the active bunch, but I remembered past lessons and slipped into a space of quiet awareness. After all, I had a rare front-row seat to watch intimate, remarkable moments of daily life unfold, and I wanted them saved not only on a memory card but imprinted in me.
I wasn’t the only one, I observed in the faces of Francois and Edward, who have seen this thousands of times but clearly find great pleasure in each moment. Before saying goodbye I asked them about this. “I’ve been with gorillas 20 years,” Edward replied, through births and deaths, scandal, punishment and play. “And every day we still see something new.”
If you’re considering a trip…
The experiences in Bwindi Impenetrable National Park, Uganda, and Volcanoes National Park, Rwanda, are quite different—so too are their prices at $600 and $1,500 per trekking permit, respectively. In the former, from the lush Sanctuary Gorilla Forest Camp it was just minutes to the start point where I was entertained by the multitalented ladies of local nonprofit Ride 4 A Woman (visit their Buhoma B&B and workshop to learn to cook or weave with them) who danced, sang and jumped to kick off the group briefing. From the stunning Singita Kwitonda Lodge, kitted out in waterproof everything from their comprehensive gear room, I was driven a short distance to the bar serving locally grown-by-women Question Coffee where we dispersed in manicured gardens for group introductions. In both places, a maximum of eight trekkers are assigned a guide and gorilla group for the day (being followed since early morning by expert trackers), and they must keep a distance of seven meters (23 feet).
Bwindi Impenetrable Forest is called impenetrable for a reason—there was lots of hacking of overgrowth and hardly any flat surface. We gained almost 2,000 feet in elevation in 45 minutes. There is no such thing, it seems, as a moderate incline—ups and downs felt like climbing a ladder made of loose dirt or descending a playground slide made of soil, all under giant ferns that arched over treetops like umbrellas. On each trek my porter was indispensably helpful in successfully getting me into and out of the jungle. These local community members should be compensated $10-15, a very significant amount of money to them and their families. By contrast, the hike in Volcanoes felt closer to a walk in the park, albeit an extraordinarily muddy park. Squishing, slurping, gurgling and sucking sounds became the soundtrack of the journey through bamboo forests, until serious machete action began and we alighted on a kind of sprung forest floor that seemed woven haphazardly from nature and provided a bouncy if tangly surface on which to ascend. Ultimately all the treks provided equal opportunity for accumulating sweat, dirt, mud, and stinging nettle pricks.
It’s exciting and encouraging that numbers of mountain gorillas have steadily risen thanks to extreme protection measures taken by governments, researchers, doctors and NGOs operating in mountain gorillas’ two small homelands, spurred on and inspired in so many ways by Dian Fossey, who fought for their protection with her life (in 1985 she was murdered by poachers). Her unwavering passion and advocacy turned things around for the species. In the ‘80s in Virunga Massif (which includes Volcanoes National Park) there were just 240 individuals; in Bwindi, the first census in 1997 found 294. The latest headcount, released in December 2019 (but completed in 2018) includes 459 in Bwindi and 604 in Virunga Massif—or maybe 605 if you count the newborn baby girl I saw earlier this month!