An infant mountain gorilla in Rwanda's Volcanoes National Park peeks from behind a leaf. Between three and six years old, infants display similar tendencies to human children: they spend much of their day playing, chasing one another or climbing trees.
Uganda – Long Read

Gorillas share 98 percent of our genes

Photo by David Yarrow

Uganda – Long Read Gorillas share 98 percent of our genes

Hello Uganda, home to half of the world’s surviving wild mountain gorillas. They share 98 percent of our genes and yet they are a species at risk of extinction. There are barely 800 mountain gorillas left in the whole world, living only in DR Congo, Rwanda and Uganda. Between them, these three countries compete for the very lucrative “gorilla tourist”.

Arne Doornebal
Arne Doornebal Journalist

It is the smell that I notice first. I guess if I spent all my days in the jungle wearing the same thick fur coat, with no shower and no toilet, I’d smell pretty bad too. In fact, after only three hours in the heat and humidity of Uganda’s Bwindi Impenetrable Forest I feel very much in need of a good wash. But the ripe, musky smell of gorilla body ordor and droppings catch the back of my throat to send the thought far from my mind.

My excitement mounts even more when I see movement ahead. It is a baby mountain gorilla – the first of the family grouping we have been tracking all morning by, yes, following their poop. The gorilla moves in a tree and then, appearing almost magically from the foliage as my eyes stop looking and start seeing, another two young ones. The acrid stench grows stronger as I carefully move closer, the Ugandan ranger carefully cutting away vegetation with his razor sharp machete. We know we must be very near the main group but they are still hidden in the thick forest.

Then I see a female. And another one. And, between them, a sudden bright flash. It is the leading silverback. This is his natural environment and he has no doubt heard us coming – and seen us – a long time before we saw him. He stands warily in front of his two women, his red eyes staring us down. I feel the hair rise on the back of my neck, the primeval response a natural one in this setting.

Before I set out this morning with my fellow visitors, we were given a long briefing about what to do. It seems a long time ago already that we assembled, shivering in the cold morning mist that reduced visibility to a few dozen meters. And the warnings – now a matter of life and death before a massive silverback who could tear me limb from limb in a heartbeat – seemed unreal as I struggled to throw off my lack of sleep in the high mountain air. Don’t go near the gorillas. Don’t touch them. Don’t scare them. Taking photos is allowed, but no flash. Only the AK-47 weapons carried by our security detail as protection against wild forest elephants brought a note of hard reality.

Humans do not belong in this forest

The search for this gorilla family has shown me how humans do not belong in this forest. The morning mist left the vegetation dripping and I wear rain-gear but am soon soaking from the sweat of climbing. My thick canvas gloves are needed to guard against stinging nettles, thorns and insect bites and a walking pole is also an essential aid on steep slopes, full of ankle-snagging roots. We break out into a high clearing when we can gaze down on on the valley below, still shrouded in mist. Researcher Dian Fossey's story was called “Gorillas in the Mist” for good reason.

Had I the energy to spare, I would admire her fortitude in devoting her life to working in this forest. It is impossible to walk for long. I slip, slide, slither, crawl under fallen branches and wade through vegetation that comes to my waist. The water I swallow continually from my bottle seems to re-appear immediately on my clammy skin, while more drops on my neck from every wet shrub I push aside. Although I cannot see the sun through the foliage high overhead, I can feel its rise as I start to suffer from its growing heat.

Although I curse it, the gorillas can be thankful for the Bwindi Impenetrable Forest. It is the reason for their survival. “There are only two areas left in the whole world where mountain gorillas live,” says Lillian Nsubuga of the Uganda Wildlife Authority (UWA). “One is in Bwindi National Park, which lies entirely in Uganda. The other is the Virungas, a mountain range that lies primarily in DR Congo but stretches into Rwanda and Uganda as well.” The gorillas in the Virungas move freely between the three countries, so they can be found in any of them.

The silverback is king of this environment and I resist the urge to stare back at this magnificent animal as his intense gaze assesses what threat our group might pose to his family. Looking straight in their eyes gives them the impression you want to challenge their superiority. Picking a fight with a 1,000kg animal, whose upper arms are four times thicker than mine, would not be a good idea. “The sound a mountain gorilla makes as he is chest thumping can reverberate throughout the forest,” says Nsubuga. “When the gorilla does that, you better lay down on your face – otherwise he will attack you.” Fortunately, this one seems unthreatened by me and, after a short while, settles back to sitting quietly as the younger ones play around him, the picture of contented family life. I relax and try to fix in my mind the memories I have come so far to find.

Only a privileged few have seen a gorilla in the wild and not every excursion guarantees a sighting. I know I have been lucky. “Seeing gorillas is for many people a life-changing experience,” says Nsubuga. “Some people come back every year to spend time with them.”

We get new gorilla babies regularly

The good news is that gorilla numbers are growing, albeit slowly. The latest count shows Uganda has 400, up from 340 in 2006 and 320 in 2002, a welcome reversal of the heavy decline of the species in earlier decades. With an African total of 880, Uganda has almost half of the world’s wild population of mountain gorillas. “The population in Bwindi is healthy,” says Nsubuga. “We get new gorilla babies regularly. Each female can have four to five babies in their lifetime.” Occasionally, they can deliver twins just like humans.

Mountain gorillas live in groups, moving through the forest under the leadership of the eldest male – the silverback. “They are called silverback because the hair on an elder male gorilla turns silver-ish, just like when humans get grey hair,” says Nsubuga. “Gorillas sometimes reach more than 50 years of age. Developing the silverback starts at early as 13.”

Groups of gorillas can have over 30 members. Apart from the leader there may be other silverbacks, usually sons or even brothers of the group leader. Then there are females and infants. “But it is only the leader who has the right to mate with the females in the group,” says Nsubuga. This may lead to fights. “Other male gorillas, the alpha males, might want to challenge the authority of the leading silverback. When the groups start to move, these males may stay behind to show that they are not obeying rules. Sometimes this can lead to fierce fights between the group leader and an aspiring alpha male.”

He took some of the females

Gorilla groups are usually named after the leader. Nine groups in Uganda are ‘habituated’, meaning that after years of training they can be visited by the public. Once habituated, they are not really wild anymore and they are looked after by UWA staff on a daily basis. “We recently habituded the Nshongi group. By then it had 36 members, among them three silverbacks,” says Nsubuga But then the dynamics changed. “One of the alpha males, called Mishaya, couldn’t stand the dominance of Nshongi anymore and broke away. He took some of the females and formed his own group.”

There is a downturn to habituation, says Gladys Kalema, a veterinary doctor and Uganda’s most prominent gorilla expert. “Once a gorilla group is habituated, they need to be visited each and every day by rangers,” she says. “When accustomed to humans, the group cannot be left alone as they would become an easy target for poachers.”

In impoverished and lawless Congo, illegal hunting of the great ape for bushmeat still goes on, as well as other threats such as habitat loss to logging and farming. Every death is a tragedy for many reasons, not least the fact that a gorilla is estimated by the World Wildlife Fund to be worth $US1million in tourist revenue every year.

A gorilla visit will cost you $500 per person in Uganda or $750 in Rwanda. Just two years ago, Uganda had six habituated gorilla groups. The maximum number of tourists allowed to visit a group is eight, so it had 48 gorilla permits on sale per day. That number has now risen to 72, bringing in over a million dollars per month if all permits are fully booked. Uganda’s tourism minister recently confirmed that tourism the country’s most important generator of foreign currency, even ahead of its famous coffee exports.

Tourism is good for the gorillas

“Yes, it is all about money,” says Kalema. “Don’t get me wrong: tourism is good for the gorillas. The money they generate is used for conservation. But I think we should find a good balance between money and conservation. We shouldn’t habituate any more gorillas now. In fact, we may have habituated too many already, as in the low season not all permits are sold out.”

Kalema, who started her career as Uganda’s first female wildlife veterinarian, was recently elected to the board of the Uganda Wildlife Authority. “I am happy about that. From that position I can wield influence over the future of gorilla tourism.”

In the high season, which runs from June to September and between December and February, gorilla permits are extremely hard to get. “Our booking system can handle two years in advance,” says Nsubuga. Permits are scooped up rapidly by the tour operators who work in Uganda. Amos Wakesa is one of them. His Great Lakes Safaris is the largest home-grown tourist company in Uganda, with an annual turnover of millions of dollars. “Simply put: gorillas are Uganda’s flagship attraction,” he says. “We call them the gentle giants. Out of the 1,200 tourists we take on safari every year, over 90 percent have a visit to the gorillas on their itinerary.”

Wakesa, who used to smuggle goods between Uganda and Kenya as an orphaned teenager but who has now become one of the country’s most successful businessmen, warns that too much emphasis on gorillas is not good. “Uganda looks too much like a one-issue destination,” he says. “Of course a visit to the gorillas is a life-time experience but, as a country, we should also market our other attractions. Uganda is one of the few places in the world where you can do white-water rafting all year around, on the River Nile. Egypt makes billions of dollars a year by offering Nile cruises, while Uganda – where the Nile starts – doesn’t do that at all. Then we have spectacular national parks, as well as many primates apart from gorillas,” he says. Uganda is also among the world’s most interesting countries for birdwatchers. The country has more than 1,058 bird species – 50 per cent of Africa’s total.

Chimpanzees move much faster

Tracking chimpanzees – much smaller than gorillas but are also very closely related to humans – has in recent years become an add-on or alternative to gorilla tracking. “Chimpanzees move much faster,” says Wakesa. They can cover up to 25km per day, quite a lot compared to the fairly lazy gorilla groups that move less than two.” While searching for chimps there is a much greater chance of not spotting them as compared to gorillas, which the visitors rarely fail to see. Chimpanzee tracking in Uganda costs between $85 and $150, depending on the location.

“We need to diversify our tourism,” says Gladys Kalema. “Our country has so many other things to offer. Uganda needs a whole new branding.”

Given the importance the gorillas have for the country, Uganda strives to keep its gorilla population healthy. Gladys Kalema set up UWA’s veterinary department in the 1990s, spending most of her time in Bwindi. In the park there is now a special health centre for gorillas.

“The health of the gorillas is closely connected with that of the surrounding humans,” she says. She therefore set up her own gorilla non-profit organization, called Conservation Through Public Health (CTPH). “Although Bwindi national park is a protected area, people cultivate right up to the park boundary, where the forest begins. Occasionally gorillas leave the park when they search for food. Contact with human diseases can kill them.”

In Uganda we don’t eat them

“The park lies in a poor area, with limited hygiene. People have little access to water, some of them have scabies. That can affect the gorilla population,” she says. For this reason her organization focuses on improving the living conditions and health of people outside the park. “When the people around the park also profit from the gorillas, they won’t poach them.”

Poaching incidents in Uganda are relatively rare compared to neighbouring DR Congo, where people still eat primates. “In Uganda we don’t eat them,” she says. “Congolese think that if you eat a chimpanzee, you will be strong like a chimpanzee. That kind of behaviour is hard to break.”

If tourists have flu when they go for gorilla tracking, they will be stopped and receive a refund for their permit. “The risk of transmitting diseases is just too high,” says Kalema. “Tourists can come and bring bird flu from outside. There is a rule that people have to keep a five-meter distance to the animals, but nowadays they are so used to visitors that the apes come much closer to the visitors. It is about time for everybody who visits the gorillas to start wearing masks.”

Kalema says a study has been done to find out whether tourists will accept the new safety measure. “Results show visitors understand the reasons for it. Here in Uganda we have the opportunity to do gorilla tourism in the best possible way.”

As my hour with the gorillas comes to an end, I reluctantly take my leave to start the hell-ish three-hour scramble back down the mountain. The gorillas give me a parting look, then go back to stripping leaves off branches. While I will remember them for the rest of my life, they have forgotten me already. That is how it should be: we humans have a need for gorillas much more than any need they might have for us.

TRVL Favorites

…from the TRVL community