In 2007, in a massive blow to conservation efforts, 10 Mountain Gorillas were killed in a number of attacks that took place in the Virunga National Park in the Democratic Republic of Congo. The killing spree included the execution-style massacre of four members of the same gorilla family in July. A few months later, Congo rebels seized an area of the park, forcing rangers to flee, leaving the gorillas of the park unprotected and vulnerable.
Following the coup by rebels, the Australian Government placed the highest travel warning on the border area of Uganda where the Mountain Gorillas live, fearing the trouble in the Congo would spill into this region. Meanwhile, Adore Animals photojournalist Karen Graham was about to reach this area, hoping to get up close and personal with the endangered gorillas. In Uganda, Karen assessed the situation for days and believed she would have to cancel her trip. In the end, after careful consideration, Karen left with a tour group for the area. It’s a decision that led to an experience she’ll never forget.
‘You are about to enter the Impenetrable Forest,’ says our guide, and the excitement and nervousness of our group is palpable. Even the name evokes images of the deepest darkest jungle, concealing another world and another time. When George Schaller, author of The Year of the Gorilla, first came to Africa in 1959, the local Bantus people still avoided the forest, fearing wild animals and evil spirits.
Gorillas are shy, gentle and peaceful creatures who live harmoniously in social groups. Nowadays, they live in small pockets of wilderness surrounded by densely populated farmland. They are, however, often surrounded by violence that threatens their survival, such as the 1994 genocide in Rwanda, the 1999 massacre of eight tourists in Uganda, and in 2007, the aforementioned expulsion of rangers by rebel forces from the Virunga National Park.
There are approximately 720 Mountain Gorillas remaining in the wild. About half of them roam the Virunga range of volcanic mountains, a conservation area straddling Uganda, Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of Congo. The remainder live in Uganda’s Bwindi Impenetrable National Park, which is where we begin our trek.
Back in 1959, Schaller taught himself how to track the Mountain Gorilla, but these days local villagers work as guides, trackers and porters. Today, we are tracking the Rushegura Group, which has 15 members, including a silverback named Mwirima. En route our guide points to evidence of the presence of gorillas – flattened foliage, the remains of plants and fresh dung.
A crashing noise alerts me. I catch a glimpse of a monkey swinging through the branches and stifle a nervous laugh. My senses are on edge.
The search to find gorillas can take many hours and is physically demanding; often we have to scramble up steep and muddy slopes through dense foliage. The forest is thick and looks so continuously similar that without a guide it would be almost impossible to navigate the return trek.
Forty minutes into the hike our guide signals for us to stop. We’re lucky; the gorillas are heading our way. I scan the bushes for movement. Mwirima, the silverback, gambols toward us, effortlessly brushing aside the thick vegetation. He stops within 10 metres of our group.
I’ve dreamt of this moment for years, since first reading Dian Fossey’s Gorillas in the Mist, and I’m not disappointed. Seeing the massive silverback is a majestic moment, and it’s all the more poignant knowing that it’s happened against the odds.
Over the years, Mountain Gorillas have endured the destruction of forest habitat, poaching, disease and war. Even in 1967, when Fossey arrived in Africa to study the gorillas, they seemed doomed to extinction. She wrote, ‘Encroachment upon this terrain may be responsible for the Mountain Gorillas becoming one of the rare species both discovered and extinct within the same century.’
Techniques developed by Fossey during 18 years of research with the aim of gaining acceptance from the gorillas, such as eating leaves, mimicking their movements and imitating their vocalisations, are still used today. Our guide now makes one of these vocalisations: a low guttural noise that sounds like he’s clearing his throat. It’s designed to let the gorillas know we are there and we mean them no harm.
It seems to work, as Mwirima stops to rest. He sits with his back to us; the sun’s rays conveniently highlight his huge silver back. After a moment, alert to our presence, he turns to give us a cursory glance, but is unwilling to offer us more.
Silverbacks are the largest and most powerful primates on earth, so called because of the silvery grey hair that grows on their backs as they mature. As the dominant silverback, Mwirima is responsible for leading and protecting his group, and deciding where to eat, rest and sleep. He also solves disputes, though violence within a gorilla group is rare and usually reserved for times when the family is under threat from a lone silverback or humans.
Dian Fossey campaigned tirelessly to end the trade for live infant gorillas, as often the only way to steal a baby was to kill its entire family, who would vigorously protect it. Fossey’s concern about habituating gorillas to human beings stemmed from trying to protect them. ‘The second it takes a gorilla to determine friend or foe is the second that might cost the animal its life from a spear, arrow, or bullet,’ she wrote.
There are five habituated groups in Bwindi Impenetrable Forest, comprising approximately 90 of the 350 gorillas in the park. The rest are wild. It’s an ongoing challenge of balance for the Ugandan Parks and Wildlife Service, between ensuring a reasonable proportion of the gorilla population remains wild and having enough habituated gorillas to maintain the flow of the much-needed tourist dollar.
Equally important is educating visitors. When in the forest with the gorillas, strict procedural rules apply – voices must be kept low, flash photography must not be used and eating in front of gorillas is strictly prohibited. Probably the most important rule, however, is that you must not be sick when you visit, as Mountain Gorillas are very susceptible to human diseases. A human virus is a genuine threat to the survival of the species. While this rule relies heavily on the honesty of visitors, there is also a rule requiring humans to maintain a distance of at least seven metres from any gorilla, so chosen because seven metres is outside the range of a human sneeze. Our guide tells us we should try to keep this distance, but it’s a little hard explaining that to a gorilla, as I quickly find out.
Two youngsters play-fight about 10 metres away. At first I think they are oblivious to my presence, but their wrestling brings them closer and closer until they are within a couple of metres of me. It’s like watching children play. They pull faces, roll in the dirt, and generally try to get the attention of the adults.
Suddenly, they stop wrestling and turn to look at me. The smallest gorilla tilts his head quizzically and looks right into my eyes, captivating me instantly. Suddenly, he grabs a nearby vine and swings away, his companion close behind. It’s another magical moment and it stays with me long after I leave Africa.
Another youngster pesters Mwirima, roughly clambering onto his head before falling into his lap. The silverback barely moves. Adjacent from them sits Kyirinvi, a young mother nursing her baby. A contributing factor to the gorilla’s endangered status is their slow reproduction rate. Female gorillas only produce offspring once every four years, as babies are not weaned until midway through their fourth year. The atmosphere is peaceful and calm and it’s hard to believe such violence exists in this forest. Kyirinvi gently strokes her baby’s head.
Suddenly, Mwirima is on his feet, pounding his chest and roaring. It’s exhilarating, but a little unnerving. His size and strength is awesome. Chest-beating can signify danger or anger, or, as is the case in this instance, be the silverback’s way of communicating that it’s time to move on. The forest is alive with activity as gorillas make their way down the slope or descend from trees, showering us with leaves and debris.
Mwirima leads the group to a nearby river, crossing it effortlessly. Kyirinvi, with her baby clinging to her belly, pauses briefly then takes the plunge and reaches the other side. Not so the rest of the group. They are afraid. A juvenile tests the water for its depth and then retreats, as does another gorilla.
I am concentrating so hard on watching the gorillas downstream that I don’t immediately notice a young female gorilla, Nyampazi, standing within a metre of us. She gazes forlornly at the river, and then looks at us, as if we might have a better idea of how to cross.
Suddenly our guide calls out, ‘Look! The silverback – he’s coming back.’
At first I think Mwirima is choosing an alternative, easier route. He spends a few minutes roaming among his group before crossing the river again. Two juveniles, still uncertain, skirt around us to cross upstream. One by one, the rest of the group follow.
Our guide tells us he has never seen a silverback do this. For all intents and purposes, Mwirima retraced his steps to reassure his group it was safe to cross. It was a kind, caring and gentle act; one that we were fortunate enough to witness.
For the next 15 minutes we watch the Rushegura Group as they forage, feed and groom in long grass. Then our guide points to his watch. Our hour is up.