Face to face with Gorillas

In the Bwindi Impenetrable Forest of Uganda, an enchanting encounter with endangered mountain apes.

Cover Story

January 18, 2004

In the Bwindi Impenetrable Forest, in Uganda, you wake up fast when there's a 400-pound gorilla standing outside your tent.

"Ruth!" I called in something of a whisper-yell to the woman in the tent next to mine. "Ruth! Wake up! There's a gorilla out here!"

The male -- silverback -- mountain gorilla was only about 20 feet away, but I inched my way out into the cool mist of the morning. The stench of gorillas cut through the crisp air.

The silverback noticed me, looked right at me, even, but kept to his business, eating a breakfast of tree leaves. Nine gorillas in all -- including a couple of tiny babies clutching their moms -- climbed trees, picked leaves and fruits, and didn't mind us humans the slightest bit.

It was 6 a.m., and my day of gorilla watching was just beginning.

I'd traveled to Bwindi Impenetrable Forest in southern Uganda just to see the endangered mountain gorillas, and already the experience was exceeding my expectations. By day's end, I would hike deep into the jungle and sit in the midst of 15 more gorillas while they napped, ate, played and stared back at me with their deep, brown, soulful eyes.

Bwindi, known as the Impenetrable Forest for its thick jungle growth, sits in the precarious corner of mountainous land where Uganda, Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of Congo (formerly Zaire) come together.

For news-savvy vacationers, the region usually conjures up thoughts of guerrillas instead of gorillas, and that apprehension is warranted. Civil wars and regional conflicts keep these three countries perpetually locked in a state of high alert and ill ease.

Jungle-wise, machine-gun-toting soldiers with questionable allegiances have been lurking in the dense mountain forests around Bwindi for years. And a brutal attack that left eight Western tourists dead at Bwindi in 1999 nearly ended Uganda's hopes for its budding eco-tourism industry.

But since then, the Ugandan government and a number of nonprofit research and conservation groups from around the world have made a Herculean effort to regain a sense of safety and security around Bwindi -- where half of the world's dwindling population of mountain gorillas live.

Now, Uganda boasts a growing tourism industry, and a trip to experience such a rare wildlife encounter can be surprisingly manageable for even a first-time-to-Africa traveler.

Security bolstered

The renewed attention to security is essential around Bwindi, not only to attract tourist dollars but also to ensure a safe environment for the mountain gorillas.

I was struck by the genuine concern for the gorillas expressed by the Ugandan villagers who live around Bwindi. For two years before my visit, I'd lived as a Peace Corps volunteer in Zambia and had traveled extensively in regions rich with wildlife where the local communities ignored the need to protect rare or endangered species.

In parts of Zambia, many of the local people -- struggling for their own survival -- are cynical about Westerners who roll in with unimaginable riches to invest money on wildlife programs while local residents languish.

A "wildlife management" program takes time to develop, and until the economic rewards are obvious, it can be a hard sell to a community that survives on poached meat and black-market game hunting.

In Uganda, I sensed that something good had taken root. Most of the people I met were educated not only about the endangered gorillas but also about the intense biodiversity of the mountains surrounding their villages.

A number of successful community programs were launched in the early 1990s when gorilla-tracking was first opened up to tourism at Bwindi. A Peace Corps volunteer who had been based there helped develop the "community campground" where I stayed for three nights.

The campground, a lush, terraced slope of thatched bandas (huts) and cleared tent spaces beside the national park entrance, is run entirely by the local Buganda people. It is managed so that a significant percentage of the campground proceeds are returned to the community to support a women's cooperative market and an orphans center.

Villagers around Bwindi told me that poaching still happens but that it's not as much a problem as it used to be. I'm not so sure that's true, but the Uganda Wildlife Authority assures travelers that policing in the area has been increased significantly in the last few years.

(A few days after my visit, I learned that a female gorilla had been shot in a different area of the jungle and her baby stolen by poachers on the same day I'd been with the gorillas. Some said the gorillas were shot for meat; others said the baby was probably sold on the black market.)

Minimal contact

On the morning of my scheduled gorilla trek, we weren't supposed to have seen the gorillas already. The group that provided the early-morning wake-up call had been lingering around the park entrance for the past few days, much to the dismay of wildlife rangers.

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