OTRWJ Uganda Pt4: Fossey, Goodall…and Me


Fossey, Goodall…and Me  (plus some scary stuff)

My primary focus on this trip was the physical test and reward of trekking to watch chimps and the critically endangered (880 in the world; NONE in captivity) mountain gorillas up close in their natural habitat.

Uganda is hard enough to get to; reaching Kibale (on Uganda’s western border with the Congo) – home to Africa’s largest population of endangered primates – was a 9 hour jeep ride, horrible roads with windows down to catch some air as well as – what seemed like – all the dust in Eastern Africa. Here – in the humid rain forest- I trekked at 4500 feet to find chimps.

Trekking for both chimps and gorillas (both in the ape family and sharing 98% of human DNA) requires planning and many rules. Uganda has “protected” the environment of both animals from human encroachment and deforestation by creating huge national parks. Other threats include disease exposure through human contact – and, of course, poachers. Trekking requires a permit: $150 per day for chimps; $600 per day for gorillas. (Rwanda has recently upped their fee to $1200. They say it’s to further control overexposure; Ugandans seem to feel the Rwandans are being opportunistic.)

Trekking time is limited: 2 hours for chimps and one for gorillas… but that’s once you find them! Only habituated chimp or gorilla families are visited. The habituation process ….just getting the animals used to human presence, less stressed and fearful…can take years. Two groups of 8 go out each day for both chimps and gorillas. However gorilla families are only “visited” once each day. No one under 15 is allowed as their small size may be tempting to the primates!

Gorilla trekking rules require you be healthy: no flu, coughing, sneezing. One of the reasons mountain gorillas have not survived in captivity is they succumb to human diseases. For the same reason, if you have to use the bathroom on the trail, a hole must be dug and then covered up …for BOTH #1 and #2. If you trek with poles, they must be left about 75 yards away from the gorillas with your backpack and everything else except your camera. (Chimps, being mostly in trees, make this less of an issue.) No jewelry or bright red lipstick to attract the curious gorillas.

When tracking chimps, we followed two guides who listened for chimp sounds, looked for knuckle prints in the dirt, or the sudden swaying of tree branches. We were also accompanied by an “escort”: a man in military fatigues carrying an AK-47, which turned out to be Ugandan-made, not Russian. This was supposedly to protect us from an aggressive chimp or marauding forest elephant (more aggressive than the savannah elephants).

The rainforest was thick (or so I thought at that point) and there was no trail. We pushed through the vegetation, branches slapping in the face as we kept on the lookout for safari ants (keep pants tucked into those socks!) and poisonous caterpillars dropping out of trees. It is a rainforest with wet vegetation and footing, so we all wore gators over the pants that were tucked in our socks. Quite the fashion statement.

No predicting where a chimp family is. On the first day we spotted only one (“Lion” was his name for his piercing eyes.) after about 45 minutes. Day Two took a couple hours of searching, necks craned back scanning the treetops. But we were rewarded with a family group playing, feeding.

Chimps are very smart. They strategize on how to plan a kill. They use tools – like rolling giant leaves into cones to use as cups to capture and drink water. They use sticks to pry termites out of their hole. Chimps sleep in “nests” built nightly in the tree tops versus gorillas who nest in the ground.

They have a social hierarchy. Alpha male and females get more food and more sexual partners. They communicate with fellow chimps across the forest by pounding rhythms on tree trunks that resonate for miles. They flirt. They wait to see if their advances are reciprocated. If not, they try again! Chimp gestation is 8 months and babies are carried on mom’s back for up to 4 years. If something happens to the mother, the whole family will take care of the baby. Females first give birth at about 11 and have multiple partners each month.

Another dusty, kidney-jarring day’s drive brought us to Bwindi, location of The Impenetrable Forest, for gorilla trekking. Located right on the Rwanda border, it’s easy to see why about half of the remaining mountain gorillas are in Uganda and half in Rwanda.

This is a primeval forest at 4,000 to 8,500 feet elevation. The area I was in held three gorilla families. Trekking was farrrrrr more difficult than in Kibale. The terrain was steep. Very steep. Constantly climbing up or sliding down sideways like side sliding on a ski slope. Stinging nettles required we wear long sleeves and gloves. And I cannot begin to explain how thick the vegetation was.

Each group of eight has a guide and TWO armed escorts (“In case one gun doesn’t fire.” !!??!) Everyone also had their own porter. I mean EVERYONE. I trekked with people who were triathletes, some who had done the Inca trail, and several who had climbed Mt. Kilimanjaro. Everyone appreciated their porter! They carried your backpack. They pulled and pushed you up the steepest inclines and kept you from tumbling down through the trees. My first day’s porter, Moses (how appropriate is THAT?!), was funny (called me “Mom”), patient and encouraging.

A bit about the “escorts”. Background here is that in 1999, a band of Rwandan Hutu militias raped and butchered eight tourists (including two Americans from Intel) at the camp in Bwindi where I stayed. I am sure the armed escorts (on the trek as well as throughout our camp 24/7) are protection from wild animals, as well as visible reassurance and security.

Before our guide and group began the gorilla trek, trackers had started out at dawn to locate the different gorilla families based on their previous day’s location. They would communicate via radio to our guide. He/She would then set out, machete in hand, cutting through the vegetation to clear a path of sorts. (Machete is also used to dig latrines.)

Some days you reach your gorilla family in 1 1/2 hours. Sometimes it takes four or five, or longer. (Remember: that’s four or five hours of up and down climbing at elevation. It is not uncommon for people to get ill and be carried out by their porters.)

The thrill of being so close to these gentle, calm and contemplative beings is impossible to communicate. They have very human actions: a baby trying to figure out how to climb a tree so he can get to his father; young juveniles playing tag and trying to throw the other off a branch, a mother holding her baby as it nurses, a mother pulling a young one closer to her when she thinks his rough play has gotten out of hand, the silverback jumping up to go investigate when a couple of young males hidden nearby in the brush start screaming.

The family hierarchy is more pronounced with gorillas. There is one silverback who is the protector of the family. Mothers and babies stay close by him. Families, relative to chimps, are small…rarely over 20. When they reach sexual maturity, they leave home. Females – so as to avoid interbreeding and males – because there can only be one male in charge. Although a mature male can try to take control from the silverback.

The gorillas do approach you. The silverback on Day One charged us when he heard a sharp crack of a large branch being snapped by a tracker. A juvenile rushed me and briefly grabbed my leg. Another grabbed a woman’s backside.

It was all was incredible.

With only a short hour to watch, i struggled to find a balance between getting a great photo (tough: dark, moving object in a low light setting) and just watching in total awe.

My next and last blog posting will include some miscellaneous photos and some Ugandan observations on displaced pygmies and social issues.


OTRWJ Uganda Pt4: Fossey, Goodall...and Me originally posted on by Elegant Island Living magazine.

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