I didn’t know it at the moment, but I was on my most difficult wildlife photography project of my life. The herculean dark creature hid his face in leaves. He picked up green leaf-pads branchful by branchful. Silver caught the frosted light of his fur on the cone atop his head as he tipped his face back. Brown intelligent eyes glanced in my direction momentarily, shyly, then came back to linger during a dramatic look over his shoulder. He batted his delicate eyelashes, his nose an individual thumbprint; there was no gorilla nose in the world exactly like it. He was Rukara, the mighty silverback of the Kyagurilo group. He was capable of crushing me in an instant, but instead had an undeniable presence of bashfulness, gentleness, and intellect. He was restrained. The jungle was dark, the type of dark that swallowed the gorilla beneath curtains of vines. Swarms of flies jumped from the gorilla to my flesh. Covered in mud, I panicked when I felt the sensation of fire-ants in my pants, the unbeknownst stinging nettles that penetrated my adventure pants when sliding down hillsides of the impenetrable. Bwindi Impenetrable Forest was exactly that: impenetrable, explored only by the work of swath chopping machetes.
“The only reason those gorillas exist is because of tourism” my backpacking friend, Eitienne, said prior to the journey. His sense of conviction hung in the air as I made the slow travel from Entebbe to Western Uganda. The bridge would collapse behind me due to the flooding near the surrounding Lake Victoria. Simon, professional, friendly, yet quiet, became excited when we crossed the boarder into the Mbarara region, the kingdom of his people. He guided specifically to share the western kingdom’s natural and cultural wonders. We became fascinated with the roadside sights: Ankole Cattle with exaggerated horns that curved and reached the top together in 5 foot circles, Arob Storks the caretakers of the dead, and adorned Grey Crowned Cranes, the regal symbol of Uganda, the Pearl of Africa.
Around every corner of western Uganda was another green misty mountain vista.
I’d always wanted to see the gorillas of the Democratic Republic of Congo. But the sustained conflict in the area that had recently escalated near Virunga kept me away. When expensive permit prices to trek the jungles of neighboring Uganda were slashed in half, I jumped. Better yet, my travels sustained many who relied on tourist dollars. A percentage of every trekking permit went directly back to the local villages. The permit money is was had turned an ugly poaching situation into a success story. Uganda was a conundrum. On one hand, I’d stayed with refugees who didn’t have a paper to their name, they couldn’t afford them. Yet on the other, modern shopping malls in Kampala were as modern and expensive as anywhere in the world. Seeing the gorillas of East Africa’s rainforests had been a dream that I’d thought about for the last several years. There was something about their smushed noses and furry appearances that say “I just woke up from my bed of leaves”. They always looked surprised to find a fellow primate as the camera clicked them mid gawk. But mostly it was the hint of intelligence in their brown eyes that were often splashed across explorer magazines and webpages which drew me to them. They were exotic, and seemingly inaccessible. I knew the journey would take me deep into the Virunga Range, a swath of protected rainforest shared between the DRC, Rwanda, and Uganda where human population and deforestation butted up right next to government mandated areas of protection. Originally I considered visiting the more well known gorillas of Congo, but the region had recently suffered conflict where park rangers were regularly shot at and sadly, violent poachers were rife. Rwanda was the second most well known ecotourism gorilla hot-spot. I was very interested in the history of Rwanda; I thought I’d end up there. It was a trek that, because of the remoteness and expenses, I only planned to do once in my life and out of the three spots, Uganda was the spot I felt less inclined and least likely to visit. Yet, it was the most peaceful, so here’s where I found myself.
There was something more authentic, transparent, and warm-hearted about the people of Uganda, who ended up being the highlight of the visit. Out of my extensive travels in Africa, they were by far the poorest and most welcoming that I had ever found.
Swollen children with pot-bellies, the hallmark of hunger, marred the village roadways that lead up the mountain to the Bwindi Impenetrable Forest. My heart ached as I searched for a Kwashiorkor (or swollen-belly starvation) child to share my lunch with. But by the time I got the idea, I saw none. Some of these children had never seen a white person. In fact, folklore scolded by mothers to their naughty children, was that the white devil would come and take them if they misbehaved. “Can you imagine turning the corner and seeing . . . us?” Eiteinne chuckled. Mzungu! Mzungu! the children shouted. The Ugandans were funnily and genuinely excited at the sight of whities. And even those who had nothing, tried to give us gifts and welcomed us. Back on the dirt road Simon giggled as the 4X4 ascended the mountain, violently shaking us in the backseat, “Time for an African massage”.
After spending several days in the countryside, living at a nonprofit educational institution, we loaded into a Land Cruiser that read “Save an elephant, shoot a poacher” across the back with our backpacks, and said goodbye to Eitienne. After seeing the difficulties of hauling water in notorious yellow jugs balanced atop our hosts’ heads, I’d bathed that morning in a field before sunrise using the rain that fell from the sky. It was the rainy season and mosquitos tickled my ankles and belly. I washed quickly as thoughts of Malaria chased me.
In the Land Cruiser I watched men as they held strings of tilapia from Lake Victoria. They made the fish dance hilariously by wiggling their tails in front of vehicles. Catch the eye of passerbys, buy the fish. It worked. We passed the photo sign for the equator and a water experiment (which way did it turn after all?). That afternoon we stopped to observe the emblematic battlefield where agriculture, each clump of crop was a soldier on the frontline. Banana leaves fanned in rows and grasshoppers caught the sunlight. Rice fields padded the valley floor. Farms of the villagers engulfed the countryside swallowing all space all the way up to the tree-line of the forest. The growth and population of Uganda created a demand for food and sustenance that conflicted with the pristine jungle wilderness. The encumbrance of the villager’s farmland laid siege to the boundaries of the park. The land, which once was part of one of the most vibrant and lush jungles in Africa, had been clear cut.
My friend Eitienne was right. I gawped, numb at the thought of conflict between trying to survive starvation and preserving wild treasures, those gorillas and that forest were in trouble.
Lucky enough, the Ugandan government started to protect the forest back in the 1990s, as a National Park under the guise of research, which quickly turned into an ugly exploitive or beautifully preserving form of tourism. I’ll leave it up to you to draw your own conclusions.
We reached the Bakiga lodge. The Bakiga, where the “k” was pronounced as a “ch”, were (and are) the tribe people of the mountains. Hunter and gatherer people, who at times had caused conflict with the gorillas, but who now practiced a guardianship lifestyle, as the gorillas were their main source of income . . . tourism. The Bakiga people now treasured the gorillas due to the amount of money it brought to the region. In a country rife with unemployment, lodge workers, and souvenir craftsmen were plentiful in the gorilla mountains. The lodge had a sweeping view of the rainforest below. The sounds of the jungle called out and domesticated cattle lowed. The lodge overlooked 358 known bird species, chimps, and forest elephants, all hidden in the vegetation below. The chill of the night set in and I had a difficult time eating my delicious and fancy dinner while I thought of the starving children down the road.
That night by the fire Simon informed us about what socks and pants to wear. He warned us about flesh-eating ants, and instructed us on being prepared for a strenuous day. We were prepared to wear working gloves to protect our hands from vines. “Tomorrow we will go see our brothers who do not pay their taxes” he paused to see if I caught his joke, while trying not to crack a smile. He was hinting at the gorillas. That was his parting thought.
(caption above) John
In the morning we hired a porter. He had traveled 50 kilometers for work, which was difficult to come by in the pandemic. “Even if you do not have a pack, consider taking a porter” John, the lead ranger, boomed in the briefing. “Hiring a porter keeps our people (Ugandans) employed”. I didn’t have much to carry, so my porter spent most of his time offering his hand to help keep my footing. He held my camera lenses as I switched them out. He cradled my footlong wildlife lens like a baby but it looked like a missile. He helped me hunt for photo ops that might have otherwise been missed as I ducked and weaved through thick undergrowth and verdure. Later the porter helped translate with village women for a photo of them porting their baskets and jugs on their heads. They wanted food in return. Fifteen dollars would feed my porter’s family for months and I gladly paid four times his asking price out of gratefulness. His name was Gershom.
“If that gorilla gets sick and dies it will be your fault”. I boldly said disgusted to the overly bold Londoner who got within two feet of a juvenile gorilla. He ignored me, absorbed in his iPhone. The park rangers asked us to keep a minimum of ten feet from the wild gorillas who were habituated to seeing humans at Bwindi. Keeping the distance and wearing surgical masks prevented our primate diseases from jumping species. The cost was a potential troop wipe out in one of the last remaining groups of Mountain Gorillas; the consequences . . . potentially grave. The rangers redirected the selfie loser six times within the hour. Yet still he crept closer and closer with each gorilla sighting, cutting off professional photographers and disrupting the troop with loud noises. I secretly wished a gorilla would punch him. Instead the gorilla mothers fled to the hillside. The tourist was an immigrant to the U.K. from Congo. He held his cellphone at arms length snapping a hundred selfies of himself and the juvenile. Conflict minerals for the cell phone which he held were what financed serious conflict in his country of origin. Those mineral conflicts caused violence, mass displacement of some Congolese villagers, and they were what seriously affected the population of Mountain Gorillas, a mere stones throw across the boarder. The irony wouldn’t strike me until much later. In the moment, my jaw was clenched with justifiable anger at the harassment of the wild. When humans have prolonged conflict, wildlife always suffers.
The rangers and guards exchanged worried looks as they tried to correct the tourist behavior. But the reprehensible behavior continued. Here was a welcoming country, with friendly people, trying to show us the wild gem of their land. Ugandans had done a nice job creating the supports needed to enter the jungle. The gorillas even cooperated. Why couldn’t the visitors? I became frustrated as my vision of a Wild Earth slipped further and further away. I spent a significant amount of my limited time and savings to travel a world away to see the gorillas, but I drew the line at harassment. If the creatures became stressed, I was out. Not only was disease a real concern for this gorilla population, but getting too used to humans could potentially cause harm if poachers were to seek the troop out in the future. But Rakura, this gorilla, was smart enough to know the difference between humans who were supposed to come by on occasion, and humans who were out of the ordinary. Due to the pandemic, humans hadn’t been visiting his troop lately. So Rakura had brought his family out of the heart of the jungle to look for his familiar human friends. Normally they moved to look for a balanced diet and sought a variety of plants. But visits from humans had changed their behavior. The humans hadn’t been out in the jungle for a while. The park rangers thought that the gorillas seemed to wonder where all the humans had gone. A subadult walked through the middle of our expedition group and as directed we all froze. She picked leaves, observing each one carefully, walking on her knuckles and finding small white flowers. The rangers sincerely chuffed and grunted to Rakura. He liked it. But he looked annoyed when the selfie loser imitated their groans. Everyone in the expedition group raised their eyebrows and rolled our eyes. That guy just sounded ridiculous.
The infant gorilla, Bajurizi, sought refuge near her father. Rakara was aware of our every movement but played cool as he peeled stems of ruhus. The park rangers distracted the rude humans while giving us, still, quiet, and reverent ones, more time with the father and his daughter. I tried to blend in to my surroundings. Rukara looked past me, unalarmed. I moved slow, held my breath when the camera shuttered, and tried to blend in with the jungle.
After an intense climb back to the truck, the park rangers voiced their frustration and thanked me for my respect for wildlife. My attitude earned me an exclusive interview with the lead park ranger, John.
“I saw you taking notes in my introduction. Here! I thought, was someone who was truly interested” John said looking into the backseat from the bumpy front of the Land Cruiser. His complexion was beautiful, even behind his pandemic mask. John had spent his boyhood around the fringes of the park. “I always wanted to give the gorilla introduction (to visitors), and here I am” he said proudly. I smiled at the thought of him achieving his life-dream. “We used to come here for school.” Mindblown, to my discredit, I’d never thought of African children on field trips, especially in the 90s. In camaraderie, Simon shared a similar boyhood experience. John let me snap his picture when I told him he was in good lighting.
There was a moment of silence in the truck. “How’s poaching lately? Has it been totally eliminated?” I asked.
“No” he gasped. Just this year a pygmie poacher hunted for pigs in Bwindi. He surprised a family of gorillas when the silverback defended the troop. The poacher killed the gorilla. The killing of Rafiki, a twenty-five year old that led a large troop popular with tourists, was atoned for with a prison statement when the poacher turned himself in.
“We carry these” John motioned to his gun, “to protect the gorillas from poachers. Perhaps we might see an elephant in the forest or an unfriendly gorilla, we might shoot in the air to warn it”.
He then went into specifics about the meanings of the gorilla names.
Exiting the country was quite an adventure as the bridge collapsed over a river near Masaka. Motorbikes ported items that shouldn’t be carried in such fashion like tied live chickens held on rods or bleating goats. Buses held very religious messages of God or of Allah. For a nation with such food issues, I saw miles and miles of unused colorful produce that sat idlily on roadside stands. I wondered why or how a nation could have so many orphans. Babies carried babies, that was the prevailing image of the country in my mind.
Uganda has the youngest population in the world, one of the fastest growing worldwide. The mystery of time will tell if its wild secrets survive or pass fighting to defend their last remaining holdouts. The majority of human populations won’t care if the mysterious whispers of the jungle stand the test of time. As we push for progress and our own survival the wonders of the world fall to the wayside.