Engaging Journeys, Engaged Journalism

Uganda Ecotourism Trek: Gorillas and Guerillas

Editor’s Note: If the world’s determination to save the imperiled mountain gorillas succeeds, it will be a sustainability success story—what the International Gorilla Conservation Programme refers to as “integrated efforts in enterprise, environment, and equity” based on ecotourism-funded community development work. Ecotourism, which offers economic development options beyond subsistence slash-and-burn agriculture, is generally considered to be the best—if not only—way to save the precariously small mountain gorilla population from extinction.

While it’s true that the most dramatic and horrifying mountain gorilla deaths have been due to poaching and civil war violence, intense human competition is primarily causing the population’s decline, often the case with endangered species. The two main reasons behind the decline of the mountain gorillas are disappearing habitat, as desperately hungry people push their cornfields into the gorillas’ very limited territory, and exposure to human diseases for which the great apes have no immunity. Because they are so closely related to human beings, gorillas can get measles, strep throat, tuberculosis, polio, and even herpes from human contact.

The $500 fee charged for each tourist viewing the mountain gorillas now pumps millions of dollars every year into surrounding local economies. The “gorilla levy” funds national parks and veterinary disease prevention efforts. Communities can also apply for and use these funds to train guides and trackers, develop safe village water supplies, support new local businesses—such as community-owned tourist accommodations—and build secondary schools for girls.

Up the Road board member Roger Lederer, former dean of the CSU Chico School of Natural Sciences and well-known local author and birder, recently returned from a gorilla trek in Uganda and shares that daunting yet very amazing experience.

Uganda Ecotourism Trek: Gorillas and Guerillas

By Roger Lederer

Recently I fulfilled a major wish—seeing mountain gorillas in the wild. There are about 100,000 lowland gorillas living in equatorial Africa but only 790 mountain gorillas, which are restricted to the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Rwanda, and Uganda. My wife, Carol Burr, and I went with three others from Chico (Michael Abruzzo, Janet Brown, and Marcia Moore) to Uganda for a gorilla trek.

After two weeks of traveling 1,800 miles, primarily on dirt roads, we arrived at the day of our trek. There are five groups of gorillas that are habituated to humans. Each trekking group was restricted to eight tourists, eight porters, a guide, and a guard with a machine gun, who said he was there to protect us from elephants, but I think he was there in case of the other guerillas, as we were very close to the Congo. None of us thought we needed a porter because we were only carrying backpacks, but mine, the only female porter, proved invaluable to me, as I’ll explain. The real reason for porters was to spread the wealth around the native community; porters only serve as such twice a month. We tourists each paid $500 for this one-day adventure. The money supports Ugandans and of course helps to protect the gorillas and their shrinking habitat.

After a briefing about what to expect and how to behave, we drove for an hour, met our porters, and started uphill. Wearing a long-sleeved shirt and quick-dry pants in 80-degree heat with 90-plus-percent humidity, I was soaked with sweat after about 30 minutes. We walked past small villages and tiny roadside stands selling souvenirs until we entered the trailhead into aptly named Bwindi Impenetrable National Park. For three and a half hours and three and a half miles we walked up and down and up and down—mostly up—narrow, slippery, and muddy trails lined with dense vegetation. Earlier trekking guides had slashed down small trees in the trail so that there were short, thin, pointed stumps that not only made walking difficult but threatened to impale us like so many punji sticks if we fell. My wonderful porter, Regina, planted her foot behind mine when I started to slip, pushed my butt or back going uphill, pulled me up if she was in front, and carried my two liters of water, which was not enough.

Trackers, who leave three hours before the trekkers, had located the gorillas, which change nesting sites every day (and poop in their previous ones to keep out other groups of gorillas). The trackers radioed our guide, who then took us cross-country on a new trail for the next 45 minutes. We weren’t on solid ground but navigating a maze of large vines a foot or so off the ground. Imagine walking across a very large hammock made of slick wet rope. Swinging, slipping, penetrating the maze with wet feet, falling sideways, we found our walking sticks useless. We were beyond exhausted, panting and sweating profusely, by the time we met the trackers. They pointed to a clearing behind some trees; I expected to see gorillas.

We entered the clearing a few yards ahead, falling and crashing through the vines in the process, but I saw nothing. I thought the gorillas might be 100 yards away in the trees and I just hadn’t spotted them yet. Then, 20 yards away, the brush moved and out popped a young gorilla, maybe 100 pounds. Then another and another and another, five altogether in a ragged line, coming right towards us. The first one came within five feet of me, as did the others. They passed us by, giving us an “oh no, more tourists” look. Then they sat down to eat nettle leaves, all of them only a few yards away from us. The gorillas occasionally checked us out but basically ignored us.

After 30 minutes our guide moved us to the rest of the group in the next clearing a few yards away. There, lying on his back, was a huge silverback gorilla, flanked by three large females. He must have weighed 400 pounds, and stood six feet tall. His head was the size of a basketball. The females were shorter but still weighed about 200 pounds each. There was an adolescent gorilla of maybe 50 pounds and a cute young one about 20 pounds. The adults mostly ignored us, but when the silverback rolled over, yawned, and showed his teeth, I assumed the sprint position. The baby of the bunch looked at us, lolled on his dad, jumped around, and generally did what young animals do—play and look cute. Dad lazily played with him, much like any Sunday afternoon at home.

After our one-hour visit, the legal time limit, we headed back out, up and down and down and up, by a different route. Our group of eight, not counting porters and guides, was scattered and ragged. I had to stop frequently to catch my breath, talking to my porter about her ambitions to be a guide while I leaned on my walking stick. Finally we emerged from the narrow forest trails, but we still had half the distance to go back to our vehicles. And I was very thirsty and out of water. I saw the lead group way ahead and signaled to it. One of the porters ran down to me with water. These guys are in great shape, especially compared to this 70-year-old. After a very steep and treacherous walk I made it out. An hour later the remainder of the group arrived, one woman being supported by two porters. We all made it.

Read more about the plight of the mountain gorillas in the 2007 Smithsonian magazine article Guerillas in Their Midst.”  Find out what’s happening now with mountain gorilla conservation efforts by checking in with ongoing conservation blogs sponsored by Wildlife Direct, a very creative conservation organization founded by Richard Leakey, best known for almost single-handedly saving Kenya’s elephants. Two WD blogs related to mountain gorillas in particular: the Uganda blog Conservation Through Public Health and the Rwanda blog Art for Gorillas. For a sense of just how difficult it is to save the mountain gorillas, see also the website for the Democratic Republic of Congo’s Virunga National Park, where rangers are still killed in the line of duty. Other groups well worth supporting: the International Gorilla Conservation Programme and the Mountain Gorilla Veterinary Project.