Monday 14th March, news breaks that three of Virunga’s rangers had been killed at the hands of poachers, whilst protecting Mountain Gorillas. The world’s largest primate.
Furthermore, a forth ranger had been killed a few weeks earlier in the Democratic Republic of Congo.
Just a week earlier, I was in the area working on a project documenting the life of Mountain Gorillas.
The Rushegura Group based in Bwindi Impenetrable National Park, Uganda. During which, I quickly understood why people risk death and dedicate their lives to protecting the 880 individuals that remain.
“The world human population is now over 7 billion, yet our closest great ape relatives are on the brink of extinction“
Human populations are now over 7 billion. However, our closest great ape relatives are on the brink of extinction.
Furthermore, Mountain Gorillas are confined to a tiny, cold, wet and misty area, 10,000 feet above sea level around the Ugandan, Rwandan and Democratic Republic of Congo borders.
Living alongside some of the highest human population densities with the lowest adult life spans and standards of living worldwide.
Ultimately, human poverty and civil unrest is their greatest threat.
Mountain gorillas face habitat loss from deforestation as the farming of land is expanded. Poacher’s snares set for other animals such as antelopes, diseases transmitted by humans, and poaching for the gorilla infant trade. All of which are all still major threats to gorilla populations.
Coming face to face for the first time with a Mountain Gorilla is an experience like no other.
The glare of a Silverback is enough to send shivers down your spine, yet in a weird, comforting and loving way.
He has a huge task. Most likely the hardest in nature. To protect, guide and grow his family against the dangerous elements of the mountains and poachers who want nothing more than trophies for a sick and vile crime.
When American primatologist and anthropologist Dian Fossey started her 18-year study of Mountain Gorilla groups, world populations were as low as 270.
Although numbers have increased to near 800 since her murder, the Mountain Gorilla is still very much an endangered species.
“It was Digit and he was gone. The mutilated body, head and hands hacked off for grisly trophies, lay limp in the brush like a bloody sack.” – Dian Fossey”
Recent research has shown that the Bwindi gorilla’s diet is patently higher in fruit than that of the Virunga population and that the Bwindi gorillas. Furthermore, silverbacks, are more likely to climb trees to feed on foliage, fruits and other plants. In fact, during some months, Bwindi gorilla diet is very similar to that of Bwindi chimpanzees.
It was also found that Bwindi gorillas travel further per day. In particular on days when feeding primarily on fruit. Additionally, Bwindi gorillas are much more likely to build their nests higher up as they nearly always use a small sheltered tree.
Initially, habituating Gorillas for tourism was actually opposed by Dian Fossey, However, it is now seen as vital revenue for protection.
A process that started in Bwindi with the Mubare group in 1993, there are currently 7 groups now habituated. The others are the Habinyanja, Nkuringo, Nshongi, Bitukura, Kyaguriro and Rushegura; the group we visited. A group which sometimes wanders out of Uganda and into DR Congo.
We started our trek, chaperoned by trackers, guides, armed guards, porters and our head guide, Rita. Through the thick undergrowth, we passed through a local village, where the children played in the banana plantations and the local doctor was selling natural healers from his mud hut.
I stopped to take in the battle local farmers have with the gorillas ruining crops and land.
I spoke to a gentleman who worked with the Uganda Wildlife Authority on the issue. He explained that they work closely with local people on projects that suit all involved. Resulting in the villagers now coming to realise the importance of the gorillas and furthermore show respect and love having these amazing great apes in their region.
Gorilla trekking is not easy and can be a long uphill struggle, literally.
You are sweating and panting, crawling and clambering your way along slippery paths and precipitous mountain tracks.
Very soon you realise the dark, wet Impenetrable Forest is aptly named.
Rita radios through to the rangers, who were already with the gorillas, she turned to us with a smile, “We are close”.
We turn one last corner and the view that faces us is a young 4-year-old 500 metres away sat high in the tallest of trees around.
As we approach we are told to grab what we need and leave our bags and belongings behind and take one last sip of liquid before we become part of the family up ahead.
You can continue reading my story with mountain gorillas by purchasing my book – 98% Human (coming soon).