Uganda: Silverback Gorillas
Updated: Oct 12, 2020
"A mind that is stretched by a new experience can never go back to its old dimensions."
Oliver Wendell Holmes
My husband and I had looked forward to our visit to the Bwindi Impenetrable Nationa Park in southwestern Uganda but nothing could have prepared us for what we were yet to experience!
The wildlife in this park draws thousands of visitors each day. It is also the location of the endangered silverback mountain gorillas which have literally put this developing country and little village of Bwindi on the map.
For those who have not been following my previous blog entries of Uganda, let me reiterate. The Bwindi Impenetrable National Park is located in southwestern Uganda. This diverse national park is comprised of 124 square miles of lowland and dense forest only accessible on foot. It is a sanctuary for mammals (especially monkeys and chimpanzees), for hundreds of species of birds (hornbill and turacos) and butterflies, frogs, geckos, chameleons but most notably for the silverback mountain gorillas. This park has more than 1,000 flowering plant species and trees, ferns and to say it is "lush" is much understated.
We met with a guide who gave us very specific rules to follow before we took our hike into the dense oasis. He explained that trackers go ahead of each group and scout where the gorillas are located that day. From friends we know who have taken this same trek to see the gorillas, we were prepared for a 5 to 6 hour hike. Were were encouraged to hire porters to help us along the way so if we needed assistance, the porter would literally carry us out because there are parts of the trail that are very hard to walk. One friend actually had to be carried down the mountain due to exhaustion when her legs gave out. We were told to wear good hiking shoes amd bring hiking poles and enough water to sustain us for the entire day if needed. We were excited and prepared and, of course, I had my camera slung over my shoulder.
Before our trek our guide explained more about the gorillas. There are about 400+ in this area so we were really hopeful we would not be disappointed. Another guide armed with a rifle would lead the way in case we were to encounter a problem and was prepared to shoot in the air if gorillas became threatening or got too close. We looked at each other, gave the high sign and enthusiastically said, "We're ready!"
The Uganda Wildlife Authority has developed rules to help protect the health of the gorillas, limiting each group of no more than 8 tourists to a single 60 minute visit and to maintain a distance of 7 meters (about 8 feet) from gorillas at all times. Along with our group were several other guides and porters to assist the hikers. We were pumped with excitement as we anticipated our trek.
It was early morning and the air was chilly when we started walking into a very lush rain forest of plants and trees. The trunks of the trees were covered with moss and the plants were vibrant and green with morning dew on the leaves. It was breathtakingly beautiful and what I would have imagined the Garden of Eden to be like.
We walked along this creek and then came to a place to cross. As I looked across the stream and was surprised to see silverback gorillas in the bushes on the other side. To say the least, my heart jumped a beat!
I grabbed my camera and starting taking photos.
When our guide saw that the gorillas were so close by, he told us to hurry and cross the stream so we could follow them before they scampered away.
The rocks were slippery and I was so glad to have a walking stick and a porter to help me from falling in the water as I crossed. We couldn't believe we had already encountered gorillas because some tourists hike a full day without ever seeing one.
By the time the people in our group had crossed the creek, the gorillas had moved but we knew they had to be close by so our adrenalin was pumping! To have walked less than fifteen minutes and already seen silverback gorillas was pretty unbelievable!
About 11,000 tourists visit Uganda each year to see the gorillas. In 2012, Uganda had earned six hundred million through tourism with 90% of that from gorilla tourism. (Now I understand better why everything was so expensive!)
As we were walking along our guide said, "I just heard the fart of a gorilla". We were chuckling about that when suddenly we saw a gorilla lying in the bushes. She was on her back and staring upward into the trees and completely oblivious we were so close.
Before we realized it, gorillas were swinging above us in the trees and coming down the tree trunks.
Our guide instructed us to stand like a fence, not move and just watch silently.
When the mama gorilla sat up and turned around, her back was silver which identified her as a mature adult. She was enormous and much larger than we had thought. She looked docile and certainly didn't seem threatened by us.
Gorillas do not turn grey until the age of 15. A gorilla's day is synchronized and divided between rest periods and travel or feeding periods. They move around by "knuckle-walking" although sometimes walk uprightly for short distances while carrying food.
We could hardly believe our eyes! We were about 15 feet away so I asked one of the people in our group to take a photo to document the moment. To say the least, we were thrilled!
A male silverback can reach up to 7 feet in height and weigh 400 pounds while adult females weigh 150 - 250 pounds. Adult male gorillas have an armspan of 7-1/2 to 8-1/2 feet while adult females are shorter and have a shorter armspan. Gorillas are threatened by poachers who kill them for meat so rangers are hired to protect them and safeguard their habitat.
Suddenly other gorillas came out of the woods and were walking around us but we stood still and didn't dare move as we soaked up the whole experience.
The gorillas seemed oblivious we were so close and kept looking up into the trees and we wondered why?
In a few minutes, it began to rain heavily in one small area right where I was standing. Oops, that was not rain but gorilla urine falling down from high up in the tree. Then suddenly we heard a "plop, plop" and it's not too hard to figure that one out. I was very happy to be wearing a hat and a rain jacket! It was then we realized that the mama gorilla was looking for her baby.
Before we knew it, more and more gorillas were sliding down from the tops of the tree trunks with little effort. It was such a thrill to be standing so close and abserving all of this. We were not afraid because we had armed guides there to protect us in case a gorilla decided to take a swap or bite out of someone. I realize I keep repeating the same expletives over and over again but this truly was a once-in-a-lifetime experience.
We stood in awe as mama gorilla continued to look up into the trees, probably searching for her baby. Once in a while she would make monkey-type sounds in the effort to communicate. I would imagine she might be saying, "Baby, I can't see you. Don't go too far away."
Our guide said that gorillas construct nests for daytime and night use. Their nests are made from branches and leaves about 2 to 5 feet in diameter and constructed individually. Gorillas tend to sleep on the ground whereas chimpanzees sleep in trees. The young nurse and stay close to their mothers but by 12 months will move up to 16 feet away from their mothers. The young nest with their mothers but after the age of three leave to live on their own in the jungle.
The DNA of a gorilla is highly similar to that of a human and are the next closest living relatives to humans after the chimpanzee. Gorillas live up to 35 - 40 years of age and adults range in size from 300 to 400 pounds. A female gorilla can have babies around the age of 10 and the gestation is 8.5 months. Silverback gorillas that live in the Bwindi rain forest eat mostly foliage such as leaves, stems, pitch and shoots, while fruit makes up a very small part of their diets.
Gorillas rarely drink water because they consume succulent vegetation that is comprised of almost half water as well as morning dew. Gorillas live in groups called troops. Troops tend to be made of one adult male or silverback with multiple adult females and their offspring. The silverback is the center of the troop's attention, making all the decisions, mediating conflicts, determining movements of the group, leading the others to feeding sites and taking responsibility of safety and well-being of the troop. Females form strong relationships with males to gain protection from pedators and for mating. Fraternal females in a troop tend to be friendly towards each other and associate closely.
Smaller gorillas kept coming down the tree trunks and they were all around us. In the meantime, I was frantically trying to take photos without causing a distraction. It was exciting to see how agile these huge animals were. This must have been a troop of gorillas that came out of the tree tops and wandered off into another part of the forest.
The guides in the preserve know the names of each gorilla. They track them and make sure they are safe and healthy. In the meantime, the mama gorilla continued to lay on her back, scratch herself and seemed completely undisturbed by our presence. At this point, a few of us felt safe enough to ease closer to take photos.
In the meantime, she kept looking up toward the trees for her baby and never moved from her bed of leaves. She looked like she wouldn't hurt a flea but when she yawned we saw her gigantic teeth and we gasped! Her long canines certainly brought things into proper perspective and we realized she could bite off a hand or kill any of us in an instant.
Garth was amazed at the length of her canine teeth and we both commented she needed a visit to the local hygienist! LOL
As we were watching the mama gorilla intently, we didn't realize a big daddy gorilla was coming directly toward us. He was huge and we actually felt a little threatened. Immediately our guide said,"Form a front" and we all stood still like trees not knowing what might happen next.
He came closer and closer and then another came down from the tree tops and were within just a few feet all around us and we stood frozen in our tracks!
We watched and didn't dare move.
Right then another daddy gorilla came through the trees and brushed right up against Garth's pant leg as he walked by. Geez, Louise!! All along Garth had said he wanted to touch a gorilla but never in his wildest imagination would have thought that a gorilla would touch him!! Right then he said, "That was one of the greatest experiences of my life!"
After almost an hour, our guide decided we should follow the gorillas back across the stream.
Before we crossed to the other side of the stream we saw a baby gorilla crossing.
As we looked back, we saw this mama gorilla with her baby crossing the stream on a tree branch. Baby gorillas stay close and nurse their mothers until they are about 18 months of age.
The baby jumped on it's mama's back as they continued to cross on the tree trunk.
We continued to follow the gorillas to the other side and watched the babies frolicking along by the stream while a mama gorilla sat and supervised. The babies were rolling around in the grass and making gorilla sounds. Once in a while they would stop and beat on their chests. Our guide said a gorilla does that when he is happy and hearing this, we were happy too! We could have sat there all day but rules are strict so that others can also have this experience.
Time passed quickly and and before we knew it, it was time to leave and return to camp but our experience was one we shall never forget in this lifetime.
Dr. Seuss said, "Oh the places you'll go."
Indeed, the places we have gone have made our lives richer. Don't ever be afraid to explore and as you do you'll discover a dream you never thought was possible.
We took the trail back, took a quick rest and after a little lunch, we met our guide, Alexander, who was planning to take us on a walking tour to the surrounding village and to visit the pygmie village at the top of the mountain. What a day!
TO BE CONTINUED . . . a visit to the pygmies.