From its top to its tail, Uganda is rife with national parks. Chimpanzees play in the shadow of the snow-capped Rwenzori Mountains, elephants drink from the gushing waterfalls of Murchison Falls National Park, and lions and Ugandan cobb graze on the beautiful savannah grasslands of Queen Elizabeth National Park.
delve deeper into the country’s southwestern corner, and you will find a
different type of creature. Here, in the depths of the Bwindi
Impenetrable National Park, half of the world’s remaining wild mountain
gorillas roam free, and you can trek through their disappearing habitat to see them
at work, rest and play.
2012 marks the 50th anniversary of Uganda’s independence from British rule, and
to help safeguard the country’s environmental future, a number of government initiatives
have been pushed to the top of the political agenda. Coordinated patrols to
curb poaching are increasing, and benefit sharing schemes -- including the
sharing of tourism revenue with local communities -- have been rolled out.
72 trekking permits are issued each day by the Ugandan Wildlife Authority, and each must
be applied for through a registered safari operator. But staring in June, the
Ugandan Wildlife Authority is expected to follow the Rwandan government in
increasing the permit rate from $500 to $750 per person. While it is a fiercely
debated political topic in Kampala, the capital of Uganda, many hope the move
will help further restrict human-gorilla interactions and raise funds to
protect the park’s boundaries from encroaching farm lands and ever resilient
similar DNA to humans, gorillas are highly susceptible to illness, and even
catching a common cold could wipe out an entire group. Park visitors must keep
a minimum distance of seven metres from the animals at all times, and visits are
limited to one hour in the company of one of three habituated families.
of these restrictions, the future of this critically-endangered creature looks
bright. Following decades of illegal deforestation and poaching, the number of
gorillas at Bwindi has steadied at around 340, and for the first time in years,
it is very slowly on the rise.
gorilla tracking is no stroll in the park. It can take anywhere up to 10 hours
to find the elusive creatures in the dense undergrowth. Guides lead trekkers up
precipitous verges and across rivers, and rusty machetes are used to hack paths
through the thick, thorny rainforest. It is the perfect place to live out a
childhood Tarzan fantasy, with vast swathes of trees, vines, branches and
bushes surrounding trekkers as they penetrate deep into the rainforest.
begin with an early morning safety briefing. Depending on gorilla movements, you
can spend a morning anywhere within the park’s 331sqkm forest with either the
Mubare gorilla family, the Habinyanja or the Rushegura group. The biggest is
the Rushegura, a 12-strong group of habituated gorillas, including what is
believed to be the world’s largest silverback, named Mwirima and weighing nearly
his family troop is Karungi, Nyamunwa, Kibande, Nyampazi, Ruterana, Kalembezi,
Buzinza and several young males, including a couple of babies. Each is so named
because of their individual markings in the local Ugandan language. Their broad
shoulders look menacing but their eyes show wariness and they are incredibly shy.
Though the woods are dense and thick, the gorillas leave behind muddy prints
the size of baseball mitts, and are easier to spot than you may think. Wherever
their leader Mriwima goes, they follow, leaving battered trees with broken
limbs and chewed pieces of bark and bamboo in their path.
what is it like seeing a wild gorilla only a few metres away? Well, at first,
there may be a fluster in the trees or a violent shake in the canopy above your
head. Then there may be a bang and a clatter, or a snapped branch and dark
shapes plummeting into a clearing in front of you. Expect your adrenaline
levels to rocket and, in the warm, thin air, you will realise that cowering in
front of an oncoming silverback is not something you could ever get used to.
The article 'Gorillas in the mix in Uganda' was published in partnership with Lonely Planet.