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.
But 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.
October 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.
Only 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 poachers.
Having 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.
Because 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.
But 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.
Treks 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 200kg.
In 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.
So 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.