For what seemed like an entire month Mark and I debated what we should do with our final week in Africa — climb Mt. Kilimanjaro or see gorillas in Uganda. We only know two people who have gone gorilla trekking but both enthusiastically recommended it, and given that we were relatively close and already had plenty of hiking planned, we decided to give it a go.
There are only 880 mountain gorillas left in the world, all of which are wild as efforts to keep them in captivity have failed. The entire population resides in a small pocket of southern Uganda and northern Rwanda. Mountain gorillas are considered critically endangered but, believe it or not, the families that have been habituated to human visitors are increasing in numbers. This is because armed scouts spend a lot of time with the gorillas thwarting poachers. They also provide veterinary services for gorillas trapped in snares. The $700 price tag for a trekking permit is steep but it does seem to have the intended consequence of helping the animals. In addition to poaching, habitat loss contributed to the animals’ dwindling numbers but park land is now being reclaimed with the trekking proceeds.
We chose to trek through the aptly named Bwindi Impenetrable Forest where 8 gorilla families have been habituated to humans. The forest is old — it survived the last ice age and somehow feels that way. It’s also strangely tropical even though it’s surrounded by sunny farmland. Straight, dense, mahogany trees shoot up the steep landscape and birds abound.
Part of me was terrified of the gorillas. I was in their territory with no protective glass to keep them at bay. But after two hours of intense hiking we met up with the scout and saw our first gorilla. It didn’t react to our presence and kept munching on leaves. The only gorillas that scampered away were mothers with babies in tow. With the rest of the gorillas we could get surprisingly close; at one point I was eight feet away from one. There were 19 gorillas in the family we visited, including a 500 pound alpha male and at least one silverback. We spent an hour with the gorillas and followed them through a ravine, marveling at their agility.
Mountain gorillas are not territorial. They are always on the move and create new makeshift shelters each night. We’re lucky to have seen them. Who knows how much longer the opportunity will last.