One of the main reasons for my trip to Uganda last November was to study and observe wild mountain gorillas, a species rated Critically Endangered by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) and facing a very high risk of extinction. Two distinct populations of mountain gorillas can be found in the world. One is located in the Virunga volcanic mountains, spread across three National Parks: Mgahinga, in south-west Uganda; Volcanoes, in north-west Rwanda; and Virunga in the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). The second is found in Uganda’s Bwindi Impenetrable National Park, and it was here that I spent time back in November.
At just 330 square kilometres, Bwindi Impenetrable National Park is a modestly sized reserve surrounded on all sides by intense small-scale agriculture. Remarkably this relatively small National Park hosts almost half of the world’s wild mountain gorillas, with 400 individuals spread across 20 groups. The rich rainforest environment also hosts over 120 different mammal species and 350 bird species. Of the 20 mountain gorilla groups, 9 are habituated to the presence of humans, meaning they can usually be approached without being scared off. The number of visitors is strictly controlled (maximum of 72 permits per day) in order to help protect the gorillas and their environment.
On the day of our gorilla trekking we set off early in the morning with our guide. We were looking for the Oruzogo group, one of the 9 gorilla groups who are habituated to the presence of humans. The dominant alpha Silver back of the Oruzogo group is Bakwate (which translates as “Attacker” or “Getter”), the name coming from his main strength : when he wants something done he’ll make sure it happens. The group also includes another Silverback, Kaganga (which translates as “big”) who is second in command. He doesn’t have any real authority within the group but when Bakwate eventually dies Kaganga is next in line to take over as the dominant alpha. The group also consists of a number of females, as well as younger gorillas, and there is one Black back (not yet fully matured male). When the black back will mature and feels strong enough, he may challenge Bakwate to take over as the dominant male, or he’ll split from the group and form a new one with those who are loyal to him, or he’ll find another group in the forest and challenge the alpha of that group.
We were told that the gorilla tracking could take anything up to 9 hours, depending on where the gorillas were located and how quickly they move on. The Bwindi Impenetrable Forest is extremely dense (hence it’s name) and features very steep slopes. Prepared for a long trek I was somewhat surprised when we found the group within about 10 minutes of setting off. They were feeding in and around an Omu Jeje tree about 30 metres down the steep slope from where we’d set off. I slowly and carefully made my way down to within about 3 metres of the tree they were sitting in, sat back onto the ground and quietly observed the group as they fed. Simply amazing.
In the above recording we hear Bakwate, the dominant alpha Silver back, vocalising with two of females of the group. The three gorillas had been eating bark in the Omu Jeje tree when Bakwate started to grunt. Once we had arrived back at the lodge I asked our guide about the vocalisations we’d heard. He explained to me that Bakwate had decided he’d eaten enough. As he started to climb down, he vocalised to the females to say he’d eaten enough and was going to leave the tree, but he wanted to be alone. The females replied with grunts saying “ok” and remained in the tree.
Just after the vocalisations Bakwate climbed down to the ground and as he walked off he actually passed right in front of me (literally within a metre of where I was sitting). I had such a rush of adrenaline when he walked passed. We had been told the Oruzogo gorilla group are very passive when humans are present, but it’s still a crazy moment when a massive silver back gorilla walks right passed you. It was such an incredible experience to witness these beautiful animals in the wild. Throughout my time in their presence I could feel their power, not only physical strength but also the aura they carry around them as they move.
We stayed for about an hour observing Oruzogo group, and throughout this time there were plenty of interesting sounds to record! Mountain gorillas are 99% vegetarian with their diet mainly consisting of fruits, leaves, bark and soft stems. The remaining 1% of their diet consists of ants, which they often find on the underside of tree bark. With this type of diet, they are extremely flatulent. I was really surprised when I first heard one of the gorillas fart, but as you can hear in the recording below this wasn’t just a one off event. They are extremely flatulent!
It was such a fantastic experience to have spent time with the mountain gorillas in Bwindi Impenetrable National Park. This species is dangerously close to extinction and I feel lucky to have had the chance to see how they live and to have recorded them in the wild. I’m happy to say I was very impressed with the amount of effort going into conservation projects in and around Bwindi. We spent a lot of time visiting local villages as well as a number of schools. The young generation seem very aware of the importance of preserving mountain gorillas, as well as other animals and the forest itself, for future generations. This is mainly achieved through learning programs.
We spent some time with one such initiative that is doing a great job of helping to teach young people about conserving gorillas. The Pedal Powered Cinema was created by The Great Apes Film Association (GAFI) who collaborated with Electric Pedals to create the world’s first pedal-powered field cinema. They travel to villages around central Africa, most often to places where there is no electricity, and project conservation films powered by peddling on bicycles. Most of those who come to watch the films have never seen a moving image in their life. I personally took part in setting up one of these projections in a tiny village not far from Ruhija and was amazed at just how conscious the children were of the importance of preserving mountain gorillas. This is just one example of many local initiatives doing great things to help preserve this amazing species, the mountain gorilla.