Fear and excitement: My 45- minute experience of tracking gorillas

When feeding, the dominant silverback separates itself from the rest of the family to colonise his feeding territory. PHOTO/ ROLAND. D. NASASIRA 

What you need to know:

  • “Gorillas are unpredictable and make movements depending on food and other factors. We walked through a farm, a tea plantation and made our way to the thick, hilly forest of Bwindi. We were armed with walking sticks, water, rain jackets and tracking shoes.”

Amonth ago, seven friends and I embarked on a tour to two national parks in Uganda; Bwindi Impenetrable and Queen Elizabeth. Our first stopover was Buhoma Town in Kanungu District in western Uganda. 

Buhoma is home to Bwindi Impenetrable National Park headquarters. Apart from hiking Sarambwe hills, another activity on our itinerary was gorilla tracking at Bwindi.  
We were informed by a friend, Julius, at Buhoma, who helped us book accommodation, that we needed to be at the park by 8am for general gorilla tracking briefing. Our hotel room was about 200 metres from the park. By 7:45am, we had already signed in the park’s visitor’s book.    

During the briefing, we were informed that Bwindi Impenetrable Forest occupies 331 square kilometres and has 160 tree species.  The park is shared by Uganda, Rwanda and DR Congo. 

The park is home to 1, 063 gorillas; Bwindi alone accommodates 459 gorillas while Rwanda and Congo share 604, some of which are habituated and others are non-habituated. 

The habituated families distributed in different park corners and tracked on a daily basis are 23. The difference between habituated and non-habituated gorillas is that the former lost their sense of fear for human beings. 

The latter or non-habituated, have never seen people and are very aggressive because they think humans harm them. When you get close, they charge at you or run away.   

Six gorilla families
Buhoma is located in the northern part of the park that is home to six gorilla families, one of which is Binyindo that I and my friends were meant to track. 

Lamech Mande, the ranger guide for the day, told us that gorillas are named according to behaviour, features and where they were born. For Binyindo, the shape of the nose of one of the male gorillas changed, because of the scar that was inflicted on it during a fight, thus its name. 

The family was named Binyindo and it currently has nine gorillas; Binyindo has the dominant male silverback with silvery hair on the back, five females, two juveniles and one infant. 

A silverback forms its own family. The group could have one or two. Sometimes they fight for leadership. The one who wins becomes the leader of that family. 

The defeated silverback isolates itself for some time and later returns to the famiy. 

The tracking 
A tracking team had moved ahead of us. 

According to Mande, trackers monitor gorillas the whole day by critically observing their behaviour, health status and make a report at the end of the day.

From Buhoma, we drove for an hour to the starting point, where we parked the cars. After walking through a farm and a tea plantation for a distance of 500 metres, we made our way to the thick forest of Bwindi.   

We were armed with walking sticks, water, snacks, rain jackets and tracking shoes with spikes. Some places where gorillas move are hilly. They are unpredictable, especially with time and make movements depending on food and other factors. 

Walking sticks help clear the way, the reason the park is known as an impenetrable forest. We were accompanied by armed rangers for safety because the park has aggressive elephants.  

Our guests arrive
After 45 minutes of patiently tracking, we finally chanced on gorillas feeding. Mande advised us to wear our face masks, turn off camera flashes and leave walking sticks behind to avoid scaring gorillas away. We stood at a distance of 10 metres from the gorillas. 

“If it comes close and touches you, do not touch it. Move backwards and maintain a safe distance. When coughing or sneezing, turn away. Eating and smoking are not allowed. This interrupts with gorilla’s behaviour,” Mande emphasised.  

He also cautioned us that before a gorilla becomes aggressive, it warns. Habituated gorillas charge at a tourist they get closer to. When tourists are in big numbers, gorillas get stressed and aggressive.

“When they charge, stand still, avoid eye contact and look down. Be submissive and talk to them in their language by bleating internally without opening your mouth. They will calm down and feel you are part of them and start feeding. Step back slowly until you have created a safe distance for them to settle,” Mande adds.

When we finally met the Binyindo gorilla family, eight members were feeding in trees, except the silverback that was feeding in an open place. This was the first time in my life I had been close to gorillas. I was worried they would run after us. 

Fear creeps in
As we quietly moved closer to gorillas, they jumped from one tree to another as the silverback fed on lower thickets. For a moment, it would feed on leaves and in another, sit to watch us take photos of him from a distance.  We were not allowed to feed or play with them. When Binyindo was satisfied, he sat in one position for most of the one hour, as he observed his family members. 

As the Binyindo family fed going deeper into the forest, our time was up. We walked back through the forest using the same route. We drove back to Buhoma at about 1pm to rest throughout the rest of the day. On our itinerary on the tourism sites to visit in western Uganda, we had knocked Bwindi off the list. 

The first was Mgahinga Gorilla National park. Our next destination was Queen Elizabeth national park in Kasese District, approximately 180km by murrum road, away from Buhoma, a distance that required fresh energy the next day.     

Facts about gorillas
The life expectancy of a gorilla is between 45 and 50 years. Females live longer than males because males must feed their families and protect them from intruders. 

A grown silverback weighs between 180 and 190 kilogrammes. If all conditions favour them and feed healthy with no enemies to fight, they can live beyond 50 years. All males develop the silvery hair at 15 years. 

When feeding, a silverback separates itself from the rest of its family members. They do not want to compete for food and they use it as a mechanism to colonise their feeding area.

Other than gorillas, other primates and animals in the park include chimpanzees, monkey species such as black and white colobus, red tail and silvery monkeys, previously known as blue monkeys, elephants, black fronted dickers and the yellow barked dicker antelopes, forest hogs and 350 bird species.   

The cost of gorilla tracking permits for Ugandans and East Africans is Shs250,000 and Shs2.6m for foreign nationals as long as you have a valid national ID or passport. 

You have to book at the UWA reservation office in Kampala or at the park headquarters or at different entry points of the park. When gorillas are satisfied and you are watching them, they can sit for long time.