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On trail of vanishing species

By Greg Dardagan

Kampala, Uganda - We invaded their jungle world, sporting walking sticks and wearing hiking boots. They didn’t seem perturbed.

In the heart of the jungle we found what we were searching for  mountain gorillas, majestic creatures that took our breath away.The foyer of the Serena Hotel in KampalaOnwards to the forestGet up close and personal with the glossy black mountain gorillas in the rainforests of Uganda.

Then we cut down their greenery – their bread and butter – for better access. They took little notice. They stopped and stared for ages. It didn’t appear to bother them.

We took scores of photographs at close range. No problem.

The mountain gorillas of the Bwindi Impenetrable Forest in Uganda are inscrutable. They are jewels of the jungle that envelopes parts of the country as well as neighbouring Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

Sadly, the central African jungles are threatened – as are the world’s last remaining mountain gorillas that inhabit them – by man’s encroachment in all its invasive forms. To rescue the gorillas, the jungles must be saved and the tsunami of poachers stopped.

The challenges are distressing, disturbing.

A venture into Bwindi had been planned as the highlight of our three-week east African escapade. It exceeded that billing, leaving my wife and I once again touched by the spirit of Africa that at times is so strong it sucks one into a whirlwind of emotions, spiralling higher and higher, eventually letting you down breathless – body, mind and soul overwhelmed.

We used the Serena Hotel in Kampala as our springboard for the gorilla tracking adventure. The hotel has a strong African theme, with distinctive murals, sculptures and figurines.

Tastefully furnished rooms have comfy king-size beds, free internet access and large balconies that overlook the splendid gardens and water fountains below and give a spectacular view of downtown Kampala and surrounds.

There are three reasonably priced restaurants to choose from, a health centre, a fully equipped gym and an unusual pool area, all supported by efficient staff.

The 500km-plus drive from Kampala to Bwindi took a long, hard, bone-crunching 11 hours. There were hectic roadworks and a surfeit of speed humps to disrupt the trip. Jungle Safaris Africa took us there in a robust 4x4, which eased the pain substantially.

When the drive along the main route ended, it was sudden. We turned on to a dirt road and almost immediately were in another world.

Up hills and into valleys, the journey left us perched us about 1 800 metres above sea level, looking down on sheer drops into mist-filled jungle-type vegetation. It was exciting, attention-grabbing stuff – but the best of times lay ahead.

After a good night’s sleep at the Wagtail Eco Cottages, we were up at sparrow’s dart for a short drive to one of Bwindi’s gorilla tracking launch pads.

Armed with some local knowledge, thanks to a presentation by a forest officer, our party of eight – us and a six-strong German tour group – went down into the jungle accompanied by armed rangers and porters (who doubled as trail assistants) bearing our bags. In my now fantasy-filled mind, I imagined ourselves as a sort of modern exploration expedition following in the footsteps of those great 19th century adventurers, Henry Morton Stanley and David Livingstone.

I resisted beating my wobbly chest and letting out a Tarzan-type yell as I manoeuvred myself rather clumsily along a narrow path into the “unknown”. The steep hike down – and back up – was testing. Long walking sticks gave support and there were enough rest stops to assist those taking strain.

As we descended eventually to the floor of the jungle, my exhaustion evaporated in the mist and amazing vegetation. It was, as I had hoped, proving to be an experience of a lifetime.

Without warning, the rangers told us to stop and arm ourselves with cameras, extra lenses, binoculars – whatever we needed to capture the moment.

Then we saw our first gorilla, against a tree. As we excitedly gathered around, the young silverback rolled over on to his stomach, munching jungle juice delights.

We stood, stared, and edged closer as rangers cut away view-obstructing vegetation for us with their pangas.

We fired at almost point-blank range, the clicks from our cameras deafening in the still of the jungle morning.

The gorilla appeared oblivious to our presence, yawning, eating, rolling around and occasionally scratching his bottom.

He looked in excellent physical shape, apart from battle scars that rangers said were from a series of fights with others of his ilk.

Further into the forest, we came across two females with three youngsters who entertained us with their playful antics. The human characteristics they displayed at times were amazing, almost unnerving.

Again we clambered all over the place without having any noticeable impact on the animals’ behaviour or mood – it was almost as if we weren’t there.

But the best was waiting in the wings.

Without out any fuss, bother or theatrics, the dominant silverback appeared alongside us, a big guy with a powerful back and chest,and scars to prove he had fought and won his crown as the mainape in the family of 14 we were with.

We watched as he ate choice selections from the vegetation around him, every now and then letting out a deep throaty rumble, apparently their method of communication. Whenever he moved off, the others followed… and so did we.

Often he would fix his beady eyes on one of us. The missing communication link was speech.

It was transfixing stuff, more than I had hoped for.

Our time was soon up and the rangers moved us away from the area.

We trudged back to the top filled with a satisfying realisation that we had been privileged to enter the gorillas’ world.

Within days we would be back at our work duties in Durban, but memories of the experience of being in the jungle among a family of mountain gorillas will remain with us for ever.

If You Go...

Gorilla facts

Gorillas in the wild are naturally afraid of humans and will flee or charge if people get too close.

Gorillas in the Bwindi Impenetrable Forest in Uganda have become habituated, which is a process whereby through daily peaceful contact with humans, the animals have slowly lost their fear of people and learnt to accept them as neutral beings in the environment.

Habituating a group of gorillas takes between two and three years. The guidelines established for tourist visits have been developed to respect the special relationship created through habituation whereby gorillas briefly allow people into their world.

A typical group of gorillas comprises about10 members, including dominant male silverbacks, several females and youngsters. Groups range in size from two to 30 or more and may include two or more silverbacks who are brothers, half-brothers or a father and son.

All male gorillas become silverbacks at about14 years of age, but not all males become group leaders. Females have their first babies at about 10 years old and the gestation period is about eight and a half months. About one in three babies does not survive beyond the age of three.

Gorillas may live into their early 40s, while silverbacks may be dominant for 10 or more years and sire 10 or more offspring.

Mountain gorillas are vegetarians and critically endangered, the main threats being habitat destruction, poaching, and disease. There are only about 700 of them left, spread among Rwanda, Uganda and the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Ugandan Wildlife authorities estimate there are about 300 gorillas in Bwindi, a World Heritage Site of about 335km² surrounded by some of the most densely populated rural districts in the world.

The forest is vulnerable to denuding through the illegal harvesting of trees or other vegetation. Although people around Bwindi do not eat primates as bush meat, poachers set snares for forest antelope that may trap gorillas. Ugandan authorities report an increase in recent years in poaching for the pet trade.

Disease increases significantly with contact with humans. A limited number of permits, at $500 each (R4 178), are offered each day for tourists to track the gorillas, while tour groups are restricted to eight members, with just over an hour allowed in close proximity with the primates. - Saturday Star

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