If you ever have the opportunity to look into the eyes of a gorilla, you will instinctively know that that these unique creatures deserve our efforts to save them - Howard G. Buffet, Threatened Kingdom: The Story of the mountain gorilla
I cannot begin to explain just how true that statement is.
This past Saturday, I had the opportunity to visit the mountain gorillas in their natural habitat. I was with a colleague, Valerie and my boss Julie.
We were at the park headquarters by 7am, the required time. From there, you are divided into groups and told which group of gorillas you will visit.
Gorillas are divided into two broad categories, mountain gorillas and lowland gorillas. Their names are explanatory, it’s where they live. The mountain gorillas are an endangered group, there are only about 700 mountain gorillas in the whole wide world! Imagine that. There are about 10billion people (or thereof) and only 700 of these gorillas.
They eat a lot; an adult mountain gorilla can weigh up to 250Kg. They survive on bamboo and vegetation found in forests, and we all know how everyday, forests are being cleared for farming, and trees are cut down for charcoal, firewood etc. This is the reason why conserving these forests is so important to animals that live there.
Did you know that a mountain gorilla can survive for a whole year without drinking water? That’s because the vegetation they eat contains a lot of water.
The mountain gorillas can only be found in Uganda, Rwanda and Congo. These three countries coordinate their conservation efforts and the results have been significant. The number of mountain gorillas has been slowly increasing.
Gorillas live in families (or groups) and there are trackers that keep track of where each family is. So that morning, we were to visit the Amahoro family. Amahoro means peace. Our guide, Hope (that’s his name!) talked to the trackers via a 2-way radio as we trekked through the forest, going higher and higher up the mountains.
The forest was dense but there was a beaten path which we followed. The narrow path was blocked here and there by bushes, including sting nettles (you know those plants that sting?) Gorillas eat that, and even in the Czech Republic, they are eaten as vegetables.
A gorilla family is led by a large male, consists of a few other males, many females and a number of children. All the females belong to the lead male, so usually the other subordinate males leave the group to start their own families. Males mature around the age of 10-12, and the fur on their back turns silver. Hence they are known as the silverbacks. Females don’t turn silver though.
A newborn gorillas weighs just 1.4 to 2Kgs, half of the weight of a human at birth. They are totally dependent on the mother and begins to crawl at about 2 months of age and at 4 months, it will begin riding on its mother’s back.
Young gorillas, between the ages of 3 and 4, are very playful. “They are little balls of black fur with punk rock hairdos and perpetually astonished expressions..” to quote from the book, Threatened Kingdom: The story of the mountain gorilla by Buffet/IGCP. They are called juveniles and play tag, wrestle and tickle while the males guard the family against danger and the females take care of young ones.
On Saturday, the juveniles kept rolling and rolling towards where we were, and we couldn’t move away fast enough! I remember I fell down and landed right next to them (we are encouraged to keep a distance of 7m, so as not to transmit any diseases to them.) I moved away slowly.
I was told however, that these were tourist gorillas. They are so used to people and clicking cameras, they acted as if we weren’t there. The juveniles though, did were curious and would stop wrestling each other to stare at us and then they’d lie in the grass and stretch out and bask in the lovely morning sunlight.
The trek down the mountainside was easier…we were coming down following a familiar path. There was a park warden who walked with us, carrying a gun, in case we met any hostile forest elephants or buffaloes. We didn’t, though we saw here and there fresh buffalo dung.
There are also other animals that live in the forests; like the Bushbuck but we were not lucky to see any. We only spent an hour with the gorillas as per regulations and trekked back down the mountain.
Watching these gorillas was worth every penny. It’s 500 USD for foreigners, 200 USD for East Africans and 40USD for Rwandans.
P.S. All photos courtesy of Art of Conservation