Mountain Gorilla

June 16, 2013 by  

Mountain Gorilla, A mountain gorilla in Bwindi Impenetrable National Park IT HAPPENED in a flash: The gorilla hurtled through the trees and made a beeline for me. I froze as several hundred pounds of primate thundered my way. But instead of attacking, Kalembezi, a juvenile, lightly nipped my leg and disappeared into the thick vegetation.

Robin Kawakami braved safari ants and stinging nettles to track mountain gorillas in their native habitat in Bwindi Impenetrable National Park in southwestern Uganda. She joins Lunch Break with her story. Photo: David S. Lee.

Peals of laughter broke out behind me as I tried to process what had happened. Our guide, Obed Tukwasibwe, who tracks gorillas for a living and had witnessed Kalembezi’s antics before, could hardly contain his delight. “He is the mischievous one,” he exclaimed, as I tried to play down my alarm.

Mountain gorillas are highly social creatures and among the world’s largest primates. Naturalist Dian Fossey famously studied them in Rwanda. And they are now so endangered that they can only be found in three places: Rwanda, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Uganda. (Mountain gorillas don’t fare well in captivity; the ones found in zoos are mostly the lowland variety.) Kalembezi’s home is Bwindi Impenetrable National Park, an 80,000-acre rain forest reserve in southwestern Uganda where about 400 mountain gorillas-nearly half the world’s population-live.

The mountain gorilla’s dwindling numbers are in part a reflection of their volatile homeland. War, rebellion and political unrest have all led to habitat destruction and the killings of game wardens and gorillas. But today Uganda is stable and relatively safe-and tourist numbers are on the rise, with visitors doubling to over a million from 2006 to 2011, according to the Uganda Bureau of Statistics.

Still, reaching the misty mountains of Bwindi is neither easy nor cheap. My husband, David, and I took multiple long-haul flights, rode for hours over dirt roads in a four-wheel-drive vehicle and paid $500 each for permits to hike through a hilly, humid, hazard-filled forest in search of these special creatures-and, if we found them, to spend just an hour in their company.

“The shortest trek took 10 minutes,” one of the Bwindi wardens told us on the day we visited the park. Most were far longer, he said, trying to set expectations for our group. Two women we were hiking with had spent 14 hours the previous day searching for gorillas.

“’The silverback’s coming down!’ our guide warned. ‘Stay together.’”

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