MEET­INGS OF MINDS

If more moun­tain go­ril­las be­come used to tourists the apes might have a brighter fu­ture, but they have to get used to peo­ple on their terms. Sue Watt re­ports.

BBC Wildlife Magazine - - Opinion -

There’s noth­ing quite like the majesty and sheer dig­nity of moun­tain go­ril­las. The gaze of their soul­ful brown eyes sends shivers down your spine. En­coun­ter­ing th­ese great apes in their re­mote rain­for­est home­land in Rwanda, Uganda and the Demo­cratic Repub­lic of the Congo is per­haps the ul­ti­mate wildlife-watch­ing ex­pe­ri­ence.

Kany­onyi, sil­ver­back of the Mubare go­rilla group in Bwindi Na­tional Park, is no ex­cep­tion. Fred Nizey­i­mana knows him well, de­scrib­ing him as “young and charis­matic, but a dar­ing fighter” who fre­quently raids other go­rilla groups for their fe­males. The field vet for the Go­rilla Doc­tors project in Bwindi, Fred has treated this pri­mate Lothario for life-threat­en­ing in­juries sus­tained in skir­mishes with other sil­ver­backs. It’s hard to rec­on­cile Kany­onyi the fighter with the calm, seem­ingly docile, ape that am­bles non­cha­lantly past me – al­most close enough to touch.

BOUNC­ING BACK

Moun­tain go­ril­las have be­come one of Africa’s great­est con­ser­va­tion suc­cess sto­ries. In the mid-1980s, renowned pri­ma­tol­o­gist Dian Fossey es­ti­mated that only 250 in­di­vid­u­als re­mained, their rapid de­cline the re­sult of habi­tat loss and ex­ten­sive poach­ing. To­day they num­ber around 880 (though are still classed as Crit­i­cally En­dan­gered). Moun­tain go­ril­las, Go­rilla beringei beringei – one of the east­ern go­rilla’s two sub­species – have an av­er­age life­span of 35 years and live in troops of up to 30 led by a dom­i­nant sil­ver­back, so-called due to the broad band of hair across their backs de­not­ing sex­ual ma­tu­rity.

Kany­onyi’s fam­ily, the Mubare group, were the first to be ha­bit­u­ated to hu­mans in 1993 when moun­tain go­rilla tourism be­gan in Bwindi, a dense for­est span­ning 321km2 of western Uganda. Around 400 go­ril­las now roam Bwindi’s rain­for­est, with 12 of its 36 groups fully ha­bit­u­ated for track­ing. A max­i­mum of eight tourists visit each group for one pre­cious hour a day.

But a new four-hour go­rilla ex­pe­ri­ence of­fers vis­i­tors an ex­tra­or­di­nary in­sight into the com­plex­i­ties of fa­mil­iaris­ing go­ril­las to peo­ple, track­ing two semi-ha­bit­u­ated groups used to their track­ers and rangers, but not to strangers. And this ex­pe­ri­ence, which I’m on, is very dif­fer­ent…

First, we track the Mubare. For two hours, we walk swiftly along muddy paths to join track­ers who have al­ready lo­cated our go­ril­las. A bliss­ful scene greets us: Kany­onyi looks to­tally chilled as he munches stalks and stems. Moth­ers keep a watch­ful eye on three tod­dlers

play­ing a game of jun­gle tag, and even new mum Mi­tunu shows lit­tle con­cern as we take pho­tos of her gently cud­dling her nine-month-old baby.

Be­fore­hand, at our brief­ing in Uganda Wildlife Au­thor­ity (UWA) head­quar­ters in Buhoma, we were given strict in­struc­tions: “Keep at least 7m from the go­ril­las and turn away if you want to cough or sneeze.” Go­ril­las share 98 per cent of our hu­man DNA but none of our im­mu­nity to the germs we carry; a com­mon cold could kill them. But as Kany­onyi demon­strated in our close en­counter, go­ril­las are obliv­i­ous to the rules.

THE TOURISM EF­FECT

Although tourism has been a sig­nif­i­cant fac­tor in go­rilla con­ser­va­tion, it also adds to their vul­ner­a­bil­ity be­cause of their sus­cep­ti­bil­ity to hu­man in­fec­tions. In DR Congo, it is manda­tory for tourists to wear face masks when they en­counter moun­tain go­ril­las, but there are no such re­quire­ments in Uganda or Rwanda. “Re­cently, res­pi­ra­tory in­fec­tions have been fre­quent in Bwindi,” Fred tells me. “We’re un­der­tak­ing re­search to es­tab­lish whether they are of hu­man ori­gin.”

Gla­dys Kalema-Ziku­soka, UWA’s first wildlife vet and founder of an NGO called Con­ser­va­tion Through Pub­lic Health, sits on the Mask Task Force, a trans­bound­ary ini­tia­tive be­tween the three coun­tries. “Wear­ing masks pro­tects go­ril­las from hu­man dis­eases,” she ex­plains. “Some sides want masks and some don’t, be­cause they feel it would put tourists off. I hope that they will be ap­proved even­tu­ally.”

Trop­i­cal field bi­ol­o­gist, con­ser­va­tion­ist and go­rilla ex­pert Ian Red­mond be­lieves the jury is still out. “We must min­imise the risk of droplet in­fec­tion to an im­muno­log­i­cally naive pop­u­la­tion,” he tells me. “But

MOUN­TAIN GO­RIL­LAS HAVE BE­COME ONE OF AFRICA’S GREAT­EST CON­SER­VA­TION SUC­CESS STO­RIES.

keep­ing them that way also presents a risk, be­cause one day a flu virus will get through and the im­pact might just be greater. Any non-lethal ex­po­sure to novel pathogens ac­tu­ally strength­ens the im­mune sys­tem.”

It’s a com­plex is­sue. “Fid­dling with a mask de­tracts slightly from the some­times very mov­ing ex­pe­ri­ence of meet­ing go­ril­las in their nat­u­ral habi­tat for the first time,” Ian ad­mits. “For years, some ape-view­ing sites have re­quired mask use and oth­ers have not. It seems log­i­cal to com­pare in­ci­dences of sus­pected dis­ease trans­mis­sion in both sites to es­tab­lish whether mask-wear­ing ac­tu­ally makes a dif­fer­ence and keeps the apes safer.”

Bwindi’s new ex­pe­ri­ence track­ing the two semi­ha­bit­u­ated groups is limited to only four vis­i­tors, and in­volves a lesser risk of close prox­im­ity to the go­ril­las. Yet, it af­fords a deeper, more im­mer­sive and edgier en­counter with our clos­est cousins. Pon­tious Ezuma, UWA’s Con­ser­va­tion Area Man­ager, ex­plains the think­ing be­hind it. “Nor­mally, track­ers have al­ready found the go­ril­las and tourists just have their hour and leave,” he says. “We re­alised that vis­i­tors were miss­ing out on pre­lim­i­nar­ies such as go­rilla be­hav­iour, what their nests look like, how we find their trail. All this was be­ing lost…”

HABITUATING GO­RIL­LAS

It takes about three years to fully ha­bit­u­ate a troop of go­ril­las. Hav­ing iden­ti­fied a suit­able group, usu­ally of 10– 20, track­ers fol­low them ev­ery day. At first, they just ‘talk’ to the go­ril­las, vo­cal­is­ing their 12 main sounds, but stay out of sight: wild go­ril­las can be par­tic­u­larly ag­gres­sive and will charge if they feel threat­ened. Grad­u­ally, the track­ers let the go­ril­las see them and over time, get closer, stay­ing longer in their com­pany un­til they’re even­tu­ally ac­cepted. Then, it’s time to in­tro­duce dif­fer­ent peo­ple – and this is where vis­i­tors play their part.

At 7am we set off from Rushaga in Bwindi’s south­ern sec­tor to track ack the Bikingi group, which is about 18 months into the ha­bit­u­a­tion bit­u­a­tion process. To­gether with our al­limpor­tant track­ers, we walk past sham­bas (plots) of crops and ba­nanaa plants, through pine trees and eu­ca­lyp­tus

with Rwanda’s Virunga Vol­ca­noes in the dis­tance. As we enter the park, the habi­tat changes dra­mat­i­cally. “Now you see why they used to call it im­pen­e­tra­ble,” our guide Au­gus­tine Muhangi laughs as we bat­tle through dense jun­gle, net­tles and bram­bles, with roots and vines seem­ingly grab­bing at our an­kles.

We walk to where they left the Bikingi group the pre­vi­ous day and, from there, our four-hour count­down starts. Learn­ing all about track­ing, we look for bent veg­e­ta­tion and bro­ken plants, piles of leaves and stalks, knuckle prints and drop­pings, fol­low­ing our go­ril­las’ trail un­til a pun­gent smell of urine per­vades the for­est. Mounds of leaves and branches are perched on top of shrubs: we’ve reached their nests.

“Ev­ery adult makes a new nest ev­ery night,” Ge­of­frey Twino­muhangi, Bwindi’s As­sis­tant War­den, tells me. “We learn so much from them, like how many in­di­vid­u­als we’re fol­low­ing, who they are and whether they’re healthy. The sil­ver­back and black­back can be iden­ti­fied from hairs on the nest; ba­bies al­ways sleep with their mums. And we check their poo for signs of ill-health.”

RECORD­ING THE EV­I­DENCE

Sam­ples of hair and fae­ces are col­lected for anal­y­sis, bagged and recorded on data sheets. “This is prob­a­bly Rushenya, our sil­ver­back,” Au­gus­tine says, point­ing to a gi­ant turd. Seem­ingly, most sil­ver­backs’ drop­pings mea­sure 5–7cm in di­am­e­ter. This one mea­sures an eye-wa­ter­ing 8cm. “He’s a big boy!” Au­gus­tine smiles, proud of the 26-year-old that he per­son­ally named. Rushenya means ‘de­stroyer’, so­called be­cause of his im­mense size and the fact that he breaks ev­ery­thing around him.

“They prob­a­bly left the nests around an hour ago,” he com­ments as we fol­low the go­ril­las’ fresh morn­ing trails. We lis­ten for their vo­cal­is­ing, smell

TRACK­ERS FOL­LOW EV­ERY DAY BUT STAY OUT OF SIGHT. WILD GO­RIL­LAS CAN BE AG­GRES­SIVE AND CHARGE IF THEY FEEL THREAT­ENED.

the air for fresh fae­ces and look all around us un­til we see our first go­rilla high up in a tree. She rushes down, dis­ap­pear­ing into the un­der­growth. Fol­low­ing the sounds of break­ing branches, we soon find her and her tiny baby with Rushenya about 15m away from us, sit­ting on a nar­row path and bask­ing in the sun.

I’m stunned by Rushenya’s size. Even for a sil­ver­back, he’s huge, weigh­ing in at around 250kg, while most are 200–220kg. I’m stunned, too, by his quiet com­po­sure – he doesn’t seem re­motely both­ered by our pres­ence. “That’s be­cause they could see us com­ing,” Au­gus­tine ex­plains.

TALK­ING TO THE AN­I­MALS

I start vo­cal­is­ing to our group in quiet coughs that sig­nify con­tent­ment, hop­ing they’ll ac­cept us. It feels ut­terly sur­real to hear Rushenya re­ply in sim­i­lar gut­tural rum­bles. To our right, a more high-pitched “mmm mmm” noise em­anates from a fe­male go­rilla. Au­gus­tine trans­lates. “That means she’s ap­pre­ci­at­ing her food, telling the oth­ers it’s good there.”

On av­er­age, go­ril­las, pre­dom­i­nantly vege­tar­i­ans, eat up to 25kg a day in be­tween tak­ing naps and wan­der­ing a dis­tance of about 1km from their pre­vi­ous night’s nest to their new abode. Daily move­ments de­pend on the avail­abil­ity of food and their safety: if other go­rilla groups or for­est ele­phants are around, they move on fast.

As Rushenya takes his mid-morn­ing nap, two tod­dlers crawl onto his back and a mum curls up next to him for pro­tec­tion, her baby’s tiny fin­gers just vis­i­ble on her shoul­der. With 24 mem­bers in the en­tire Bikingi group and a feed­ing range of dense for­est, it’s prov­ing quite a chal­lenge to ha­bit­u­ate. Ev­ery in­di­vid­ual has to be re­laxed with strangers at a dis­tance of 7m and ba­bies are nor­mally the first to re­lax, get­ting cu­ri­ous and mov­ing closer to track­ers: this hasn’t yet hap­pened with Bikingi.

When Rushenya awakes re­freshed and hun­gry, he moves rapidly, grab­bing at tree fun­gus, leaves and stems. The point of ha­bit­u­a­tion is to stay in con­stant sight of the

BBC Wildlife go­ril­las and grad­u­ally move closer so that they be­come com­fort­able with peo­ple. Fol­low­ing him as if our lives de­pend on it, we slowly inch nearer un­til we achieve our ob­jec­tive: he is just 7m away.

Af­ter two and a half mag­i­cal hours with the Bikingi group, our time is al­most up. They stop in a clear­ing and all seems calm. Sud­denly, the fe­male with the baby ap­pears, tum­bling down­hill be­tween Rushenya and me. He rushes to­wards me as I crouch down, ter­ri­fied but avert­ing my eyes as I’d been briefed. His re­ac­tions still un­pre­dictable, he stops, shouts “uh uh” loudly, and waits – then slowly moves away. “He’s just warn­ing us to stay away from the baby,” Au­gus­tine re­as­sures me.

Ex­hausted but ex­hil­a­rated, we re­luc­tantly head back to Rushaga, learn­ing on the way that Bwindi has been ex­pe­ri­enc­ing a baby boom, with 29 hav­ing been born in ha­bit­u­ated groups alone in the past two years.

Africa’s great­est con­ser­va­tion suc­cess story con­tin­ues to go from strength to strength.

SUE WATT

DAILY MOVE­MENTS DE­PEND ON THE AVAIL­ABIL­ITY OF FOOD AND SAFETY: IF OTHER GO­RILLA GROUPS ARE AROUND THEY MOVE ON FAST.

Clock­wise from above: moun­tain go­ril­las spend a great deal of time in the tree­tops; ba­bies cling to their moth­ers for the first four years; field vet Fred Nizey­i­mana; a sign show­ing how to pre­vent germs spread­ing.

Go­ril­las have a mainly veg­e­tar­ian diet, in­clud­ing stems, bam­boo shoots and fruit. Right: new­borns weigh about 1.8 kg at birth. Go­ril­las can be found in dense rain­for­est if you know the signs to look for.

Above: a tourist group and their track­ers wear masks to ob­serve a sil­ver­back go­rilla in Virunga Na­tional Park, Demo­cratic Repub­lic of the Congo.

Rushenya, the mas­sive sil­ver­back of the semi-ha­bit­u­ated Bikingi group.

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