Uganda’s gorilla tactics

Uganda's Gorilla Tactics - Gorilla Family in Volcanoes National Park - Rwanda Gorilla Safari

Gorilla Family in Volcanoes National Park

Uganda’s gorilla conservation areas are a big hit with the tourists, as are the pygmy tribes in the Ugandan rainforest. The tourist guides provide some invaluable advice – beware of getting carried away with the fairies, though.

This Article is adopted from BBC’s 2004 Article by Will Ross

If you are not keen on sliding down a hill on your backside, then maybe Bwindi’s impenetrable Forest is not the place for you. But the reward for the bruises and scratches is well worth it.

There is nothing quite like sitting face-to-face with a family of huge mountain gorillas… although there can be a few heart-testing moments.

Softly Softly

“If the gorilla charges towards you, look submissive,” advises Dr Bernard Ssebibe, a vet with the Uganda Wildlife Authority.
“And whatever you do, avoid eye contact”, he adds.

So when one of the large male gorillas, called Africa, rises from his neverending mixed leaf picnic, thumps the ground and then walks towards me beating his chest, I start to attempt my submissive pose – difficult to do when you are operating a video camera.

Think, think. What would David Attenborough do right now? I wonder. Probably give the gorilla a cuddle – but then he has met them before. Fortunately a highly experienced guide – seemingly fluent in gorilla speak – makes a few grunts as though he has got something stuck in his throat, and Africa calms down and slumps back against a tree. He grabs another bunch of leaves to munch on, scratches his chin and then gives himself a brief manicure.

Jungle VIPs

This group is a healthy size, 22 and growing. Among them are two baby gorillas.

Gorillas normally have a single baby but occasionally have twins. Not satisfied with their forest menu, the gorillas have been helping themselves to crops outside the park. Top on the list of specials is the inside of the banana plant. This is not only a pain for the villagers, but the wildlife authority has become extremely worried about the potential disease transmission between humans, their livestock and the gorillas. Judging that it is easier to persuade the people to move, rather than the gorillas, the park authorities sat down with the community bordering the park and agreed to pay out compensation for the land. So the gorillas now have a larger park and open air restaurant, while the people have some extra cash to build a new home further away. But they are not the only ones to have lost their home for the sake of the gorillas.

Duped

Close to the park boundary live some Batwa communities. The Batwa are pygmies, well known for their height, or rather lack of it. In Uganda they used to live in the rainforest, hunting and gathering until the government moved them out in the 1980s. Nowadays the Batwa often get visits – for a small fee – from tourists. Meeting these tourists is at times almost as entertaining as sitting in the forest with the gorillas.

Take Ed Harman, from the US. “Gorillas in the Mist is one of my all-time favourite movies”, Ed tells me. I ask Ed if he would mind giving me an interview on his gorilla trekking experience. He beams enthusiastically and assures me that as soon as he is back from visiting the pygmies, we will talk. Two hours later Ed staggers back into the camp dripping in sweat, his glasses almost falling off his face.

“How was the trip, Ed?” I ask.

“Terrible” he said, ” I thought these pygmies were supposed to be real short, but some of them were as tall as me.”

And so Ed heads back to America feeling as though he has been duped. There has been plenty of intermarrying between the Batwa and other communities – hence Ed’s disappointment. But if the Uganda tourism board wants fully-satisfied American tourists, they’d better make sure the pygmies conform to some specific height requirements.

King of the swingers

The next day I am invited to a naming ceremony for the newborn gorillas. There is to be some traditional music and dancing on the edge of the forest. Head warden, David Kissa, tells me that the gorillas have been known to turn up if they like the music. Fat chance of that, I think to myself. The community plays a major role in the naming ceremony. The idea is to encourage people to take part in gorilla conservation. The message is, if the gorillas are safe and the tourists keep coming, then the people will benefit with the influx of money to the area. And there is some evidence that it is working.

Late last year, the local community helped the Uganda Wildlife Authority foil an attempt to poach a baby gorilla. The poachers were going to get $2,500 (£1,350).

At the ceremony the drums are loud and the singing infectious. Then a grey-bearded village elder in a pink jacket announces the name the community has chosen for the youngest baby gorilla: Rwamutwe, meaning big head. As the dancing begins, I spy a brief flash of black fur in the bushes just 10 metres away.

Mountain gorillas showing up for a party? Ugandan tourism really has reached a new level. Slightly alarmed, I step back, of course remembering to avoid eye contact. Swaying around in the bushes are six or seven gorillas. But there is something not quite right about them. Then a spot of minor mask adjustment gives it all away. These are in fact children dressed up as gorillas and I feel very, very stupid.

From BBC Correspondent – was broadcast on Thursday, 3 June, 2004 at 1100 BST on BBC Radio 4.

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