Gorilla Tracking in Uganda — Part II: Intense Encounters

Posted on November 7, 2013 by

Have you read Part I of this story? Hop over to learn more about gorillas first then continue to read about my experience tracking them in Uganda…

A loud grunting sound suddenly echoes through the jungle. With the trackers in the lead, we move downhill, past moss-covered logs and over thick ferns, towards a clearing.

There, an enormous silverback sits regally, as if on his throne, munching his way through leaves and branches, blithely ignoring our presence.

Through the dangling vines and banana leaves, I can see a patch of shiny silver fur on his lower back, shimmering under the sunlight. This gorilla is clearly much more sizable than the pair of teenagers we just saw. He is much bigger than I imagined. We stand in a horizontal line, moving cautiously and quietly, striving for a better view. He sees us, but continues to chow down branches by the kilos.

The eyes of the silverback

“This silverback is called Kakono because of his crippled right hand,” Benjamin introduces us to the leader of the Bwenza gorilla family. “There is usually just one silverback in each family, although when he dies, the next alpha male replaces him. Silverbacks can weigh around 200kg and live up to 50 years of age.”

Benjamin and the trackers know every single member of the habituated gorilla families by name and identify each of them by their personality and physical traits. The trackers have been working in Bwindi Forest since the national park was gazetted in 1991. Every morning, they head out one hour in advance to track the gorillas. They then convey their location to the guide through the radio. Every habituated gorilla in the park is thus monitored closely by the rangers and trackers.

There, an enormous silverback sits regally, as if on his throne, munching his way through leaves and branches, blithely ignoring our presence.

The silverback just before it was about to charge

After feasting on a whole cluster of vegetation, the silverback lazily thrusts his backside into the air and stands on all fours to face us. Now he appears a lot more intimidating than before. We unanimously take small steps backwards. Benjamin shouts, “Don’t move!”

The silverback starts moving towards one of our group mates who happens to be pointing his SLR camera and massive lens right at the gorilla. He stays completely still while we all hold our breathes and pray for him silently, fearing that the gorilla might charge at any minute. Thankfully, the trackers raise their comparatively pathetic fists in the air and the silverback stops in his tracks, glares at us, then begrudgingly retreats behind a tree. We all let out a huge sigh of relief, overwhelmed by the intense moment.

The silverback

Too Close for Comfort

We continue to trek up the muddy slopes, this time further deeper into the jungle and higher up steep moss-covered slopes. According to Benjamin, the Bwenza gorilla family has 10 members — but besides the pair of young lovers and the silverback, the rest has yet to make an appearance.

Then a sudden thrashing above our heads sends my pulse leaping — is a gorilla about to pounce on us? He leaps and bounces off the canopy, just inches away from us, and disappears into the distance.

Then a sudden thrashing above our heads sends my pulse leaping — is a gorilla about to pounce on us?

However, within moments, another young gorilla follows his trail. This time, a female gorilla charges at one of the trackers, raising her fists in the air and shattering the silence with her shrieking. Our tracker somehow stands his ground and swings his machete in all directions, visibly scared. The hefty gorilla stops in her tracks a couple of feet away and stands staring at us. Her stare is an intense and scary one, as though she wants us out.

Benjamin announces then, “Your hour is up, it’s time to leave.” It feels like the shortest hour of my life, and yet, it’s been an intense and exhilarating hour. It’s time to go, and the gorillas clearly know that.

The female gorilla after it calms down
the female gorilla sitting still

Tips on Gorilla Tracking:

Don’t forget that even though these mountain gorillas have been habituated, they are still considered wild animals – you are not in the zoo. Respect their environment and their behavior. According to our guide, there has never been an accident of a gorilla attack in Bwindi National Park.

Here are some general guidelines and  tips to keep in mind when tracking gorillas:

  • Don’t go gorilla tracking if you’re sick – you can easily pass your illness to the gorillas; a gorilla’s life is more important  than your experience. If you sneeze or cough, turn your head away from the gorillas so as not to spread your germs.
  • Follow your guide’s instructions and signals . Don’t move too close and don’t run from a gorilla – if one approaches you just act submissive and crouch down.
  • You are only allowed one hour with the gorillas so make the most of it and remember to put down your camera and take time to appreciate being in the presence of these wild animals.
  •  Even if you’re fit and don’t need help, it might be a good idea to hire a porter. By paying $15-20 for a porter, you’re supporting both the local community and gorilla conservation.
  • To protect yourself against the nettles and thorny shrubs, it’s advisable to wear a pair of gardening gloves, a long-sleeved lightweight shirt, long quick-dry pants and hiking boots that provide ankle support. Bwindi receives plenty of rainfall so bring a light rain jacket with a hood. Only take essentials in a small backpack – at least 2L of water, camera and packed lunch.
  • For photography enthusiasts, I recommend bringing a long lens (around 300mm) and a mid-range one, preferably on two cameras. It is tricky to change lenses while navigating the hiking trail. I regretted not carrying two cameras! No flash photography.
  • Don’t make too much noise and sudden movements.

How to:

This gorilla tracking experience was offered as an optional excursion by Africa Travel Co on the  24-day Gorillas, Game Parks and Zanzibar trip. The one-day excursion costs US$582 which includes the tracking permit, guide and transfer from Lake Bunyonyi.

It is extremely expensive but once you lock eyes with a gorilla, you’ll know it’s well worth the money. I’ve seen many kinds of wildlife – from penguins in Antarctica to lemurs in Madagascar, and this ranks high on my favorite wildlife experiences.

Gorilla sightings are guaranteed as trackers and rangers closely monitor them to know their locations. You are only allowed one hour with the gorillas, no matter how much time you spent hiking to find them. You may spend anything from 30 minutes to five hours hiking, depending on which family you are assigned to.

Disclaimer: While this trip was made possible by Africa Travel Co, I paid for this gorilla tracking experience myself. All opinions of course are my own.

About Nellie Huang

Nellie Huang is a professional travel writer and blogger with a special interest in off-grid destinations and adventure travel. Her mission is to visit every country in the world. In her quest, she's climbed an active volcano in Iceland, swam with sealions in the Galapagos, built a school in Tanzania, waddled with penguins in Antarctica, crossed into North Korea and drank beer in Palestine.

2 Responses to “Gorilla Tracking in Uganda — Part II: Intense Encounters”

  1. Angela November 8, 2013 3:53 pm #

    Great photos and account of seeing the gorillas. I hope to one day see them.

  2. kristy November 11, 2013 8:25 pm #

    The second and the last photo of the gorilla is what I like from your many shots because he's smiling. Super duper cute.

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