AS I STARE INTO THE EYES of a 400-plus-pound silverback, I feel like we are sharing a Zen moment. The male mountain gorilla reclines in the leafy brush while a few babies cause a ruckus playing in the treetops overhead. Paying no attention, he closes his eyes and dozes off, not bothered by their antics or our small group of tourists. Every so often he checks the nails on his weathered hands, rolls over and goes back to sleep.
The youngsters continue swinging in the trees, putting on a show. Around the corner moms, babies and teenagers appear as in awe of us as we are of them. One of the juveniles shows off his dance moves, twirling in circles until he is so dizzy he falls.
“He’s drunk on heliconia leaves,” John, our lead guide, says. Playing it up for the camera, the little dancer poses for photos and then wrestles with another juvenile in front of his audience. Behind the dancing gorilla, an even tinier baby mimics his actions. We see a mom nursing another infant and several other females tending to their young. We sit and watch as the family allows us into its world without hesitation.
We are with the Oruzogo family group of habituated mountain gorillas in Uganda’s Bwindi Impenetrable National Park. Lying in the Ruhija east sector of the park, the family has been open to tourist visits since late 2011. Named after a common plant locally known as Oruzogoto, the habituation of Oruzogo group began in December 2009. At the time of my visit, the family had 17 members including three silverbacks, five babies and two juveniles.
Bwindi, also called “The Place of Darkness” due to its misty slopes and dense treetops, is home to more than half the 1,000 mountain gorillas left in the world. This ancient, montane and lowland forest spans 128 square miles and was named a UNESCO World Heritage site thanks to its biodiversity and the large number of endangered species it supports.
Gorilla trekking in the thick vegetation is unpredictable as far as how long tourists have to hike to get to the family they are visiting, though rangers head out well in advance to track where the families are located each day.
Our adventure began with a 20-minute drive to the start of a trail. We were all prepared for a slog with multiple water bottles, heavy trekking boots and full daypacks. The first porter cleared the trail with the whoosh of a machete hacking the underbrush. Then, not even 15 minutes from the start, we found the Oruzogo family ready and waiting for a soulenriching hour of primate bonding and entertainment.
Mountain gorillas, which today number about 1,000 total — up from 300 in 1960 — only live in Bwindi and along the dormant volcanic Virunga mountain range, which stretches across Rwanda’s Volcanoes National Park, Uganda’s 13-square-mile Mgahinga Gorilla National Park and Virunga National Park in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Though they are still endangered, they remain the only great apes with an increasing population, thanks mainly to tourism dollars, which in turn prompted local governments to help protect them.
“In the 1980s the population was declining, and the thought was they would be extinct by 2000,” says Tara Stoinski, president and CEO, Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund, the world’s longest-running and largest organization dedicated solely to gorilla conservation.
In 1967 the American zoologist Dian Fossey, who had been doing research on mountain gorillas in the forests of Congo, fled from political insecurity and established her research base in what is now the Karisoke Research Center in Rwanda. Her conservation campaign of the mountain gorillas and fight against poaching in this area ultimately ended in her murder in 1985. She was buried at the research center next to the grave of her favorite gorilla, Digit.
Today the Fossey Fund is building a new gorilla conservation center in Rwanda, to be named the Ellen DeGeneres Campus of the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund, which will house the 50-year-old Karisoke Research Center. It will also include traditional and living laboratories, classrooms for training and public education, meeting spaces, a library and computer lab, an interactive public exhibit and housing for visiting researchers. The new campus, a 60th-birthday gift from DeGeneres’ wife, Portia de Rossi, is slated for a 2021 opening.
Ugandan native Praveen Moman, who founded Volcanoes Safaris, which offers lodging near the gorilla trekking areas, says, “Controlling the amount of tourism is important.” The maximum time with the gorillas in both countries is one hour, and the maximum number of people at a time is eight.
Permits for one visit in Uganda cost $600, while a gorilla visit in Rwanda is $1,500, with money in each country going back to the surrounding communities. In the Democratic Republic of the Congo, the price is $400 per person.
More than 20 years ago Moman started Volcanoes Safaris, the first company to set up simple camps in the areas around the gorilla parks in Uganda — at Mgahinga, the Batwa Culture and Hiking Lodge, and at Bwindi, the Jungle Gorilla Lodge. A major upgrade program throughout 2017 transformed them into luxury lodges.
In 2000 Volcanoes Safaris became the first international safari company to take clients to Rwanda and opened Virunga Lodge in 2004, offering a luxury gorilla experience.
Meanwhile, the Sabyinyo Silverback Lodge, in the foothills of the Virunga Mountains of Rwanda, and Clouds Mountain Gorilla Lodge, outside of Bwindi, are community-owned tourist lodges that benefit the local people as well by generating income through tourism.
Uganda Info to Go
The main entry point for flights into Uganda is Entebbe International Airport, located near the town of Entebbe. From Entebbe, it is about an eight- to ninehour drive to Bwindi. Another option is to fly domestically to the North or South End of Bwindi Impenetrable Forest.
The drive from Entebbe to Mgahinga is about nine hours. An alternative is to fly to Kigali, Rwanda (KGL), and make the three-hour drive from there, plus time for the border crossing.
Rwanda’s Volcanoes National Park lies in a small village called Musanze, about a two-hour drive from Kigali International Airport and Rwanda’s capital of Kigali.
Visitors to Virunga National Park usually fly into Kigali International Airport and take the three-plus-hour taxi to the Grand Barrier border, crossing from Gisenyi, Rwanda, to Goma, Democratic Republic of the Congo.
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