BWINDI'S IMPENETRABLE FOREST, Uganda —Leaning back on a tree limb, the 700-pound silverback gorilla lazily snapped a branch and stuffed leaves into his mouth. High in a tree, an almost-as-huge female gorilla screeched encouragement to a baby swinging from a vine in the dense forest. Seconds after spotting a group of human visitors, a young male gorilla harrumphed proudly, jumped down to the ground and strode within an arm’s length of the people.
Welcome to one of the world’s most thrilling wildlife adventures. Deep in the Ugandan rain forest, tiny groups of tourists get the unforgettable chance to see, hear, and smell endangered mountain gorillas in their home. It’s an experience few will ever forget.
Peer through the dense underbrush at the majestic gorillas — some of just 720 left in the world — from just a few feet away. Watch as they play with one another or suckle their young. Most amazing of all, look into their eyes and they look back, displaying the common heritage that make them man’s closest relative, sharing 98% of our genetic makeup.
The gorillas live in family troops of about a dozen each, high above the village of Bwindi near the border with Rwanda. They are untamed, but rangers have “habituated” them to accept human visitors for an hour a day, a limit that is enforced by a guide with a stopwatch. Just 32 tourists are lucky enough to obtain a permit to track four separate troops of gorillas.
At $500 a pop, the permits are not cheap, and they don’t include the costs of spending at least two nights at a lodge near Bwindi, up to a ten-hour ride from the capital Kampala. Few complain about the costs, especially since the revenues are a key source of income for Ugandan wildlife authorities who track the majestic animals and protect them from poachers.
Tens of thousands of mountain gorillas once lived in the forests of central Africa. They have been pushed to the brink of extinction by a brutal combination of poaching and relentless encroachment on their natural habitat.
The gorillas also had the misfortune to live in one of the world’s most notorious conflict zones. Hundreds were slaughtered during the Idi Amin era in Uganda and the genocide in neighboring Rwanda. Rebel groups are still fighting in the Democratic Republic of Congo, making it impossible for tourists to track gorillas there.
In Uganda, years of peace and stability have helped the gorillas thrive. Many visitors plan an entire weeklong safaris around the one day they get a chance to track the gorillas. Luckily, almost all get a chance to see what they came for.
Even though the gorillas roam freely in the rainforest, they rarely move far from day to day. Depending on the season and other factors, the gorillas might be as close as a 10-minute hike or a half-day trek from the main camp.
The first leg is a lung-emptying climb up the mountain, punctuated by breathtaking vistas across the mist-enshrouded forests. Led by machete-swinging guides, the next task is to carve a path to the general area where trackers believe the gorillas might be.
Then, in an instant, they are right in front of you, swinging from the trees and perched in the limbs of a small clearing. The silverback is the unquestioned star of the troop, and he knows it. Gazing over at the humans, he strikes a languid pose, while other younger males play in the trees and females tend to the young. Minutes after we arrived, a drenching rain started falling, sending the gorillas scrambling for cover in the bushes below. Rangers warned our group to stay still if the gorillas started to move — and sure enough, one soon lumbered forward with a load roar. It came so close, I could have touched it, and then it was gone into the bush. Scary? No. Exhilarating? Absolutely!!