Visiting Our Closest Relatives in Uganda

If you haven’t already, check out the previous post about the Great Migration in Tanzania.

The main reason why I wanted to visit the country of Uganda is that it is one of the only places in the world where you can view our two closest relatives in the wild, chimpanzees and mountain gorillas. Chimps, being our closest cousins, share 99 percent of our DNA, while mountain gorillas share 98 percent of our DNA. Being able to come face to face with these incredible animals is a truly a once-in-a-lifetime experience, and one that I certainly did not want to miss.

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Mother and baby gorilla at Bwindi Impenetrable Forest

After a 6 hour drive from Entebbe to Kibale National Park, our group set off in search of chimpanzees. In order to find them, we had to walk through a heavily forested area with our necks craned up towards the treetops. Chimps spend most of their time hanging out in trees, as their diet primarily consists of fruits and that is where the ripe ones tend to be found. After about 30 minutes of walking, we spotted our first chimp, and sure enough he was munching happily away on fruit. It was difficult to get a clear view because of the heavy canopy and the fact that he was so high up, but we enjoyed watching him anyway.

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Chimpanzee in the treetops at Kibale National Park

On occasion, the chimps would come down from the trees. At these times, we had to act quickly to get a good view before they disappeared into the bush or climbed up another tree. Sometimes the chimps are social and will come up to visitors, but on this day they were a little shy, so we had our work cut out for us. Any time a chimp would come down to the ground, we moved as quickly as possible to follow it before it disappeared out of sight. This was not easy, since the forest was covered with all kinds of prickly vines and roots that were easy to get caught on or trip over. Everyone in the group was definitely sweating profusely by the end of our visit. All told, we managed to spot around a dozen chimpanzees, although most of them were high up in the treetops. We did catch a few glimpses of chimps on the ground, but these were fleeting since they did not want to stay still or remain there for long. At any rate, it was fascinating to observe our closest relatives face to face in the wild.

That same afternoon, I had an opportunity to visit the nearby Bigodi Wetlands Sanctuary, a community tourism project that is home to at least eight different species of monkeys. Three of these are baboons, vervet monkeys, and blue monkeys, which I had already seen previously in Kenya and Tanzania. However, many of the monkey species in the sanctuary were completely new to me, including black-and-white colobus monkeys, red colobus monkeys, red-tailed monkeys, and grey-cheeked mangabeys. Of these, I think that the black-and-white colobus monkeys are the prettiest, with their stark contrast in colors and their long, luxurious fur. The red colobus monkeys are critically endangered, so the Bigodi Wetlands Sanctuary is one of the few places in the world where they can be observed in large numbers. They are also occasional prey for chimpanzees, whose diet primarily consists of fruit but have been known to feed on monkeys from time to time. Finally, the prize the the coolest tail definitely goes to the red-tailed monkey, who have a very long and very colorful red tail. Aside from the peacefulness of the sanctuary and the excitement of seeing the monkeys, it was cool to have a chance to chat with a member of the local community and to learn about how they live and work. Our guide was a very nice young girl who was studying to be a professional wildlife guide. She was certainly very knowledgeable about all the wildlife that we saw, and I wish her the best of luck in her studies.

The final day in Uganda was the climax of my visit to Africa. This was the day that we would go gorilla tracking in Bwindi Impenetrable Forest. Located in the mountains at around 6000 feet above sea level, Bwindi is a World Heritage site and the only place in the world where you can see three great ape species in one place: gorillas, chimpanzees, and (you guessed it) humans. The gorillas in the park undergo a long process of habituation, which usually takes at least two years. Initially, wild gorillas are fearful of human presence, and will run away at the first sight of them. So over time, gorilla experts will spend more and more time in their presence in order to allow them to become gradually accustomed to the presence of humans. The experts will simply observe them without interacting with them in any way. In this way, gorillas come to see humans as a neutral presence, rather than a negative (e.g., a threat) or a positive one (e.g., offering food). After a family of gorillas has been habituated (which usually occurs after the dominant gorilla, or silverback, has come to accept humans), then they are allowed to be visited by ecotourists. However, visits are restricted to one hour per day per family, in order to minimize the impact on their behavior, as well as reduce the likelihood that human visitors will transmit any diseases to the gorillas.

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Mother gorilla cautiously watching her baby

 

Currently, there are 12 families of gorillas in Bwindi Impenetrable Forest that have been habituated. Each family can travel a few miles per day, so in order to find them as quickly as possible, a ranger notes their location from the previous day. Then early in the morning, a tracker goes into the forest to search for them based on their most recent known location. When our tour guide took our group out into the forest, he was in frequent contact with the tracker, who would communicate when and where he had found them. Each tour group (which consists of a maximum of 8 people) is assigned to a specific gorilla family, and in our case it was the Bweza family, which is known to be one of the most sociable of the gorilla families in Bwindi.

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The silverback gorilla, showing scars from a previous encounter

It’s not uncommon for the gorillas to be located deep within the forest, in which case it can take up to 4 hours of difficult hiking to reach them. However, we happened to get lucky, as after less than one hour of hiking, we spotted the Bweza family at the edge of the forest. When I saw them from a distance, I was amazed. I wanted to stop and observe them; however, we needed to get closer, which involved climbing down a steep, slippery pathway, requiring our full attention. Once we reached the area where they were hanging out for the day, we settled in and I could really enjoy their presence with open-mouthed awe. Out of the group, we saw the silverback (i.e., dominant male), two black backs (juvenile males), at least two adult females, and a baby who was only around two years old. They quietly went about their business of tearing the leaves from trees and eating them, almost oblivious to our presence (despite the fact that we were only a few feet away!)

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One of the female gorillas tearing apart a tree

The most fascinating member of the family was most certainly the baby gorilla, who stayed close to his mother for most of the time. He gazed at us with an intense curiosity, and at one point he approached us and started beating his chest as if to show off! Everyone in our group was cracking up after that adorable display of bravado. Afterwards, he walked up to a nearby stream, put his hand in, and started drinking from it. Even the guide was impressed by this, saying he had never seen gorillas do this before. (Apparently it is unusual for gorillas to drink water, as they typically get all the hydration they need from eating plants). Watching the baby gorilla’s curiosity and excitement, he reminded me of a mischievous human toddler, as the similarity of mannerisms and facial expressions was astonishing.

At one point, one of the black back gorillas who had been resting quietly about 15 feet away got up and started walking towards us. Without even looking in our direction, he walked directly in front of us only a couple of yards away! My heart was racing, as I never dreamed that I would ever be that close to a wild gorilla. If I reached out far enough, I probably could have touched him. I deliberately decided not to take any photos at this moment, as I wanted to fully enjoy and immerse myself in the experience.

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A black back gorilla resting in the leaves

Soon enough, the hour was over almost as quickly as it had began. Although I wanted to stay and observe the amazing creatures longer, I understood why we could not. I stole one last glance over my shoulder as we were walking away. Gazing into the eyes of the gorillas, it’s easy to recognize the profound intelligence and awareness in these creatures. It’s almost like staring into the eyes of an early version of us. To share that unspoken connection between members of another species is something that is almost impossible to put into words. All I can say is, it was one of the most profound experiences during all my travels, and something that everyone should experience once in their lives.

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Straddling two hemispheres

On the long journey back to Entebbe, we stopped for lunch at the equator, where I had the opportunity to stand in both hemispheres at once for the second time in my life (the first time being at Mitad del Mundo in Equador). The few weeks that I spent in East Africa were unforgettable, and rank among my top travel experiences. However, it was time for the 3rd and final leg of my RTW trip, which involved a long 18-hour flight to the Southeast Asian country of Indonesia, where more beautiful nature and unique wildlife experiences awaited me.

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