Sitting here, with a drifting mind, got me thinking... there are so many weird and wonderful places to visit in this world. Traveling to these special places has many advantages, one of which being, the ability to get up close and personal to some of the most fascinating creatures on our planet. Today I'd like to share my story about one animal in particular and explain why I love photographing mountain gorilla in Uganda so very much.
To keep this as short as possible, I'll be dividing my story into three main sections:
- The Journey
- The Species & their Behaviour
- Forced Creativity
Before I get started, read the following paragraph, take a moment to think about this for a little while before continuing your mindful journey with me into the Bwindi Impenetrable forest.
Sometimes we make the process more complicated than we need to. We will never make a journey of a thousand miles by fretting about how long it will take or how hard it will be. We make the journey by taking each day, step by step and then repeating it again and again until we reach our destination.
Right, with that said, gorilla trekking is not the easiest walk in the park, but I sit here trying to find words that would help me accurately describe how incredible the journey through the Bwindi Impenetrable Forest truly is.
Bwindi’s vegetation has been weaving itself into tangles over 25,000 years, and, in the process becoming biologically rich whilst accumulating an extensive species list in the process. Diverse species and it's ecological importance is a feature that the park prides itself on, which is why it became an UNESCO World Heritage Site. In fact, among East African forests, Bwindi has some of the richest populations of trees, small mammals, birds, butterflies, reptiles, and moths. The park’s diverse species are partly a result of the large variations of altitude, habitat types in the park, and may also be because the forest was a refuge for species during glaciations in the Pleistocene epoch.
If you ever find yourself lucky enough to walk in this tall moody forest, you'll feel dwarfed by the trees who's canopies accompany the clouds.
The park’s forests are afromontane, which is a rare vegetation type on the African continent. Located where plain and mountain forests meet at a continuum of low altitude to high altitude primary forests in the park. This is one of the few large tracts of East African forest where this occurs. The park has more than 220 tree species, (more than 50% of Uganda’s tree species) and more than 100 fern species and trust me when I say, it is quite fairytale like. I am not sure if it is just me, but the feeling one gets walking within this forrest and the views you are blessed with are just as exciting as spending time with the large apes that call this truly perfect place home.
Another reason why I absolutely love trekking here is because Bwindi Impenetrable National Park is divided into four sectors. There are various habituated gorilla families in each sector that are open to tourists looking to trek gorilla in Uganda. Not only does it allow you the opportunity to to see different gorilla families along with their different dynamics, characteristics and traits but it also allows for visitors to see different areas of this spectacular forest.
These are the areas where gorilla trekking is done;
- Buhoma Area
This area is found at the forest’s lowest altitude and it’s a less demanding area to carry out the gorilla trekking activity. It was also the first sector to open to tourism in 1993 with the introduction of the first tourists to visit the first ever habituated gorilla family, Mubare family. Two other habituated families of gorilla call this area home and these include, Rushegura family and Habinyanja family. Occasionally these groups have been said to visit the different accommodation facilities in the area including the lodge we use during our Best Of Uganda safari, Buhoma Lodge.
- Ruhija Area
This area is found on the eastern side of the forest at an altitude of 2350 meters and is 1000 meters higher than Buhoma. This beautiful area is home to three families of gorilla which include the Bitahura family, the Oruzongo Family and the Kyaguriro family. This area, besides gorilla trekking, has other activities that can be enjoyed due to its diversity. These activities include great bird and other primate watching and enjoy the tranquility of stunning waterfalls.
- Rushaga Area
This area of Bwindi is located in the southern part of the forest. The area is home to many habituated families namely, Nsongi, Mishaya, Busingye, Kungye and Bweza families. This is a very beautiful, if not the most beautiful sector within Bwindi. While you are traveling towards Rushaga you'll be able to view many stunning volcanoes as well as the deepest crater lake in Africa; Lake Bunyoni. This area full of hills and valleys that will amaze you, often referred to the Switzerland of Uganda.
- Nkuringo Area
As each area holds something very special, Nkuringo is also among the most impressive places with in Bwindi. The area is steep and a bit more demanding to trek however, when you finally come face to face with the habituated gorillas in this area you will certainly accept that it was worthwhile. The only habituated group in this area is named the Nkuringo Family. This family is among the larger groups within Bwindi Impenetrable Forest with a total of 19 members, 1 dominant silverback (male) and 3 other silver-backs. The other activities in this area include treks to the top of the volcanoes and guided walks to the villages.
Apart from the incredible forest and the spectacular animals that call it home, a large part of ones gorilla trekking journey is made up by some of the most beautiful people I have ever met.
The individuals you get meet on these adventures are your gorilla trekking guides who lead you into the forest and share his/her skills and knowledge of the diverse area. The trackers are a team of people that you will only meet a bit later in the day as they set off on foot in the early hours of the morning to track down and relocate the gorilla family we are looking for.
So they basically do the hard job of finding these families in order to make your trekking experience slightly easier. Lastly, and probably most importantly, your porters. Hiring a porter is not a must do but is highly recommended as it offers these locals a positive future as you are the providing much needed work for them. Their main role on this trek is to carry your backpack with all the camera gear, lunch, snacks and water in it. They also stay with you every step of the way to offer you assistance when the terrain gets muddy/slippery, rocky or if there is a big obstacle to climb over. They also do their best to ensure that you are as comfortable as possible throughout the journey by fanning you down if you're feeling warm, or share words of encouragement when you start feeling tired.
I look back to all my gorilla trekking adventures and to this day, am truly grateful for every single person that I got to meet along the way. Their love and passion for what they do, their caring hearts for who they do it for (the forest, the animals within and the guests) is just truly inspirational. They are by some of the most incredible humans I've ever met.
So that about sums but the gorilla trekking journey. Up next;
The Species & Their Behaviour
As you read this today, there are only about a thousand mountain gorillas remaining on earth. A bit more than half of this population live in the Virunga Mountains, a range of extinct volcanoes that border the Democratic Republic of Congo, Rwanda and Uganda. The remainder (about 400 individuals) can be found in the Bwindi Impenetrable National Park, Uganda.
My love for these special creatures is something I find difficult to express. Maybe its because of the intimate encounters one is blessed with when visiting them. It could also be because of their endless curiosity, similar to that of humans. Speaking of humans, we share roughly 98% of our DNA with these creatures. I wonder if the gorilla knows this. Maybe this will explain their physical engagement with humans. Yes, I've had gorillas touch me. They approach you in a very calm manner, put there massive hands around your leg, they lean in and smell you, they stand next to you while staring into your eyes, as if they are comparing you to them. They must know that we are a not so distant relative in a way.
I just love them for who and what they are!
Okay, enough of my soppy love stories, let me share some important gorilla information with you. As their mountainous name suggests, these gorillas live on the green, volcanic slopes of East Africa at elevations between 8,000 and 13,000 feet.
Unfortunately, these mountainous areas have seen much human violence from which the gorillas have sadly not escaped unscathed. Habitat loss due to agriculture, illegal mining and forest destruction for charcoal production, is a major threat to these animals which is still degrading these beautiful forests they call home. They often get caught up in snares laid out to trap other animals for bushmeat.
Climate change also poses a threat to their livelihood. While gorilla are adaptive, moving to higher elevations to adapt to warmer temperatures, these "higher" areas are becoming increasingly over populated because of the little forest remaining.
One important thing to bare in mind when you embark on this incredible adventure one day, catching illnesses from humans is also a threat to the gorillas. The majority of mountain gorillas are habituated to human presence because of the tourism industry and while there are strict sanitation protocols in place and touching the gorillas is prohibited, disease could still spread quickly.
Now, you might be wondering how the tourism industry has impacted the future for these animals. Last year, while hosting a safari in Uganda, I was fortunate enough to sit and meet with Dr Fred Nizeyimana. This incredible man has sacrificed his life to ensure a sustainable future for the gorillas. He works for an organisation called "Gorilla Doctors" and is the sanctuary manager as well as one of the field gorilla veterinarians. Dr. Fred joined Gorilla Doctors in 2010 and performs routine health checks and interventions in Mgahinga and Bwindi Impenetrable National Parks.
During the meeting, one of my questions to him was, "Over the years, how has tourism impacted gorilla numbers?"
He was so pleased to say that tourism has had a major and positive contribution to the sustainability of the gorillas. He went on to say that looking back at previous surveys proves that the habituated members are preforming a lot better than the wild groups. This is because wild groups run away fearing humans, whereas the habituated groups do not. As a result of this, the habituated families are feeding better, and in turn, mothers are taking better care of their babies, resulting in their chance of survival being higher. He also mentioned that with an increase in tourism comes an increase in work for locals. This has lead to less poaching as the locals have now become more aware of the positive impact tourism have in their area and country as a whole which in turn has lead to stronger gorilla conservation efforts.
Incredible to think right? You visiting these incredible creatures not only allows you to tick off a major African bucket list adventure but it will also result in changing the livelihood of mountain gorilla for the better.
The International Union for the Conservation of Nature, which sets the conservation status of species, changed the mountain gorilla status from "crticially endangered" to "endangered" in 2008 as their numbers improved and a bit part to thank for this is tourism.
Now that you have a smile back on your face, lets take a deeper look.
Adult males are 1.4 to 1.8 m (4 ft 7 in to 5 ft 11 in) tall, with an arm span that stretches from 2.3 to 2.6 m (7 ft 7 in to 8 ft 6 in). Female gorillas are shorter at 1.25 to 1.5 m (4 ft 1 in to 4 ft 11 in), with smaller arm spans. The average weight of a wild adult male gorilla is between 150 to 170 Kg. Adult male gorillas are known as silverbacks due to the characteristic silver hair on their backs reaching the hips. The tallest gorilla recorded was a 1.95 m (6 ft 5 in) with an arm span of 2.7 m (8 ft 10 in), a chest of 1.98 m (6 ft 6 in) broad and a weight of 219 kg (483 lb). The mountain gorilla is a dark black animal with a thick coat of hair to help keep them warm in the high altitudes.
Gorillas move around by knuckle-walking, although they sometimes walk bipedally for short distances while carrying food or in defensive situations, and some mountain gorillas use other parts of their hand to aid locomotion (studies of 77 mountain gorillas published in 2018 showed 61% only used knuckle walking, but the remainder used knuckle walking plus other parts of their hand, fist walking in ways that do not use the knuckles, using the backs of their hand, and using their palms).
Mountain gorillas can be found in communities of up to 30 individuals. These, what they refer to as troops, are organized according to fascinating social structures. Troops are led by one dominant, older adult male, called a silverback who is usually older than 12 years. Troops also include several other young males (black backs usually between 8 and 12 years), some females and their offspring.
The silverback is in charge of organizing the troop activities such as mediating conflicts, determining the movements of the group, leading the others to feeding or nesting sites, and taking responsibility for the safety and well-being of the troop. This all within a home range of 1.2 to 26 square kilometres (0.75-to 16 square miles).
The bond that a silverback has with his females forms the core of gorilla social life. Bonds between them are maintained by grooming and staying close together. Females form strong relationships with males to gain mating opportunities and protection from predators and infanticidal outside males. However, aggressive behaviours between males and females do occur but rarely lead to serious injury. Relationships between females may vary. Maternally related females in a troop tend to be friendly towards each other and associate closely. Otherwise, females have few friendly encounters and commonly act aggressively towards each other.
Male gorillas usually have weak social bonds, particularly in multiple-male groups with apparent dominance hierarchies and strong competition for mates. Males in all-male groups, though, tend to have friendly interactions and socialise through play, grooming, and staying together. Severe aggression is rare in stable groups, but when two mountain gorilla groups meet the two silverbacks can sometimes engage in a fight to the death, using their canines to cause deep, gaping injuries.
To those who challenge the alpha male are apt to be cowed by impressive shows of physical power. He may stand upright, throw things, make aggressive charges, and pound his huge chest while barking out powerful hoots or unleashing a frightening roar. Despite these displays and the animals' obvious physical power, gorillas are generally calm and nonaggressive unless they are disturbed. Both males and females tend to emigrate from their natal groups. For mountain gorillas, females disperse from their natal troops more than males.
A gorilla's day is divided between rest periods and travel or feeding periods. Mountain gorillas mostly eat foliage, such as leaves, stems, pith and shoots, while fruit makes up a very small part of their diets. Their food is widely distributed and neither individuals nor groups have to compete with one another. Their movements are mainly inspired by food and so their movements range between 500 m (0.31 mi) or less on an average day. Despite eating a few species in each habitat, mountain gorillas have flexible diets and can live in a variety of habitats.
Gorillas rarely drink water because they consume succulent vegetation that is comprised of mainly water. As they live in a rainforest, they also get a lot of water from the morning dew.
Reproduction and Parenting
Females mature at 10 to 12 years old and males at 11 to 13 years old. A female's first ovulatory cycle occurs when she is six years of age and this is followed by a two year period of adolescent infertility. A females estrous cycle lasts 30–33 days and when she is ready to mate, she will purse their lips and slowly approach a male while making eye contact. This serves to urge the male to mount her. If the male does not respond, then she will try to attract his attention by reaching towards him or slapping the ground. In multiple-male groups, solicitation indicates female preference, but females can be forced to mate with multiple males. Males incite copulation by approaching a female and displaying at her or touching her and giving a "train grunt". After a successful courtship, the gestation period lasts 8.5 months and the gives birth to one infant, occasionally twins are born. Female mountain gorillas first give birth at 10 years of age and have a four year inter birth intervals. Males on the other hand can be fertile before reaching adulthood and gorillas mate year round.
Unlike their powerful parents, newborns are tiny, weighing only 2kg (four pounds) and are vulnerable and dependent, thus mothers, their primary caregivers, are important to ensure their survival. Male gorillas are not active in caring for the young but they do play a role in socialising them to other youngsters. The silverback has a largely supportive relationship with the infants in his troop and shields them from aggression within the group. Infants remain in contact with their mothers for the first five months and the mothers will stay near the silverback for protection. Infants suckle at least once per hour and sleep with their mothers in the same nest.
Infants begin to break contact with their mothers after five months, but only for a brief period each time. By 12 months old, infants move up to five meters (16 feet) from their mothers and at around 18 to 21 months, the distance between mother and offspring increases and they then regularly spend time away from each other. In addition, nursing decreases to once every two hours. They only enter their juvenile period at their third year and this lasts until their sixth year. At this time, gorillas are weaned totally and they sleep in a separate nest. After their offspring are weaned, females begin to ovulate and soon become pregnant again.
A wild gorilla's lifespan is normally between 35 and 40 years.
This is a topic that greatly backs my reasoning as to why I love photographing mountain gorilla.
Do you recall me saying that I have had gorillas touch me? The fact that these immensely powerful creatures are so accepting of our presence is honestly, to this date, got me in a loss for words. The feeling you get when a 150kg silverback comes and sits right beside you is just... Like I said, I'm lost for words. One thing I can say though is that this feeling is so overwhelming and is one you will never, ever forget.
A wildlife experience with the magnificent mountain gorilla is like no other. They are forever busy and you cannot help but savour every second as you watch them foraging, playing, teasing each other, eating or slumbering in an uncanny resemblance to ourselves.
One moment they are swinging from vine to vine all around you as if they are showing off their acrobatic skills just before they smack down on the ground beside you. Suddenly, there is a moment of jealousy amongst the acrobats when you pay too much attention to one of them. Off they go, screaming and shouting all around you. When you first see them, they are in front of you, then behind you and suddenly above you in the trees as the chase each other pointlessly.
The madness finally comes to an end and there is a beautiful moment of tranquility that floats through the forest like a drifting wind. Each gorilla to his/her own, taking a moment to relax, nap and at some points, it even looks like they think about life.
I cannot tell you how long this tranquility will last. Reason being, is because this all comes down to how long it takes until the youngsters realisation of other living beings lurking in their habitat takes to spark, this could be a matter of seconds or a good few minutes but when it does their overwhelming inquisitiveness takes over and before you know it, they all around you again.
I do hope that what I have typed above paints a descriptive picture. As I always say, the best way in which you can fully understand what I am trying to say is by experiencing it yourself.
Now lets move onto the last, most challenging, yet most rewarding point;
As I mentioned in the journey portion of this blog, these beautiful animals live in high mountains and move on the floors of probably one of the most spectacular forests on earth. I also spoke briefly about how challenging it may be to move through these areas with them and the challenges do not end there. If you have not walked through a rainforest yet, take a moment to think of what these forrest floors may look like, lush green and dense.
Now that you can imagine that, put a gorilla down in that scene in your mind and what do you have, challenging photography. These animals do not stop moving for one and secondly there is vegetation literally everywhere.
Now don't let this alarm you because as mentioned, these animals are very much like us and tend to move in areas of least resistance, so you will get to see them in fairly open areas at times. In saying this, they do also find themselves in so very thick areas and taking an image might be quiet challenging.
Again, no need to worry, you'll just have to take a moment to think. This is going to force you to get your creative juices flowing in order to "make" and not just "take" the image.
Here are a few examples;
Notice that I had to shoot through or past dense vegetation in the images above. You can use distractions in the foreground to your advantage, may it be natural framing and/or adding complimentary colours or depth, all which will add a great mood to your to your images.
Apart from shooting through this dense vegetation, your creativity can still flow, even if in more open scenes as seen below;
If you have a lens with varied focal lengths, use it! Always be on the lookout for something different and go in tight!
Im not going to lie, it can be challenging and frustrating at times but opportunities out in the forest are endless and it is up to you weather or not you maximize the time.
With that concludes my story as to why I love photographing mountain gorilla. I do hope this blog has taught you something as well as inspired you to go visit these gentle giants (remember, you visiting them may ensure a sustainable future for them) one day in the not too distant future.
It will honestly, change the way you see the world! Before I go, here is gear I'd recommend;
Since the focus in the area is the great ape found in rainforest regions there is a few essential items one must bring. Firstly, rain gear is essential as there is a high chance you will be rain on one of your treks. Good hiking boots, gators, gardening gloves, trousers and long-sleeved and light weight shirts are also recommended for trekking. Due to the low light on the forest floor, wide aperture lenses such as the 70-200 f2.8 is your most important piece of camera gear. A 24-70 will also come in handy for those wide shots when the apes get close up with a complimenting background. Two camera bodies will be ideal and camera straps or a harness will be useful. Lastly, ample storage, may it be in a form of extra memory cards, a laptop and/or hard drive to ensure that all the incredible moments you will capture are safe.
If you have any questions regarding this adventure or would like to share you stories, feel free to leave a comment below.
Until next time;