The following is a guest post written by Joanne Dutton who volunteered on The Great Gorilla Project
The Great Gorilla Project in Uganda is much more than an adventure, it is a trip of a lifetime. It really needs to come with a disclaimer:- “Highly addictive and will leave you wanting more and more!”.
Let’s start with the wildlife – and there were lots! Two gorilla treks (hard-going), a chimpanzee trek (heard before seen) and Queen Elizabeth Park safari (with tree climbing lions). It was all very exciting and not just on land but also the water too. We took two boat trips with the main one being on the Kazinga Channel - a 32-kilometre long natural channel that links Lake Edward and Lake George (a photographer’s heaven!). It has the world's largest concentration of hippos and Nile crocodiles, as well as a huge range of other wildlife and birds. As a keen photographer I was spoilt for shots; although sometimes it was best to put the camera down and enjoy the views, the people and the wonders of nature.
My childhood inspiration to see the gorillas came from David Attenborough’s 1979 film 'Life on Earth' as well as research on Dian Fossey and later, the film “Gorillas in the mist”. I didn’t sleep well the night before both treks, I was restless with excitement and just thinking of what a privilege it was to be able to see these animals up-close! We volunteers (4 British, 1 Canadian and 1 American) observed two different habituated family groups: Bushaho at the Bwindi Impenetrable National Park and the Nyakageziwe gorillas at Mgahinga Gorilla National Park, in South Western Uganda. One thing I will never forget, looking directly into the brown eyes of a gorilla who was looking right back at me… That feeling of being eye to eye with your closest relative, one that shares 98% of our DNA. Trekking to get to the gorillas and back was hard and certainly not for the faint-hearted. Here the rules are strict: you are only permitted to spend one hour with your assigned group and if there is any chance that you may be ill, you are advised not to go. Human diseases can and have killed mountain gorillas. However, thanks to better protection by the fantastic guides and rangers as well as the local governments and conservationists, their numbers are slowly increasing. Estimated numbers have been tallied at just over 1,000 mountain gorillas in 2018. Over half of these are in Bwindi and Mgahinga National Park, however, these animals still remain under a very real threat - their international status is currently listed as “critically endangered” (according to the IUCN Red List).
One of my biggest thrills during these treks was when I caught my very first sighting of a resting black back gorilla - these gorillas are young males aged around 8-12 years old, not quite old enough to be a silverback yet. The gorilla was quiet, peaceful and barely awoken by our presence. Our guide moved to clear some vegetation so we could see him just a little better. In a heartbeat, the gorilla suddenly jumped up and charged towards us. Surprised by the sudden reaction, our guide lost his footing on the slippery slope. As he regained his composure, he placed his machete between himself and the gorilla, as if to say “keep back”! We watched in awe at this standoff…man and gorilla. It was over in seconds with the gorilla losing interest in us but also content that he had shown his dominance. He then walked past us as if nothing had happened, but my heart was racing. You don’t mess with a gorilla!
This was also reinforced by my second close encounter with a huge silverback. We were watching him eating at a safe distance from where we stood on the slope, but suddenly, it looked up and decided there was somewhere else it would rather be - directly behind me! He stood tall for a moment and then on all fours, proceeding to walk towards me - appearing bigger and bigger with each step. The guide called out to us “quick, crouch down and be quiet”, so we did. He passed by me so closely…if I had reached out I could have touched him! Two very unexpected heart-stopping moments that will live with me forever.
Later, I learnt that this large silverback was from the Nyakagezi group which are unique - they have 4 silverbacks, all mature and all huge. Their father died in 2017 at the grand age of 53 years and now, one of his sons hold the dominant position in the group. The bond between these brothers is very strong, so they continue to tolerate each other and live in harmony. It is a very unusual situation for mountain gorillas to live that way, but so far, they have done well together. This habituated gorilla group has 3 females: one juvenile and 2 babies - who are very mischievous in their play and we enjoyed watching these babies play during our visit.
Aside from the excitement of the wildlife, I have to mention our fantastic guides and driver, who showed us the many different Mgahinga community projects around the Kisoro District. They are varied programs with a high focus on support and education of all ages. All land surrounding the national parks is cultivated with farming visible even on the steep hills and mountainsides. Life is difficult here, with long working hours and many people living ‘hand to mouth’ with what they can grow, barter or buy. Access to safe clean water is still a challenge in many areas, and so the daily trek for water can involve many miles - often walked in sandals made from old tyres or boots. The large yellow water containers are carried on the heads of women mostly, often with a baby strapped to their back. Children are also seen carrying their own smaller containers, collecting water before going to school. Although school is now compulsory by the government, that does not mean all will have the opportunity to attend (particularly not when the work is plenty and needing to be done daily by who are able).
Healthcare is also sparse, with many women still dying in childbirth or post-delivery from haemorrhaging or infection. This leaves many babies orphaned; often because the husband or family can’t take on the responsibility for a newborn with work and their other children. If a child is born handicapped, rejection is even higher; sometimes the child is even shunned by the community and is considered a burden (only the toughest survive). We were taken to visit Potter Village, a supportive community run and funded by external donations from abroad. This facility had a health clinic and a small hospital as well as the ability to look after abandoned and orphaned babies. Sadly, 12 were there at the time we visited with others in the neonatal unit, all so fragile and fighting to survive. The babies are generally kept until they are 18 months old and weaned, they then go to foster families if they can be found or orphanages - unfortunately, adoption rates are very low.
Education is trying to change old views, including to value women in the family and community. “Safe sex” and “say no to sex” are two widely promoted health messages that we saw – often seen written on signs at the schools. One project that really touched me was the women’s co-operative, who through the use of donated singer hand-sewing machines would make reusable sanitary towel covers - made from repurposed or donated material. In this small room, these ladies work together to make a simple product that is changing many women’s lives for the better.
We also learned about the many community projects which promote sustainability of living off the land. They are taught to rotate crops to keep the soil fertile, water harvesting of rainwater and how to make small patches of land yield the largest harvest through companion planting. We helped plant seeds in a women’s co-operative garden and were each able to plant a tree each in a schoolyard. The children will now nurture these trees, learning as they grow and eventually these trees will provide shade from the hot sun and fruit for them to harvest. Their tiny dirt floor classrooms, simple wood benches to sit on and rudimentary blackboard were extremely basic – the school was deprived of any colour on the walls including basic materials you expect to see in a school. Some members of our group shared the books, pencils and pencil sharpeners they had brought for the school. Later, we worked out that only £70 would buy a school book for every child at the school (753), with 75-100 being in each of those tiny classrooms!
Another highlight for me was when we took some children from the handicapped school (deaf, blind and traumatized) and joined local ‘normal’ school children on an educational trip to the Mgahinga Gorilla National Park. This integration is intended to help break down stigma towards people with disabilities as well as to teach them the importance of conservation; the balances of man, nature, gorilla and rainforest protection. At the end of our day, there was a blind boy who came forth to say thank you, explaining why the trip was important to him. One of the teachers signed to the deaf children and others followed in their praises, sometimes in their local language (English or both – all were very moved). My fellow volunteer friends and I were aware that The Great Gorilla Project includes donations that go towards the Gorilla Organisation and to the Mgahinga Community Development Organisation, but much more is needed.
Life in Uganda is hard for so many and you will see poverty first-hand, but this is a country which is emerging from difficult times and is finding its feet. I felt very humbled in seeing their resilience in adversary and also to see their beautiful smiles when often they have so little. I highly recommend this trip – it really is a trip of a lifetime.
Fancy seeing these magnificent animals for yourself? Visit the project page for more information on how you can volunteer with gorillas in Uganda!
Contributions: Tracy Brightman
Photo/Video Credit: Joanne Dutton
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