An awestruck Geoff Power is smitten after his close encounters with gorillas deep in the heart of Africa.
Any slight noise she makes and the silverback will attack,” says Jonah, the ranger.
The ‘she’ Jonah is referring to is one of two female mountain gorillas in the extended family group, the Nyakagezi. The silverback in question is the dominant male, and there is a reason he is protective.
Twenty minutes earlier we watched him eat and lumber about, and we had no real fear, then, despite his immense 250kg size. But the situation has changed. Clinging tightly to the female’s body is a six-week-old infant. The new mum is surrounded by thick foliage and it is hard to get a good view of her baby. Any chance we had is fast disappearing.
The dominant male with the less-than-intimidating name, Mark, makes his presence known. He pulls at branches and shakes them angrily; if the female conveys any apprehension, Mark is certain to charge.
We inch away, slowly. Mark growls. Our ranger makes a soothing, repetitive sound: “Mummmah”. It seems to calm the silverback and we retreat behind vegetation. We hear further growling, but it is less urgent, less aggressive. We see why: mother and infant have moved towards Mark, to the security this huge ape provides.
Three hours earlier, before this tense family moment, we arrived on the Ugandan side of Mt Muhavura, one of several peaks among the Virunga Volcanoes which straddle the borders of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), Rwanda and Uganda.
No longer active, the volcano’s perfect cone, at 4,127m, lies some 1600m above us. We arrived at 8am following a rough-shod road– even by Ugandan standards – from Kisoro town and a steep, 20-minute hike to Base Camp.
Jonah delivered a briefing, and what impressed most was that it focused on the health and safety of the gorillas, not the humans. We had to adhere closely to their rules of engagement, as well as fork out US$500 to the Uganda Wildlife Authority (UWA) for the privilege of seeing these ‘gentle giants’ in their natural setting.
Foremost is the need to maintain a distance of seven metres from the gorillas to prevent transmission of human diseases. In addition, a UWA booklet explains how to behave if a gorilla charges: “DO NOT,” it states, “look at the gorilla in the eye… And DO NOT attempt to run away – [it] will increase the risk of attack.”
The Nyakagezi group comprises four silverbacks, one black-back, two adult females, two juveniles and the six-week-old. Males reach sexual maturity at 14; females become fertile from 8-10 years of age. However, inbreeding is a concern. Because of the tiny population of wild gorillas, it is not uncommon for a dominant male to mate with his sister, or even his mother.
The first indication earlier that morning that we were close came when Lurian, the tracker, stopped and pointed to the ground. “Morning gorilla poo,” he trumpeted.
The sense of anticipation began to soar along with the terrain. We moved off the narrow trail and brushed past tall fern and bamboo to reach steeper ground. Lurian provided further information about the group. In 1996, the silverback, Mark, replaced his father, Bigingo, as the dominant male. Because of his submissive nature, however, Bigingo was allowed to remain with the group.
We had reached a clearing. Above us, the crater-laked cone of Muhavura held a blanket of cloud. The scene was precisely how you would imagine it: mystical, lush, and with an echo of forest sounds.
First to be seen was the black-back. Raukundo means “love” and, like many teenagers, he broods. Sprawled on his back, he lay hidden behind a brush of leaves. Jonah did the “mummmah” sound, but Raukundo would not budge. At nearly 14, Mark’s eldest son is on the verge of becoming a silverback.
Their habitat is like any family home: you must drop in on different quarters to visit the entire group. We found Mark in what could be the attic, plonked in the middle of a green-leaved lounger, munching, tearing, yanking, and then munching. The 40-year-old eats approximately 34kg of leaves, shoots and stems daily in order to maintain his immense size and health.
“Up! Up! Up!” Jonah yelled. Startled, we saw Mark had raised himself on all-fours and was trundling towards us – six metres, four metres, two metres... Lurian shepherded us to one side; Mark passed within a metre without bothering to look our direction (and joined the female he would become protective of later).
We encountered the other silverbacks in a nearby grove. They lay face down, their chins resting on massive arms; it looked as if they were pondering some exchange in the moments before our arrival.
Bigingo is 51 years, and he may not live for much longer. ‘Mafia’, Mark’s 27-year-old brother, watched indifferently as the once dominant male moved uneasily through the thicket, out of sight.
Despite Mafia’s thumping name, we were, however, more intrigued by the story of Ndungetse, a 19-year-old who chewed impassively on a bamboo stem like an errant cowboy. Ndungetse means ‘prophet’ in the Fumbira dialect. An orphaned, solitary male in Mgahinga before 2005, he only joined the group during their seven year hiatus in Rwanda.
When the Nyakagezi returned to Uganda last November, the rangers were pleased to see the lonely youngster had transformed into an enormous silverback. Perhaps this social-climber will be the one to challenge Mark’s dominance of the group someday.
The Nyakagezi crossed into Rwanda in 2005 in search of food; this had a knock-on effect for local communities, says Charles Okuta, Warden for Community Conservation at Mgahinga National Park. “Twenty per cent of each gorilla permit goes to communities; now the Nyakagezi are back, they will see the benefits again.”
When pressed how this translates, Okuta reveals that the three parishes bordering the national park received a figure of 137m Ugandan Shillings last July. It amounts to just US$54,800, or €39,860. The money goes towards the upkeep of walls, to keep out problem animals such as buffalo. It also aids construction of a clinic and cultural centre.
Rwanda and Uganda have made determined efforts to preserve and protect the mountainous settings these precious apes need. But the DRC is much less stable politically and prone to terrorist incidents. “Some gorillas in the Congo are trafficked and others are captured for personal possession,” says Catherine, the UWA Officer in Kisoro. “Conflict means it is harder for rangers in the Congo to do their patrols.”
Nonetheless, a census last year showed the total population of mountain gorillas stood at 880 (up from 720, in 2005), with 400 of these in Bwindi National Park, 40km north, and the remaining 480 shared between Mgahinga, Rwanda and the DRC. Tight controls in Rwanda and Uganda ensure a maximum of eight permit holders are allowed access to a gorilla group on any given day.
Before our treasured hour with the gorillas is up, we find ourselves back with Raukundo, the black-back. He is in the same spot. But perhaps in greeting, he now pokes his head out between branches and directs his eyes towards us. His expression is light and amicable. Suddenly, he yawns and, maybe I am mistaken, but I swear I can see him smile.
Geoff travelled with Turkish Airlines: Dublin to Entebbe, via Istanbul
Return flights cost: €690
For information about gorilla tracking, log onto Uganda Wildlife Authority www.ugandawildlife.org To arrange a permit, contact UWA Head Quarters, in Kampala.
Reservations and Bookings: +256 414 355 405/404/403/400
Permits, accommodation and travel can be arranged independently from Kampala, or through UWA. However, Kabarole Tours is a locally-run, eco-tourism company that can also organise any activity or tour during your stay ( www.kabaroletours.com ).
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