Wpheww...here's a thought-provoker. My good friend Robert, a regular
contributor here and an avid traveler, recently went to Uganda to visit the gorillas.
He wrote a piece about the experience itself, and then dove a little deeper into the how's and
why's and impacts of such a 'nature conservancy' and capitalism's influence on the preservation of a species.
It's a really great read that opened my eyes to some situations I wasn't too knowledgeable about,
as well as sharing some truly beautiful photography and insight into time spent
in the wild with creatures we share 98% of our DNA with.
Father had become restless in his new title as ‘retired’. Like any PIP (previously important person), the intense pace of work life collided with the tranquility of post occupation. He suggested to my brothers that winter break that we go follow the gorillas around in Uganda. My youngest brother, 17, and I agreed. I didn’t ask many questions; just got my shots and arrived at midnight before the morning departure from DIA (Denver). I’ve been living out of a backpack so this felt like another date to thumb into the calendar, appreciative for the opportunity but too preoccupied to try and foresee the blurry future of this experience.
I’m acutely aware of how difficult life is for so many people outside of the ‘developed’ world. In order to pin some social service to this elite opportunity, I collected all the clothes I could from my single drawer of clothes and pressed my brothers and friends for ‘one-way clothes’. The trip from Carbondale to the ground in Entebbe, Uganda comes in around 40 hours. There’s some time travel involved, but airplane days never seem like the ones worth repeating.
From the airport we got a cab to a hotel where we slept for about four hours before returning to the same airport to hop aboard a 12-seat plane for another hour to a town called Kihihi. We climbed into a Land Cruiser from 1984, which is the real deal. Most folks have 100cc China bikes that look a lot like a Honda CB. The folks walking along the road are incredible at balancing objects of all shapes and sizes on their heads.
The hut we stayed in was about ten minutes from the park. The rubber met the road the following morning; we ate while it was still dark and arrived during sunrise to the ranger headquarters. We mulled about in a lobby with about 30 excited tourists, along with a stunning array of hiking accessories and clothing that I didn’t even know existed. The origin breakdown tilted towards the UK, Denmark, and Australia with our group of three being the only Americans. After a customary introduction of said trekking we broke into groups of eight. The guidelines state only eight tourists can be in a group, however there are two armed guards (for ‘scare shooting’ if any wild elephants charge, but I suspected they were really there to protect their bread and butter), a ranger guide, and 2-3 trackers who set out early in the morning to radio the gorillas position. You may also subsidize personal health and hiking skills by hiring a local porter for $15 USD. The porter carries your bag, and will push or pull you up steep sections. There are about 400 gorillas in the Impenetrable Forest with the total world population estimated at 800. That breaks down to about 30 families. Half the families have become comfortable with humans, half remain truly wild.
Being from high elevation and a background in wilderness living, I felt cavalier when they told me to bring the walking stick and to stuff my pant legs into my multicolored socks because of ‘ants that bite really hard’. I was knocked off my perch after hour three of following machete hacked trails up and down the slippery mountains. It wasn’t more than I could chew but I’m glad I brought the stick. The closer to the equator the plants grow, the more spikes they tend to have. The gorillas had been moving positions and we were chasing them as best we could. The group met our trackers in a small clearing where we shed our bags and got our cameras ready. The moment we walked into the gorilla group was truly breathtaking. The babies played with each other, the moms kept a lazy eye bouncing between us and the children. The human like quality of their eyes is astonishing (after all we share about 98% DNA). The silverback, also commonly referred to as ‘the boss’ wasn’t thrilled to have humans around that day. When the guide grabbed a vine to allow for a better shot, the silverback roared, spun around and with an effortless swing of his arm, knocked a tree over. The crash of the tree mixed with this 600-pound animal’s roar bubbled up a fear that I’d only felt once before, and that was bungee jumping. He turned, snorted and walked down the hill, and the rest of his family sauntered after him.
We all looked at each other as a guide kept hacking vines and said, "Let’s go. We follow him". I looked at another trekker and said, "After you." He replied, "No. After you." The slope leveled out and the rest of the pack of primates were munching on leaves in the trees; we furthered our pursuit. My father turned out to be the bravest of the group. He was in between the two guides when a mother gorilla huffed and puffed and made a run at my dad. She stood her ground for a second, made a point, another few grunts and turned to reunite with her baby. The human group inched into a sort of ball and stood in place, just watching this miniature society function. The hour came and went, tourists aggressively photographing the action. We headed back to our backpacks and the amorphous number of guides, trackers and guards, that seemed to oscillate around us. The trackers seemed to know a network of trails, and our exit from the Impenetrable Forest happened smoothly.
Another quick hour led us back to a road where our driver had somehow been in communication with the guide, and we shuttled everyone up to their cars just as the skies opened up. The Land Cruiser slid down clay roads toward death drops for about 45 minutes until we returned back to the ranger headquarters. We were awarded certificates of completion and were sent on our way to hack through the afternoon jet lag. The following day we repeated the process to find a much more docile group of gorillas. They mainly laid about sleeping, farting, babies playing, pounding their little chests just like in the movies. The more time I spent with the entire organization, the more I was persistent asking questions to help contextualize this attraction within the southwest of Uganda.
My takeaway is that like any tourist attraction, it has a bittersweet relationship with the community. The guides really emphasize that these animals wouldn’t be here if it weren’t for people visiting and pouring money into the nature reserve, which was established in 1991. Their gorilla numbers were down to about 200 worldwide and have since doubled. There was a pity I felt for the animals, with gawky tourists elbowing each other out of the way to snap their perfect Instagram photo, reap the likes and head back to wherever. The best way I could spin it is there are about 15 gorilla families that have to put up with people for an hour a day, as a form of pestering tax, to preserve their species. The undertones of that exceedingly dark statement imply capitalism’s dominance over a beautiful animal species. Call it like you see it, I suppose. The gorillas seemed generally accepting of the situation, and another ranger told me if a rogue gorilla attacks a group they’ll bunch up to the humans next time they arrive as though to make a united front against the attacker. Shops have predictably sprung up around the entrance of the park, and upon casual interrogation the shop keepers all seemed eager about gorilla conservation (especially considering that the t-shirt market is at an all-time high).
For the peripheral members of the community there’s a sort of slack-jawed stare as the beefy vehicles rip through these little villages. Children generally smile and wave, heartbreakingly carrying shovels to the fields. I have no doubt in my mind that the jungle would be a green tea field, banana plantation or coffee grove were it not for the nature reserve. The line between the park boundaries and the fields is a straight line. Now, I know better than to argue conservation with a desperate people attempting to feed their families. But finding out that a kilo of green tea leaves pays a farmer ten cents makes you sip a little slower. The coffee we so casually drink was balanced on some teenager’s head for a two hour walk to the collection station, and that was just the beginning of the process. Knowing that general inequality in the world exists is one thing, but when immersed in it one experiences a mild PTSD. On the drive back to the dirt strip labeled ‘airport’, I asked our driver to pull over to a school with kids sitting under a tree watching pale people coming and going. I gave all my clothes, tied in a bundle with a juice box and some graffiti stickers, to one and said, "Share with your friends," He nodded and the remaining kids screamed with joy. The book Lord of the Flies came to mind.
If it’s a possibility, I would fully endorse a trip to see the gorillas. Rwanda is your other option but they just doubled their trekking prices so local folks suspect there will never be another low season in Kahihi, Uganda. It was difficult to get a grasp on truly how ‘safe’ it was. Most businesses that dealt with any true amount of money (or gringos) seemed to have a guard with an AK-47. I don’t think that was a good indication of the safety because if you strip away the western delusion that the police have it under control, people just take their safety into their own hands. For perspective, the water and beer tab for three people came to a total of $40 USD in one week. Getting to sit with these creatures was one of the most moving encounters I’ve ever had with wildlife, and I can generally feel good about helping conserve this endangered species, and I may spark others to go.
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