South African adventure couple Shane and Tarryn Quinnel – Team Tane – are on an expedition across Africa to encourage environmental and cultural awareness. In this photo-essay, they share their encounters with gorillas in Uganda.
Bridging the gap
Author AD Williams said: “When I look into the eyes of an animal I do not see an animal, I see a living being. I see a friend. I feel a soul.” This quote is never truer than when looking into the eyes of a mountain gorilla. Man’s closest relatives after chimpanzees and bonabos, gorillas are a link between us and the animal kingdom. Looking into their eyes is a profound experience, which proved to me that all creatures on earth are connected.
Penetrating the forest
Our gorilla experience took place in Bwindi Impenetrable Forest, in Uganda. As its name suggests, the park is a heavily vegetated tropical rainforest. Groups of eight, plus a guide, hike for between one and two hours through magnificent scenery to reach the gorillas’ territory. As the wonder on my wife Tarryn’s face suggests, the hike is an adventure in its own right.
The remaining domain
Mountain Gorillas are rare and incredible creatures that have adapted to the high-altitude, cold rainforests. Once threatened and still extremely vulnerable, there are only 880 left in the world – all in East Africa. This picture of Shane on Mt Sabyinyo in Mgahinga Gorilla National Park, Uganda, shows some of their territory outside Bwindi. On the right of the peaks is Rwanda’s Volcanoes National Park and on the left is Mgahinga Gorilla National Park.
A typical troop of gorillas comprises 10-20 members: the dominant silverback, several females and their offspring. There were twelve gorillas in the Mukiza family we saw, including a number of hyperactive, super-cute young ones. The habituated family ignored us completely while we watched them eating, sleeping and eating some more.
Gorillas can live to about 40, and generally start reproducing at the age of 10. The average gestation period is about eight and a half months, which is notably similar to that of humans. Remarkably like their human counterparts, these youngsters were highly energetic and played the entire time we watched them.
The mighty vegetarian diet
Anyone who thinks vegetarianism can’t lead to bulk needs to take a quick look at a mountain gorilla. Almost solely vegetarian, Silverbacks can reach around 200kg, according to the World Wildlife Foundation. As we saw, getting this big requires that the gorillas spend much of their day eating.
The king with the silver back
For many people, the term “silverback” has become synonymous with the entire species, but in reality, only adult males develop this characteristic. At approximately 12 years of age, males will develop a saddle-shaped patch of silver their backs. Generally there will be only one silverback per troop and he is the patriarch and chief.
In need of protection
Like many of the world’s more exotic creatures, the fate of the noble mountain gorillas is teetering on a knife edge. According to the Ugandan Wildlife Association (UWA), there are many threats affecting the gorillas’ future. Resource scarcity and poverty mean that the boundaries of all of national parks containing gorillas are constantly encroached upon for illegal hunting, deforestation for subsistence farming and poaching.
The gorillas’ guards
Unfortunately, as is commonly the case these days, force is required to ensure the gorillas’ safety. Brave and passionate people like John SURNAME, Bwindi’s Ruhija Area’s Head Warden, risk their lives to protect them. While the AK47 he holds is most uses for scaring off aggressive animals, during his approximately twenty five years with the UWA, there have been altercations with poachers. People like him deserve our undying respect.
Paying the price
The expensive entrance fees must be understood in the context of conservation within the African environment. With masses of underprivileged people to uplift, conservation often comes last. Therefore most money for organisations like UWA is generated externally. The money generated from Bwindi makes up 80-90% of Uganda’s conservation income and, in turn, budget.
Organisations like UWA do a great job of safeguarding Africa’s natural wonders through activities like law enforcement, eco-tourism, community education, research and general care. The experience is incredible and well worth it and we paid it happily, considering it a donation toward African conservation.
WHERE TO GO
Mountain Gorillas can be seen in National Parks in three African countries:
- Bwindi or Magahinga Gorilla National Parks, Uganda: 2017 pricing is US$600 per person. The rainy season is from March to May and October to November. Light rain season falls in November and December. The best time to visit is December to late February and from June to September. Friends of ours went off-season and rain did dampen the experience. Permits can be obtained at UWA offices in Kilembe or Kampala or through many tour companies and must be obtained before going to the parks. Ideally contact UWA before arriving in Uganda, at: http://ugandawildlife.org/
- Volcanoes National Park, Rwanda: Pricing here recently doubled to US$1 500.
- Virunga National Park, Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC): Pricing here is cheaper than elsewhere at US$400 excluding transport. Due to low confidence in the stability of the area there are apparently far less people on the DRC trips. The park is also allegedly less regulated, so people can get closer to the animals. Visit: https://virunga.org/
Through Team Tane, an organisation Shane and his wife Tarryn started, the South African adventure couple are trying to encourage environmental and cultural awareness. Their current expedition – Suzuki Africa Sky High – has seen them journeying through Africa in a Suzuki Jimny. Follow their trip at: www.teamtane.com and on Facebook: @TeamTane