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february 5th, 2004 -> The Primates of Uganda

There are only four great apes: gorillas, chimpanzees, orangutans, and the lesser-known bonobo.  They are large, fur-covered primates with very long arms, big brains, and no tail.  Come to think of it, my Dad could qualify, as could many Greek and Israeli men. Humans are most closely related to chimps, with whom we share 98% of our genes.  Yet we still share 97% of our genes with gorillas.  In Malaysian Borneo, Nori and I had already seen orangutan (Bahasa for 'wild man') at the Sandakan sanctuary.  In Uganda, we planned on seeing both the mountain gorilla and chimpanzees, in addition to many other smaller primates. Seeing the great apes in Uganda is not cheap.  Permits to track the mountain gorillas in the ominously but appropriately named Bwindi Impenetrable Forest National Park cost US$275 per person.  To see the chimps at Kibale National Park costs around US$60 per person for park entry and the guide.  Yet even niggardly backpackers somehow manage to find the funds, and few regret the decision.  Many travelers on the Cape to Cairo journey regard mountain gorilla tracking as a highlight of their trip.  We met several people who had seen the gorillas in Uganda, and were returning to repeat the experience in Rwanda, or vice versa.

We were traveling with Anke, a peripatetic German woman we had met in Kampala.  Anke works for the catering arm of Lufthansa on a very casual basis, yet she still manages to travel 3-4 months a year and her tickets are at 10% of retail!  Anke had hoped to share a ride with us to Bwindi (we had met two Swedish men at the Uganda Wildlife Authority who were renting a car), but there wasn't enough room in the sedan so she had to take the bus.  Naturally, our car broke down three-quarters of the way to Bwindi.  We had to laugh as Anke went rocketing past us in the bus, a big smile on her face.

We were concerned about Nori's broken foot.  Tracking the gorillas could involve up to eight hours of trekking through dense undergrowth.  It had rained heavily the night before.  We heard horror stories from a Canadian group who had tromped up and down several jungly ridges before they found their group of gorillas.  There are three groups of habituated mountain gorillas at Bwindi.  There is no perennially 'easy' group to find, as the gorillas all move about the park freely.  The group that was near the park entrance a week ago could now be several kilometers away.

So we were very relived when, after just ten minutes of bushwhacking, our guide motioned for us to stop and pointed to a nearby tree.  There, about fifteen feet up in the crotch of a tree, was a female gorilla munching on leaves.  After we watched for a while, we followed the guide twenty feet further and found ourselves on the main park road.  We were only a five minute walk from the park entrance!

Even the ten minutes of bushwhacking had been a charade; the guides knew exactly where the gorillas were, but wanted us to at least have a taste of forest trekking.  They also wanted to show us the gorillas' nesting spot from the night before.  The whole area was flattened by their enormous weight, and as is gorilla custom, large piles of green poo were left in the 'beds' before they left.  Since the gorillas' diet is strictly vegetarian, the scat looked like the stuff you dump out of a lawnmower bag.  As a wise gorilla once said, "you made your bed and now you must crap in it."

There were gorillas all around us.  Just off the road sat a large female cradling an infant.  She fixed us with a long stare before continuing to eat.  There were several gorillas high in the trees flanking the road.  They were a lazy lot.  Rather than move, they would reach to nearby branches and pull them down until they broke.  Their bellies were massively distended - so full of leaves that researchers have difficulty telling when a female is pregnant.  They are also prodigiously flatulent. 

We were nearing the end of our one hour with the gorillas, so the guide decided to move us closer to the main group.  In a small clearing, not far from where we saw the first gorilla, sat a large female and the group's dominant silverback.  The silverback was jaw-droppingly large - a no-necked slab of muscle - and he was less than 20 feet away.

He seemed to get tired of all the attention, and moved to the road, nonchalantly (but maliciously) yanking down a branch on which another gorilla sat.  Then he turned away from us, sat down, and spread the muscles of his upper back as if to illustrate his strength.  A juvenile male had followed the silverback to the main road.  Curious, he moved crabwise towards us.  Then, as if to demonstrate that even he was a silverback in training, he stood briefly on his back legs and beat a rapid tattoo on his chest.  Then he dropped to all fours and scampered away.

We managed to make it from Bwindi to Kibale in one long day of transportation involving five vehicles: a truck, a bus, and three different dala-dalas (the overstuffed vans driven by maniacs.)  Sometimes local transportation can surprise you.  It is rarely comfortable, but it can often be quite efficient.  The only downside was the theft of US$100 from our money belt; we still can't figure out how that happened.

The Kibale Forest National Park is much friendlier to walkers.  Unlike Bwindi, it is easy to move about, even off the main trails.  Unlike Bwindi, you can often see for a hundred feet through the forest, as the undergrowth is fairly light.  We struck off early with Aston, a cheerful guide who could do amazing vocal impressions of the park's primates.  His grey-cheeked mangabee (yes, that's a kind of monkey) was uncanny.

Every ten minutes or so, a cacophony of hoots, shrieks and drumming on tree buttresses would burst from forest.  We were getting closer.  We had left the first trail, trail-blazed through the forest to another trail, and began to climb a moderate hill when the screams erupted behind us.  "Yes!" shouted Anke. Our hearts were pounding with excitement.  We whipped around and broke into a trot back down the trail and soon found ourself in the path of a chimpanzee exodus.

The chimps moved quickly along the ground, always keeping an eye on us.  A female was feeding on the branches of a sapling, seemingly oblivious to the arboreal gymnastics of her infant.  We followed one of the older chimps, named Mzee (old man), who led us past the resting spot of Grumpus, a grizzled old chimp with a disproportionately large left nostril.  He didn't seem bothered by us.  He just sat and preened and ate a few leaves and gave a perfunctory hoot when the chimp chorus started up again.

We moved on to one of the chimps' favorite trees, a tall fig in fruit.  A half-dozen chimps were swinging around in the canopy, gobbling fruit and executing death-defying leaps to lower trees.  There must have been at least forty chimps in our vicinity.  Though the chimps are the stars of Kibale, they are far from the only primates found in the park.  During our 3-hour walk we saw red colobus monkeys, L' Hoest's monkeys, red-tailed monkeys, blue monkeys, and, of course, the grey-cheeked mangabee.

The cool mountain highlands are salubrious for more than just primates.  Both Bwindi and Kibale are hemmed in by rolling expanses of brilliant green tea bushes. In Bwindi, the three-foot high bushes extend right to the park border, where a profusion of hardwoods stretch interlacing branches to the sky.  The tea plantation owners and the primate conservationists were battling for the hearts, minds, and stomachs of the local villagers.  Both groups built community buildings (schools, meeting halls, orphanages, etc.) and then erected big roadside signs so that everyone knew where the money came from.  But I could easily read the tea leaves.  If the parklands had not been protected, the primates' already much-diminished territory would have quickly become carpeted in tea.

Scientists are rarely celebrities, but Dian Fossey and Jane Goodall come close.  Through their pioneering studies of mountain gorillas (Fossey) and chimpanzees (Goodall) in the 70's and 80's, the world was made aware of the apes' desperate plight.  Fossey's memoirs were the basis for the book and movie "Gorillas in the Mist."  She was murdered in 1985, at the research camp she founded in Rwanda.  Though gorilla numbers continued to fall during the period of her research, there is reason to be hopeful: since 1989, the number of gorillas in the Virunga mountains has increased by 17%, from 324 to 380.  In addition, there are 320 animals in the much smaller Bwindi National Park, for a total of around 700.

Though much of Jane Goodall's work was conducted at the Gombe Stream National Park in western Tanzania, her urgent appeal to save the chimps is directly responsible for an increase in conservation efforts around Africa, including Uganda.  The gorillas are more threatened than the chimps.  However, in most countries in Africa, the chimps are fast-disappearing.   A noted American primatologist believes that out of 25 countries in Africa currently with chimpanzee populations, only 10 will still have chimps within a few decades.  Hunting and habitat loss are the biggest culprits.  More chimpanzees are killed In the rest of Africa, more chimps are killed each year than exist in Uganda.

During Idi Amin's murderous regime, the mountain gorillas and chimpanzees of southwest Uganda were hunted for bush meat.  When Hutu hardliners were chased across the Rwandan border into northeastern Congo, the mountain gorillas of the Virunga National Park were once again stalked and killed.  Until recently, farmers simply shot gorillas and chimps on sight.  We even heard a true story of a park ranger who found a group of kids playing soccer with a tied-up baby chimp.

One would hope that educating Africans about their great and fragile natural heritage will lead to a new generation of Africans who want to preserve their unique environments.  If education doesn't work, perhaps economics will.  The parks and related services like accommodation and curio shops employ thousands.  But I can't help being pessimistic.  In much of Africa, where human life can often seem so cheap, and the next meal is never guaranteed, how can we expect the common man to care for the apes?