Gorillas in Uganda – Call them Uganda’s Gentle Giants

Bwindi Gorilla

The gorillas are the largest of the great apes and share 97% of their biology with human beings. Two Uganda national parks are blessed with  mountain gorillas and that is Bwindi and Mgahinga.

Predominantly ground-dwelling, mountain gorillas prefer open canopy forests that allow light to reach the forest floor; their diet consists of bamboo, roots, stems, leaves, and vines.

Gorillas spend about 30% of their day feeding, 30% moving and foraging, and the remainder resting. They spend most of their time on the ground on all fours but stand up to reach for food

Gorillas generally live in family groups of varying sizes, usually including one or two silverback males. Adult males can weigh up to 200kg and be up to 6ft tall.

Female gorillas actively choose their breeding partners as male protection is essential to a successful reproductive cycle. Male partners are usually the older, stronger and more experienced silverbacks.

Gorillas communicate in a variety of ways, including facial expressions gestures, and calls. Postures and gestures form an important element of intimidation. Mountain gorillas rank among the rarest animals in the world with about 100 animals in existence. They belong to the ape family and are the bulkiest/biggest.

An adult may grow up to 1.8m high. Two subspecies of gorillas, the western lowland gorilla – Gorilla gorilla gorilla – G.g graueri were identified for science in 1847 and 1877 respectively.

It wasn’t until1903 that a third sub-species G.g Berenger – the mountain gorilla was identified. It was named after a German officer Oscar Von Berenger who enabled its classification.

The mountain gorilla is bulkier than its lowland cousins weighing up to 210kg and has a shaggier black coat suited to its chilly montane habitat.

It’s extremely social and lives in groups typically of about 12 animals consisting of one or more dominant silverback males, some younger blackback males, females, and their infants.

Silverbacks as the dominant males are so-called because of the whitish color variation on their backs caused by a thinning and graying of their coats upon maturity.

Gorillas communicate in a variety of ways, including facial expressions, gestures, and calls.

Adult males use barks and roars during a confrontation or to coordinate the movement of their groups to a different area.

Postures and gestures form an important element of intimidation and it is often possible for a clash to be easily diffused by teeth –barring, stiff-legging, lunging and charging.

And if all this fails, a terrifying piercing scream is enough to deter most outsiders.

Mgahinga Gorilla

Gorillas also communicate friendly with grunts of pleasure as part of group bonding, when they find food and feed.

They will also grunt or bark to alert other members of the group upon finding food. Grooming among gorillas is uncommon unlike in other primates.

Gorillas are exclusively vegetarian and feed on the leaves in their forested montane habitat which they leisurely pick and stuff into their mouths with no need for haste as they are assured of sustenance.

Gorillas feed a lot and usually have distended bellies. They tend to feed on the ground and prefer very short trees and those with overhanging branches.

Females have on average about five births in a lifetime but have only one offspring at a time.

The baby gorilla from the time it’s born, spends most of its time with the mother who is very protective of it that she keeps it held to her chest for about three months, then from three to six months the baby will occasionally ride on the mother’s back, with more liberty allowed as the baby grows progressively older.

Gorilla’s life is peaceful and quiet compared to that of chimpanzees.

They spend most of their time lounging lazily around, chewing leaves, tolerantly fending off boisterous infants and farting continuously and contentedly.

Gorillas usually beat their chests and mock charge, but these behavioral practices are meant to intimidate rather than aggress.

Conflict is rare and serious violence is generally limited to occasions when an interloper challenges a silverback for control of a group. This doesn’t mean that gorillas are therefore harmless.

Not at all! They are extraordinarily powerful animals that will react aggressively if provoked. This risk though is reduced by appropriate behavior when in the presence of these seemingly gentle giants.

A gorilla’s routine is pretty lax and involves moving short distances, eating, playing, dozing, making nests sleep in and sleeping.

This routine though mustn’t be disrupted by humans as it agitates the gorilla and provokes violence.

Gorillas are generally rarely seen by humans because human presence greatly unsettles them and they will simply melt into the undergrowth when approached.

Through habituation a process in which gorillas are made accustomed to human presence, they can now be viewed at a safe and unintrusive distance.

The habituation process takes at least two years and involves over this time, the tracker trailing a gorilla group daily till the time when the gorillas become tolerant of human presence and decide to stay put rather than hurriedly disappear.

This decision is taken by the silverback, and the moment he makes it, habituation is on Its way to realization.

Sliverback Gorilla

Mountain gorillas are an endangered species almost on the verge of extinction.

It was in 1960 that American researcher George Schaller estimated that only 450 mountain gorillas lived on the volcanoes a number that decreased further as the gorilla was reduced by agricultural encroachment where they were killed to rid the land of them and poaching to provide gruesome tourist ‘Souvenirs’.

Consequently, by 1973 gorilla numbers had dwindled to just 250. However, through sustained and concerted efforts at conservation of the mountain gorilla and its habitat, mountain gorillas have slowly increased to the 750 and about 100 number today. This is largely through the protection of their species and habitat which is gazetted. Mountain gorillas are only found in Uganda, Rwanda, and Congo.

In Uganda, they are only found in Bwindi Impenetrable and Mgahinga Gorilla National Parks. Bwindi is made up of ancient rain forest and a steep landscape, slippery valleys and high draughty ridges –a perfect habitat for the mountain gorilla. The impenetrable forest reserve was gazetted in 1942 and upgraded to national park status in 1992. Measuring 327km2 it is home to an estimated 340 mountain gorillas. Mgahinga is montane and has high volcanic peaks.

Mountain gorillas can be tracked from two locations in Bwindi; Buhoma on the northern edge of the forest and Nkuringo on the southern edge of the forest, Ruhija and Rushaga found in the southern part of the forest.

Rushaga is the perfect sector in Bwindi Impenetrable Forest when it comes to mountain gorilla tracking and it is also the only sector where visitors can do Gorilla Habituation Experience. The sector has four habituated gorilla families and that is Nshongi gorilla family, Mishaya gorilla group, Kahungye gorilla family, Busingye gorilla group and Bweza gorilla group.

The Ruhija sector is located in the Eastern part of Bwindi Impenetrable National park. The sector has 3 gorilla groups ie Bitukura Gorilla Family, Oruzogo Gorilla group and Kyaguriro Gorilla Group.

Buhoma is the busier site with three habituated gorilla groups Mubare aka Mubale gorilla family, Habinyanja gorilla family and Rushegura gorilla family. One of these groups usually roam within reasonable walking distance.

Nkuringo is the toughest of the gorilla tracking locations as it is physically exerting and not for the unfit, elderly or fainthearted.

At Mgahinga, gorilla tracking is one of its best activities. It is Uganda’s smallest park measuring just 33.7km2.

It combines hiking with gorilla tracking. It was first gazetted as a gorilla game sanctuary in 1930 and upgraded to National Park status in 1991.

Therefor, Bwindi and Mgahinga gorilla national parks are the only places to go gorilla tracking in Uganda.

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