Grateful in the mist – gorilla trekking and chimpanzee tracking in Uganda.
Did you know? Uganda has 50% of the world’s mountain gorilla population.
There are about 450 gorillas in the sanctuary of Bwindi Impenetrable National Park where we had the opportunity to trek to a particular family named “Mishaya” on a recent primate safari tour in Uganda, Africa. The tour also featured chimpanzee tracking.
After flying into Entebbe, Uganda we made our way first to Kibale National Park to track chimpanzees, the primates with the closest DNA to us humans. But, once we caught up with the community we were tracking, it was a startling cacophony. Chimpanzees have a sort of panicky sounding communication style with each other that takes a while to get used to when you are around them in their natural habitat. Observing about 15 of them up close for an hour was a very special experience. Some seemed to be social, some didn’t. Some seemed to be serious, some seemed to be mischievous. Just like us humans, chimps have a variety of personality types and feelings. Jane Goodall, the world famous anthropologist that studied chimpanzees in the 60s & 70s once said:
“Whatever we believe about how we got to be the extraordinary creatures we are today is far less important than bringing our intellect to bear on how do we get together now around the world and get out of the mess that we’ve made. That’s the key thing now. Never mind how we got to be who we are.’
After spending a morning with chimpanzees, I definitely felt like I could embrace my intellect as a human a little bit more to help collectively make our world a better place for all living creatures.
The time had come for the pinnacle of our Uganda trip – the Gorilla Trekking. We would start off early in the morning at Bwindi Impenetrable National Park while the mist still shrouded the jungle. There were no clear trails as we trekked looking for our gorilla family. Basically, it was hacking our way with machetes up and down and over and about inside this mighty jungle. (We had several guides and trackers with us to assist.) It was a grueling hike, but after about 90 minutes we finally came upon our Mishaya family of gorillas. Our first sighting was the silverback alpha-male, and he was just quietly sitting down eating some twigs and leaves. I think we all got goosebumps when he looked over at us, about 6 feet away. Then a baby gorilla startled us by walking right by us within inches towards the mother, who now came into sight obscured by some bushes. And another gorilla, possibly a teenager, was frolicking on top of a fallen tree and looked to be having a fun time playing around in an acrobatic manner. We observed our family for about an hour. It may have been the most magical hour of our lives.
A lot of the tours I host are “once in a lifetime experiences,” but this one in particular felt more than that. It was life-changing in many ways. While chimpanzees are a little closer in DNA to us humans, when you spend time with the gorillas, there does seem to be more of a family reunion vibe about it. Their expressions and mannerisms mirror ours so much. They have a grace and steady pace about them that seems so mature and evolved. Dian Fossey, the American researcher and author of the bestselling book “Gorillas in the Mist”, who launched a long-term study of mountain gorillas in Africa in the 70s, and as well helped prevent extinction of the gorillas from poachers, once said:
“When you realize the value of all life, you dwell less on what is past and concentrate more on the preservation of the future.”
The dignity that our Mishaya gorilla family showed us reminded me that the value of life rests on the principle of dignity and that the dignity of our fellow humans is an ideal worth fighting for. And in turn, we humans should strive to fight hard to preserve the dignity of life for all of our primate family members around the world, including chimpanzees and gorillas.
Our tour ended with a visit to a nearby pygmy village of the Batwas tribe. They are an endangered group of people that live in small huts, mainly made of sticks and grass. In anthropology, pygmy peoples are ethnic groups whose average height is unusually short. The term pygmyism is used to describe the phenotype of endemic short stature for populations in which adult men are on average less than 59 inches (150 cm) tall. The tribe danced and sang for us, and we made some donations and purchased some of their hand-crafted wares. The tribe matriarch was said to be 130 years old and her daughter 85! If there is some truth to their ages and after witnessing their mobility, strength and vigor – I think we may have discovered the proverbial fountain of youth in Uganda.
Jack Witt, MS, CPT
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