My third article with Verge Magazine - https://www.vergemagazine.com/volunteer-abroad/blogs/2853-don-t-touch-the-animals.html
Don't touch the Animals...
. . .but what if the animal touches me?
For years, I’ve dreamt of seeing the mountain gorillas in the wild. I can pinpoint the exact moment this adventure was imprinted in my destiny. I had just finished watching Gorillas in the Mist, a 1988 dramatic film about the life of naturalist Dian Fossey, who studied and fought to protect the lives of endangered wild gorillas. Her story touched the hearts of people all over the world—including mine.
Of course, planning to trek the treacherous rainforests of Uganda isn’t as easy as one might think. It’s a long way from home, it’s an enormous undertaking, as well as a daunting adventure, and there are many costs to consider. Permits are required to visit the mountain gorillas and they are far from reasonable. (Then again, in comparison to trekking permits in Rwanda, Uganda’s fee structure is surprisingly inexpensive at US$700.) Money collected goes towards the support of conservation efforts and the growth of the gorilla populations, so it is difficult to complain. You are not permitted to go trekking on your own, so these fees are inevitable. However, the extra costs of tours, accommodation, food, porters and tipping all add up quickly.
Many people I have encountered throughout my journey have been astonished to discover I would even consider spending such an extravagant amount of money to see these creatures. "Surely a zoo would be significantly cheaper?" they ask.
The only place to see mountain gorillas is in their natural habitat.
I guess one must be grateful that mountain gorillas are unable to survive in captivity. There have been numerous attempts over the years, which have only proven unsuccessful. They have all eventually perished, due mostly in part to the mental anguish of having been forcibly removed from their home and family. Taking into consideration that gorillas share 98.3 percent of their genetic code with humans, it’s not difficult to appreciate their misery in a captive environment. Zoos hardly provide sufficient enough space, and these magnificent beasts could stand to represent all wild animals when it comes to capture and imprisonment.
I chose Bwindi Impenetrable Forest. This home to our beloved primate species is a tropical rainforest in southwestern Uganda. It is not only a UNESCO World Heritage Site, but also Uganda’s top destination.
Upon arrival, we were split off into small groups. Our gorilla troop was "Busingye," meaning "peace." We were accompanied by a ranger, three porters and two armed guards.
When we first started out, none of us knew exactly how long we would be hiking for. The ranger said it could be anywhere from 15 minutes to 12 hours. The notion of spending 12 hours searching for gorillas was slightly inconceivable, but I trekked on, ever hopeful our journey wouldn’t fall into the latter half of that guess-timation. Our hike took us on a long, steep incline which eventually opened up to a breathtaking viewpoint. There was a lot of slippery mud, and the trail was littered with fallen leaves, broken branches, rocks, rotten stumps and dangling vines. There were many opportunities to trip and topple over, of which we all did on a number of occasions throughout the day. We had all been given a walking stick prior to hitting the trail and I have never been so appreciative of a piece of equipment. It became my third leg as I plodded along. It suddenly made perfect sense why good hiking boots, long pants, long socks and gloves were recommended.
Then, there they were, a few big black blobs directly in front of us.
We were immediately instructed to sit down, remain very quiet, and mask up. Each of us followed the instructions diligently. Gorillas are prone to the same diseases as humans, so masks were imperative to ensure they were safe during our presence. All at once, we shifted from the exhaustion of the strenuous climb to a feeling of pure euphoria. Our dream had come true. We were sitting in the rainforest, face-to-face with a troop of mountain gorillas. The contentment of feeling completely in sync with the surrounding environment captivated us. We were utterly engrossed in nature. It was just us and the gorillas.
The trackers quietly led each of us along to advantageous viewing spots, all the time using their machetes to clear the way. We sat for an hour, silently observing as the family went about their lives. We kept our distance and did nothing to disturb them, so they paid us little attention. We observed a silverback’s interaction with a couple of infants running around, beating their chests. Gorilla toddlers frolicked in the tree branches, occasionally losing their grip and tumbling to the ground. A mama coddled her baby, while rocking back and forth.
Yet, I couldn’t help but wonder how ethical it was to be sitting here? I had read that saving these wild gorillas from extinction is partly in our hands. The Uganda Wildlife Authority relies on our conservation fees to protect them and the habituation process the rangers carry out can take up to three years. I felt better knowing I was playing an important role in their survival.
And then the unthinkable happened. . .
One of the trackers had positioned me near a decaying fallen tree. In an effort to better maintain my balance, I had thrust my leg over the side of the log, bringing myself into a straddling position. A full grown female emerged from the brush and immediately took the opportunity to exert her power and obvious displeasure with our presence. She grunted, made a high-pitched scream—and then charged directly towards me.
I can still hear the tracker’s words in my ear: “Stay! Don’t move!”
This was no bluff charge. She ran right at me and grabbed my leg. As quickly as she had grabbed it, she released me and ran back into the bush.
“It touched my leg,” I said, trembling.
Was touched the word I was looking for?
“You’re lucky she didn’t take your leg,” was the response I got.
Considering I was straddling a crumbling log, had she wanted to run off with my leg, it would have been an easy break.
I’d heard never to touch the animals—but what happens if they touch you?