Man and Beast Alike
“Going up that river was like travelling back to the earliest beginnings of the world, when vegetation rioted on the earth and the big trees were kings. An empty stream, a great silence, an impenetrable forest…”
Joseph Conrad, Heart of Darkness, 1899.
The grey-cheeked mangabey makes a big noise for a little monkey, a savage sound that penetrates the Kibale National Forest in a way light does not. I’ve no idea if it’s trying to intimidate me as I head into the dense green, but its call makes me flinch, then stop. Bosco, my guide, sniggers at my cowardice. We’ve been in the jungle for five minutes and I’m already considering the wisdom of this invasion, even though there are several hours of trekking ahead in order to find a troop of chimpanzees.
Free from the screeching bedlam of zoos, they are surprisingly silent creatures, apt to roaming far and wide for the best food. Bosco leads us over several ridges and ravines, then through a couple of clear, cold streams. We learn that humans don’t travel so efficiently through the jungle. Everything seems to be growing, matter climbing over matter, all smothered in a moist, fertile sheen. After a couple of hours, the alarm calls of several other monkeys rolling around under the canopy, I smell the chimps before I see, hear or speak to them, a mammalian reek filling the air. Bosco points upwards.
It’s rainy season and the chimps don’t much fancy scrabbling around in the dirt for food, not when there’s such good eating to be had up in the trees. A troop is one collective noun for chimpanzees, but cartload is also correct (and funnier). However, this lot are so lazy that neither descriptor seems to fit – “a lounge of chimpanzees” would be more apt, or “a long lunch”. They’re so lethargic that they can’t seem to be bothered to swallow the fruit they chew, instead spitting out the pulp and letting it fall to the jungle floor below. Sometimes they stretch, sometimes they scratch, often they yawn. It’s all a wonder to we tourists, whose cameras are sent aflutter every time one of the chimps so much as twitches.
The next day, leaving Kibale, we drive west to the Queen Elizabeth National Park before turning south, over the equator, towards the Bwindi Impenetrable Forest, the fauna growing bigger by the mile.
One morning in Queen Elizabeth we see a lioness eye-up a kob for breakfast. She creeps ever-closer, her muscular, conspiratorial shoulders nudging her to towards a meal and the antelope towards the man with the scythe. Wind tickles the lioness’s thin mane and bends the grass in her favour. The humans fall silent, all of us on the feline’s side… only to be quickly disappointed as one when, for no reason we can see, the quarry stands up and moves to safety.
At other times en route to Bwindi we see leopards, buffalos and hippos. We are frequently delayed by elephants crossing the road. This delights tourists, though our guide insists they’re most dangerous of all. But that’s part of man’s problem – we’re always seeking something bigger, and if it can destroy us, then so much the better.
“Beware the beast Man, for he is the devil’s pawn. Alone among God’s primates he kills for sport or lust or greed. Yea, he will murder his brother to possess his brother’s land… he will make a desert of his home and yours. Shun him… for he is the harbinger of death.”
Planet of the Apes, 1968.
Paul Du Chailu was the first white man to see a gorilla. On doing so, he killed it. This murder of the “half-man, half-beast” happened fairly recently, in 1861, but it was a heavy thing for the French-American to bear: “The monster was hardly dead when I suddenly began to tremble all over, my lower jaw met my upper one in a way I did not like at all,” he later wrote in Explorations and Adventures in Equatorial Africa. “For 15 minutes my jaws went on cracking against each other, and the more I tried to stop them the more they chattered. I felt awfully mortified; but there was no help for it.”
Big-game hunting and poaching may be on the wane today, but in the end, it’ll be economics, not compassion, that saves the world’s great animals. Fortunately, the mountain gorilla is now worth more alive than dead.
Even so, the numbers are not, on the surface, encouraging. Three times rarer than the giant panda, and five times scarcer than the tiger, they are a serious disease or human war away from permanent annihilation. Genetically we are virtually identical, leaving them prone to most of the same pestilences as us (visitors to Bwindi must declare any illness before getting too close).
Worse, mountain gorillas do not do well in zoos, so while their western lowland relatives can be found in unhappy captivity all over the world, they can only survive when free.
Their power and fragility go hand-in-hand, but despite the human population continuing to swell around them, their numbers have actually increased in recent decades.
It’s estimated that 880 can now be found in two separate areas – around half here in the Bwindi Impenetrable National Park, the others spread across the volcanic Virunga region that straddles Uganda, Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of Congo. The people in those surrounding communities form a kind of sea around the gorillas – it’s often said that the gorillas are effectively living on islands, a great, inhospitable ocean of humanity forcing them skywards.
Yet there’s hope in Bwindi too, for impoverished people and gorillas together. Enduring fascination and love for the great apes brings considerable investment into the area in the form of big-spending tourism. Park fees are invested into the community, jobs are created, guides hired, crafts made and sold; the message is getting out, the roads are improving, healthcare too. It’s surely no coincidence that the image of the gorilla adorns the 50,000 shilling bank note, Uganda’s largest.
The more prosperous the locals, the better education they can afford, and the more reasons they have to stay out of the national park. And the longer gorillas are around, the more rich tourists will come, and so things will continue to improve. The gorillas are protecting the town and the town is protecting the gorillas, and the whole thing forms a fragile loop, like a smoke ring, fates intertwined, man and beast alike.
“There is more meaning and mutual understanding in exchanging a glance with a gorilla than with any other animal I know. [They] see the world in much the same way as we do… They walk around on the ground as we do, though they are immensely more powerful than we are. So if there were ever a possibility of escaping the human condition and living imaginatively in another creature’s world, it must be with the gorilla… It seems really very unfair that man should have chosen them to symbolise everything that is aggressive and violent, when that is the one thing that the gorilla is not, and that we are.”
Sir David Attenborough, 1978.
Gorilla tracking in Bwindi comes with a virtual guarantee of success, and a little hardship too. There are three groups habituated to human contact, each with distinct social structures, personalities and politics. Like the chimpanzees, they’re entirely free, able to roam far into what remains of their jungle domain with comparative ease, so each morning, trackers go out ahead of the tourists to get an idea of how deeply into the wild the gorillas have moved. Information is then relayed to the park headquarters and groups directed accordingly.
The rules and regulations are extensive – a maximum of 24 people a day are allowed to see the apes, three lots of eight, each assigned to a different family. Interactions are limited to an hour, so as not to over-familiarise the gorillas with people, and to cut down on the chances of tourists doing something stupid. The park rangers silently assess the fitness and age of visitors too, pairing those they believe will be most durable with the more far-flung gorillas.
Regardless, unless the apes have come to the edge of town (a rare occurrence) there’s some fairly vertical trekking to be done. The worst-case scenarios have seen people hiking for 11 hours in pouring rain, only to catch distant glimpses of dark figures sliding through the thick undergrowth.
For half an hour before we set off, the rangers brief us for disappointment and some suffering in the pursuit. They also encourage us to hire a local porter to carry our bags for our legs’ sake, but to give someone a job for the day too. I’m glad of Olivia, a stout little woman who has lived her whole life in these mountains and who slings my camera bag onto her back as though it is empty. Glancing at my fit-looking group, I suspect that we’re going to have a full day of tramping ahead of us to find a gorilla family named Rushegura. However, as the briefing continues, sunlight tumbles over the valley crest, and Obed, our guide for the day, says that perhaps things won’t be a bad as all that.
We set off along an ancient trail, slowly marching into the realm of the gorillas, the sun steady above, beads of sweat leaping from our brows and onto the blood-orange soil below. Through the huffing and puffing it occurs to me that although the forest isn’t literally impenetrable, it seems right that the gorillas are a prize not easily won.
They have always been too much for us – our alikeness was overwhelming from the start. Just as Sir David Attenborough was undone (years later, when asked to recount what he felt as a family of gorillas clambered over him, the great man replied “bliss”) so were Edgar Rice Burroughs, author of Tarzan, and the creators of King Kong and Planet of the Apes. Throughout history, we’ve elevated the gorilla to something bigger than us, something overawing, a superman powerful beyond its enormous physical strength.
Even in later years, when we reimagined them in an image of perfect peace, they were still too much. Dian Fossey, zoologist and author of Gorillas in the Mist, is the most obvious example of this, brought to the brink of madness and finally death by her love for them.
After just 90 minutes of following the old path up the mountain, we break through a green wall of jungle and I find I am no better prepared for the encounter than those who’ve gone before me.
Led by Kabukojo, the Rushegura group is brunching in the sunshine when we come upon them. Instantly their closeness is hard to endure. While the guards and rangers talk casually, we tourists become nervous and dumb, taking pictures while we can, but all keenly aware that we are in the presence of the extraordinary.
The gorillas, for their part, are fat, flatulent and fabulous. They bend and break trees as though they were manipulating balloons for a children’s party, then move onto the next patch with an uncanny kind of certainty, staring intently at the canopy and considering some esoteric matter beyond. They seem disconnected, somehow, and disinterested by us – with one adorable exception.
Nyamunwa, the baby in the group, has a youthfulness that seems to keep her attached to the human sphere. So, while the adults and sub-adults look past us as though we were ghosts on another plane (perhaps that’s how our ashen, hairless skin makes us appear), the toddler is as curious as she is cute. Officially we are to keep seven metres back, but Nyamunwa skipped that briefing, and chooses to come over to briefly hold hands with a lady in our group, breaking hearts from around the world.
She then comes to me and starts tugging at my notebook, then my camera. I’d like to tell you more about that experience, about what it feels like to interact with a wild baby gorilla and to meet her terrific gaze, but each time I reach for the words to describe it, I find only tears.
Hours later, back at the Sanctuary Gorilla Forest Camp, I read a passage from the mighty Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, which seems far better suited to the task: “And outside the silent wilderness surrounding this cleared speck on the earth struck me as something great and invincible, like evil or truth, patiently waiting for the passing away of this fantastic invasion.”
A version of this piece was published in Etihad Inflight in May 2015.