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Tuesday, May 19, 1998 Published at 18:01 GMT 19:01 UK

Gorilla-trekking takes off

Only 600 mountain gorillas are left

With more and more people now able to visit areas which we could once only read about, some holiday-makers are looking for new, unspoilt, destinations. And there are still some places which are special, giving the lucky few the chance of an extravagant holiday of a lifetime. A trip to see the mountain gorillas on the borders of Uganda, Rwanda and the Congo Democratic Republic falls into that category. There are just 600 of these elusive creatures in the world, and Elizabeth Blunt went to see them:

The patriarch of the family was sitting on the forest floor, leaning his back against a tree trunk. He seemed quite relaxed but he never took his eyes off us. I was glad he was feeling relaxed, since when he stood up he was around nine feet tall, barrel-chested, and weighed nearly 200 kilograms.

This whole thing had started a year earlier when a friend had first suggested that I join her on holiday in Uganda, and I had, rather blithely, said yes. Now I was half way up a mountain in the African rain forest, and face to face with a full grown silverback gorilla.

Gorilla tourism is a strange phenomenon. It has its roots in the work done by naturalists like Diane Fossey, featured in the Hollywood film, Gorillas in the Mist. They and their colleagues found that if they lived in the forest, and spent time each day quietly observing the same group of gorillas, gradually, gradually the animals became used to the scientists, and comfortable with their presence.

[ image: Gorilla tourism exploits tourist interest to safeguard the animals' future]
Gorilla tourism exploits tourist interest to safeguard the animals' future
That film aroused worldwide interest in the mountain gorillas, and gorilla tourism is an attempt to exploit that interest, in an bid to guarantee the animals' future, and to persuade both governments and the gorillas' human neighbours that the animals are a precious asset, not a threat or a nuisance or a cheap source of meat.

Now I was one of those tourists, reporting, as instructed, to the park headquarters at Bwindi, the so-called Impenetrable Forest, at 8.30 in the morning, with stout walking boots, waterproof clothing and a packed lunch. There were just six of us - the maximum number allowed to visit the gorillas each day.

Before we set out we were given a pep talk. Gorillas and humans, we were told, share 98% of the same DNA and can catch each other's diseases. We should withdraw now if we had colds or flu or any other ailment. We shouldn't cough or sneeze anywhere near them, and if we were caught short in the forest, then any faeces had to be buried 25 centimetres down.

It did strike me that they were a lot more worried about our infecting the gorillas than the gorillas infecting us; but after all there are plenty of tourists in the world, and only 600 mountain gorillas.

It was raining as we set off into the forest. The greenery dripped with moisture, and there was a dense smell of damp vegetation. There were tree ferns and orchids, and - as the day warmed up - clouds of butterflies.

We had with us two trackers who would find the troop of gorillas, starting from the place - about an hour and a half's walk from the park headquarters - where they had been seen the previous day.

When we got there, we scrambled up a muddy bank into the woods and followed our guide through the undergrowth. Suddenly he motioned to us to stop and pointed; we peered through the vegetation. We had almost walked straight into a gorilla, sitting on the forest floor, calmly eating leaves.

Then there was a movement, and a rustling up above us. We looked up. There was one, then two more gorillas. We realised we were standing right in the middle of the group, and that they were all around us.

This so-called Mubare group is a classic gorilla extended family, headed by a full-grown, silver-back male, named 'Ruhondeza' by the trackers: the one who sleeps a lot.

Also in the troop are seven other adults, mostly females, and 10 assorted youngsters. For an hour we watched, as gorilla family life went on around us. Females suckled their babies, cuddled them and settled them down to sleep.

Young ones rollicked up and down the trees, slid down creepers and, on one occasion, one tumbled out of the branches, landing both himself and his brother in a pile of leaves.

They didn't stand up and beat their chests, King Kong style, but from time to time they did make light drumming noises on the tree trunks, or grunted quietly to each other.

Most of them seemed to disregard their human visitors completely, except, that is, the old male. It was some time before we spotted him, but I have no doubt that he had long ago spotted us. He was comfortably settled at the base of a large tree, with one of the females reclining up against him, and one of the smallest babies playing nearby.

Every so often the little one would wander too far, and father or mother would stretch out a large paw and haul him back. But the silverback, his grey hair extending in a wide belt right around his middle, was always watchful, very protective of the family under his care.

So what about gorilla tourism? For us, certainly, it was everything we could have hoped, a once-in-a-lifetime chance to get close to these gentle animals, so touchingly like ourselves.

For Uganda, still climbing its way back from war and economic chaos, gorillas are the new hope of the tourist industry, their photos all over the pamphlets and posters.

And yet it rests on such a fragile base - the whim of what are finally wild creatures with their own lives to live.

This time last year Uganda had three groups of gorillas habituated for tourists, but then the silverback leader of one group died and the family broke up. A second group has got into the habit of wandering backwards and forwards across the border with the Congo Democratic Republic, out of the reach of human visitors who are subject to border controls.

At present, only Ruhondeza and his family remain. So that day in Uganda, we were the only six people able to go gorilla tracking. It was a great chance, a great privilege, and one that none of us will forget.

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