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Sunday, 30 June 2013

Gorillas & Orangutans

Written by Alex Jones
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I had always dreamt of seeing this planet's rarest primates for myself, and this dream was becoming increasingly urgent with the knowledge that they may only have a few years left: with fewer than seven hundred mountain gorillas and only a few thousand orangutans left in the wild, time is running out for our close cousins. I decided to take a trip across two continents, top and tailed by big hairy monkeys.


The endangered orangutan lives only on two Southeast Asian islands, Sumatra and Borneo. Its population has decreased by eighty percent in the last twenty years alone. Incredibly vulnerable to habitat loss, the orangutan's future looks bleak as Indonesia's rapid development and accompanying deforestation continues apace.


Around half of the world's few remaining mountain gorillas inhabit the remote Virunga mountains. The Virungas are a strip of forest-clad volcanoes, spanning Uganda, Rwanda and Democratic Republic of Congo. These countries have hardly been famed for their stability in recent times, and in the ongoing battles the gorilla population is also suffering casualties, as guerrilla bands hideout in the national parks.  


Visiting these two endangered species would be two very different experiences. Whilst trekking to the remote mountain gorilla is one of the world's ultimate eco-tourism experiences, semi-wild populations of orangutans are accessible only a few hours north of Sumatra's major city, Medan.


Costing $500, a gorilla trekking permit entitles you to one hour with the gorillas, assuming you find them at all. This will probably be the single most expensive activity that I will ever undertake. In contrast, entry to see the orangutans will set you back only £3. This relatively small entry fee is positive, as it permits access for local people and encourages their crucial participation in conservation projects. It is vital in helping to spread an understanding of the importance of protecting these majestic creatures, with whom we share 97% of our DNA. However, there seemed little to prevent tourists misbehaving, using flash photography, hand-feeding the animals, or trying to touch them.


A number of feeding platforms have been established in the rainforest near the village of Bukit Lewang, which are visited by wild and semi-wild rehabilitated orangutans. A small knot of local tourists had braved the monsoon rains with us, and waited behind a low wooden fence near the platform. Soon, a number of adults emerged from the forest all around, clambering through the treetops. 


Some appeared more comfortable around people than others. The tamest sat comfortably on the platform, staring defiantly back at the tourists snapping photos of them. One in particular seemed adept at adopting the most photogenic poses, hanging King-Louis-like from creepers, before reaching a hand out toward the nearest person for a banana. Others were more suspicious and retreated well-away from us to enjoy their loot. 




Conversely, trekking the Virunga mountains in search of the mountain gorilla is the domain of the very few, with only tens of gorilla permits issued daily across Rwanda, Uganda and DR Congo. It requires sufficient fitness to trudge through the jungle for several hours each way in search of your allotted gorilla group. In the event of incapacity in the jungle, we were jokingly offered extraction via 'African helicopter', as our guide pointed at two guys holding a stretcher. 


The well-being of the gorillas is paramount and they are well-protected. No-one is allowed to track the gorillas if they are ill, suffering from even a chest cold or an upset stomach: we are so closely related that they can catch human diseases. 


However, even the mountain gorillas are not completely wild. Before tourists can visit a particular group, rangers spend up to two years habituating them to people. This involves visiting the gorillas every day and facing down charge after charge from silverbacks establishing their dominance, whilst the group becomes used to the quiet presence of people. Consequently only a few groups of habituated gorillas can be visited in each country.


The Virungas are a big place, but it is a professional operation. Scouts and trackers go out at daybreak to search the forests near yesterday's sightings. When the gorilla groups are located, they radio back to the guides. Each group of seven tracks a separate habituated group of gorillas, and is assigned a guide and a guard armed with a rifle. I never figured out if our guard, Wilbur, was there to protect us from bandits, from the gorillas themselves, or the gorillas from us. Probably a little of all three.


After several hours hiking through the forest, we received a radio update from the scouts, and our guide turned left off the path, plunging straight into the bush. As we hacked our way through the virgin forest with machetes, we reflected on how aptly-named the Bwindi Impenetrable Forest in which we were trekking was. After passing some still-steaming gorilla dung, about which our guide got very excited, we finally found our gorillas. 


Rounding a corner, the silverback sat in the middle of the path right in front of us. We surprised him and he promptly charged us. There are few things scarier than seeing your petrified guide and armed guard come tearing back down the path towards you away from an angry wild animal; whilst habituated to people, the gorillas are in no way tame. After this experience, I did not envy the rangers whose job it is to habituate them.


Thankfully, once he had established his authority over us, he settled down and we were able to approach. Sitting three meters away from a 250 kg silverback was truly awe-inspiring. He sat in the long grass with his back to us, gazing out over the valley, idly chewing plants plucked from his grassy seat, completely unfazed by our presence in the undergrowth behind him. After all, having fled so pitifully from his show of force, how could we possibly be a threat?


We spent our hour watching the silverback, while a female and some cubs played in the trees nearby. When he moved off through the forest we followed, continuing to clumsily cut our own path as he effortlessly moved through the bush. He climbed a tree and stared imperiously down at us, before getting bored and turning his back. An incredible experience, our sixty minutes was over all too soon, and it took another few hours to cut our way back out of the Impenetrable Forest.


Being so close to these animals, even for such a short space of time, was a privilege. However, if things continue unchanged, these amazing animals will have disappeared completely from every corner of every forest in the world.


© Alex Jones


Last modified on Monday, 01 July 2013