It was partly tough but hilarious to watch fellow trackers panting their way through the misty jungle in masks, on our way to the Rushegura mountain gorilla family. A new way to see Uganda’s most prized tourist attraction during the COVID-19 times.
Let’s rewind to about 2 months ago….
A friend and fellow avid promoter of tourism invited me to join a team of six photographers and videographers on a month-long escapade branded “Uganda Wild N Live”. The goal was to visit, see, capture, and broadcast (where possible in realtime, LIVE) some of the whispers from Uganda’s wild side of life as destinations slowly relaxed lockdowns and lifted COVID-19 restrictions.
One of many stops on this country-wide itinerary was a safari to Uganda’s holy grail; the Bwindi – Mgahinga Conservation Area.
The previous two days had found us in the southern sector of Queen Elizabeth National Park called Ishasha, where we had shared some quality time with one of the region’s celebrity tree-climbing lions. A lovely lioness called Jessica.
Two days before Ishasha, we were trekking through what has been said to be the best place to see chimpanzees; the primate capital of the world, Kibale National Park.
Day 6 had us transfer from Ishasha Wilderness Camp to the famous northern sector of Bwindi Impenetrable National Park. Buhoma, the little town brought alive by tourism, and one of four sectors where gorilla tracking safaris in Bwindi Impenetrable National Park can be enjoyed.
Unfortunately, this lovely village setting’s veins had run silent, in these unprecedented times. The absence of daily tourists had imposingly slowed life down for everyone including the farmers who supply many of the ecolodges and the local women group that is involved in community conservation projects.
As the sun fought its way from behind the rugged terrain the following morning, with its rays permeating the mist over what is known to be one of Africa’s oldest natural forests, breakfast was served in haste as we laced up for the day’s adventures.
Our arsenal of tools for the day as we left our lodge, Mahogany Springs comprised of walking sticks, camera gear, an internet router, bug repellant, sanitizer, masks, and our lunch boxes.
The thought of penetrating the impenetrable kingdom of mountain gorillas approximately six months after the last visitors on safari had left bootprints, felt celeb-like, but obviously different.
Primate tourism had been suspended on 5th June 2020, although international tourists had left at the beginning of global restrictions on travel, long before that date.
The paths were still boggy and slippery, the weather similarly cool and foggy as before, and the rule that only eight visitors would gain access to a gorilla family per day seemed like it was business as usual. But that was not entirely the case.
Like we had witnessed in Kibale National Park, Uganda’s Wildlife Authority had further intensified protocols around primate tourism; visibly more stringent around the mountain gorillas.
Our land cruiser came to a slow stop as we approached the gate to Buhoma. We were signaled to step out for the washing and sanitizing of hands at an industrial-sized dispenser before temperature measurements were taken by one of the ladies, while a gentleman sanitized the outside and interior of our vehicle.
I liked that we weren’t allowed to write down our own names in the register, which obviously made sense. You don’t want to have six tourists using the same pen and book, touching everywhere, and then heading back to readjust camera settings. Limiting contact as much as possible by UWA was commendable.
But for a moment, it felt quite militant and very different. Let’s just say it was frighteningly efficient. Of course, we felt welcomed, but since the usual smiles of the wildlife rangers had been hidden behind their masks you could have thought we were driving into a strict military facility.
Back in our vehicle, we continued to the pre-briefing point where we had to undergo yet another phase of Standard Operating Procedures (SoPs) and were then led to an open and well-spaced shelter for the usual Dos and Donts.
The long-awaited moment had come. It was finally time to head out into the forest in search of the Rushegura Mountain Gorilla group. It was just the six of us, the only tourists in Buhoma that day, and the first to track this family of great apes in a long time.
But before we could, there was yet another phase of SOPs.
With our boots, hands, camera equipment disinfected, and a final emphasis on wearing masks, Goretti our guide for the day led the way, as a team of porters followed a few steps behind us with all the stuff we would need for the hike.
She (Goretti) would remind us throughout the trek to monitor our breathing, and ask for stops whenever we needed to.
I forgot to say that at this point we had been streaming LIVE on Facebook and it was like history in the making. Lovers of gorilla tourism were tuned in from all around the world as we made this milestone odyssey to reunite with one of the earth’s most sought-after wildlife species, the mountain gorilla.
It’s been said time and again that this life-changing activity of tracking mountain gorillas in the tropical rain forest can be a tedious activity involving some sweaty and steep climbs, slippery forest paths, and it can rain anytime.
It’s not made easier in a mask, but we braved it, all for the love of meeting this special species yet again.
The forest flowed with clean streams, the vegetation looked healthier, and the bird chorus was lovelier than before, as Goretti pointed to L’Hoest’s and Red-tailed monkeys high above our heads, in the forest canopy and explained the flora in the UNESCO-listed Bwindi. There was just the right amount of sunlight penetrating this forested empire to guide our walk.
Like all the national parks we visited on this voyage, I was impressed to see that the wildlands were rejuvenating and awaiting our return.
Two hours of trek brought us to a point where an advance team of trackers had been positioned to welcome us, and here we received our final briefing, had a last sip of water, were checked again for any possible symptoms, and sanitized.
When Goretti asked if we wanted to have our lunch before approaching the gorilla family, we all laughed, like to show her how less-interested we were in the food, especially with the prize just a few steps away.
It is important to recognize that the optimal way to prevent airborne transmission is to use a combination of interventions from across the hierarchy of controls, and one of these controls is wearing a proper mask.
By no surprise, we were instructed to switch from the ‘normal surgical masks’ to the N95 masks. A much tougher mask to breathe through, I must say; but also one that ensured an even greater level of prevention against any possible transmission of disease to our distant cousins.
The regulations around mountain gorilla tourism in Uganda, Rwanda, and the Democratic Republic of Congo have among many things, insisted on the 7 – meter rule for so many years. Uganda Wildlife Authority had however increased the social distancing during our hour with these primates. We had to view them from 10 meters away, a distance that still allowed us clear sight of the gorillas and the chance to enjoy their magnificence.
Still gigantic, but also remaining gentle and welcoming. It was lovely to look into the soulful eyes of a mother with her baby holding tight to her furry coat.
I still had that sense of mixed feelings from my first gorilla tracking safari. Watching the silverback in all his might, breaking bamboo (somewhat effortlessly), while he looked around. Each time our eyes met, it gave me a chill; my tummy bubbled and the hairs on my arms stood. He seemed undisturbed by our presence but alert about our every move and ready to reinforce the social distancing rule at any time.
And then there were the juveniles who in all their innocence, kept swinging between the twigs above. These young lands carried on in a fine display of mock chest thumps and got oddly close to where we stood, feeling our laces and shaking our camera tripods before they retreated back to nag the rather calm adults. Still as curious as they always were, haha, reminding us of what human children are like.
A number of mountain gorilla births had taken place during the lockdown period. The BBC had reported the first phase of this episode of seven mountain gorilla babies in six weeks as a “baby boom” and this influenced our choice of families to visit on this tour.
The following day we would track the Mubare family in similar conditions. Mubare is believed to be where the very first mountain gorilla trekking permit ever was sold (in 1993) and where the story of gorilla tracking safaris began. Another baby mountain gorilla had been born there.
Two days later we would visit our third family, but this time in Uganda’s smallest national park, the tiny 34-sq-km Mgahinga Gorilla National Park, known to also protect the endangered population of rare golden monkeys. This park, where gold meets silver had also welcomed a healthy baby in its only habituated family called Nyakagezi.
As I pen down my wild COVID-era gorilla tracking experience, the twist continues. Three more babies have since been born in Bwindi including one which according to UWA was delivered yesterday (11th November 2020) in the Rushegura mountain group which I had the pleasure of visiting and photographing just a few weeks ago.
I suspect it was this beautiful female, whose photo I took during the visit. She seemed heavy while we were there.
The new protocols all made sense, after all, knowing how delicate the mountain gorilla population is (a few individuals above 1000) and how susceptible they can be to the diseases that affect us, given our closeness in DNA similarity.
I would be lying to say that it is business as usual in Uganda, but the country is back and ready for business.
Around March and April this year, there was very little hope, but this is slowly returning as global citizens come to the reality that like earlier pandemics, COVID-19 is not a death sentence, but something that we should be careful about as we live our days.
As the tourism industry reopens and the news of progress in finding a vaccine spreads across the world, we can say that wildlife conservation efforts are getting a necessary shot in the arm.
With tourists back on the road, conservation efforts especially around critical species like the mountain gorilla can enjoy a breath of fresh air. Help is on the way…