By Jonathan Benaiah (The Ugandan Tourist)
Though greatly similar to humans in their genetic composition, mountain gorillas are WILD animals. Our relentless love for them should never fool us; these animals still have a wild instinct within them and if offered an opportunity to unleash it, they can be extremely disastrous.
Like most animals, mountain gorillas are territorial and often fight to protect their territories and their families if they feel threatened. With the aim ensuring the safety of tourists who visit Uganda on mountain gorilla trekking safaris and tours, habituation of mountain gorilla families must take place. Ugandans are very welcoming people and we want to try and teach that to our fellow citizens the mountain gorillas.
Mountain Gorilla habituation in Uganda is a process which is conducted by experts from Uganda Wildlife Authority (UWA) principally to make gorillas accustomed to human beings. This is a long process that involves keenly studying of a mountain gorilla family which has been identified and the process lasts an average of two (2) years.
The experts will make daily visits to the mountain gorilla family for the two years; spending long hours with them and taking a daily record of their activities throughout the habituation process. As you will observe during your Uganda tour and safari to Bwindi or Mgahinga National Park, mountain gorillas have names and these names are given to them during the habituation process. There’s not a standard criterion that is used for naming mountain gorillas but the majority of Uganda’s gorillas today are being named basing on their appearance, behavior or history.
When the experts find out that the gorillas no longer evade them when they visit, and that the alpha silverback (the male gorilla who leads a particular family) is less violent to them, then the group can progress to a period of mock-testing to clearly ascertain that it is ready. If it passes the mock test, it can then be declared a habituated mountain gorilla family and can be opened up to mountain gorilla tracking safari visitors.
The merit in habituation is that when tourists visit, the gorillas will not hideaway and tourists can therefore enjoy an experience they highly paid for. Additionally, habituation makes the gorilla family less violent and therefore ensuring the safety of the tourists; but we can never take it for granted that a habituated gorilla family is harmless. Additionally, through habituation, we have been able to understand mountain gorillas more and this has enabled us to devise efficient conservation mechanisms aimed at sustaining the existence of these irreplaceable fauna species. For example, we have over the years learned how to treat mountain gorillas from sicknesses and also learned how to treat their injuries especially after they have engaged in fatal fights.
Four (4) of Bwindi’s mountain gorilla families were formed as a result of fission. It therefore did not necessitate them to go through the habituation process a second time because they had already undergone the habituation process when they were still part of their former families. Today we are glad to have a total of twelve (12) habituated mountain gorilla families which are available for tourists to meet when on Uganda Safaris and tours in Mgahinga and Bwindi Impenetrable National Park.