Sunday Ndayakunze isn’t your regular park ranger. He lives and works in one of the world’s most dangerous national parks and needs to carry a loaded rifle and machete with him at all times. But this isn’t primarily to protect himself from the wild animals that lurk in the depths of the tropical undergrowth of Uganda. It’s because the park he patrols borders the far more dangerous Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), a country that has been caught in violent civil war for the past 15 years.
Sunday was a boy when he first heard about the rare creatures that lived in the jungle but after learning of their plight he knew he wanted to spend his life studying and protecting them.
When his grandfather went exploring, Sunday recalls from his childhood, his papa would catch glimpses of elusive jet-black shadows peering out of the dense rainforest canopy, their red eyes shining beyond the buffers of rugged vegetation. After dark, when he had returned to his village for dinner, he could hear the creatures beating their chests and whooping. Little did Sunday’s grandfather know that his backyard would soon be home to the world’s last population of wild mountain gorillas.
That was 30 years ago, and now Sunday is one of the chief park rangers and tourist guides at Bwindi Forest Impenetrable National Park in western Uganda.
“When my grandfather told me his stories I wanted to help. Their numbers were already dwindling,” he says. “I was only a boy at the time but I knew that they were in danger and I wanted to do anything I could to help save them for the next generation.”
Heart of darkness
I have come to Uganda to track these very same gorillas, and with Sunday leading the way, I couldn’t have a more experienced guide. For nearly 20 years he has been tracking the country’s most famous inhabitants and his success-rate is second to none: in fact, in all the time he has scouted them, he has only failed to find them twice.
“When you’ve grown up and lived around this park for decades, you know how to track them down,” he says. “You’ll be really unlucky if you don’t see them.”
The previous day I spent nine hours in a 4×4 Land Cruiser, crossing from Entebbe across the Equator to Masaka and Mbarara, along a series of dusty highways and mountain roads. And I certainly didn’t want to come all this way for nothing. But gorilla tracking itself isn’t a regular stroll in the park – it can take anything up to 10 hours to find the elusive animals in the dense undergrowth. Precipitous verges are climbed, rivers are crossed and a rusty machete, for hacking a path through the thick, thorny rainforest, is your best friend. It’s not called the Impenetrable Forest for nothing.
The park is located in one of the wildest regions on earth, bordering the Virunga Mountains, a chain of volcanoes running towards Rwanda. While the gorillas in the mist are the main draw, there are red-tailed monkeys, chimpanzees, African elephants, giant forest hogs, countless species of frogs, chameleons, geckos and many more. It’s dangerous territory for more than just its wildlife, though. Long-running civil wars, and an ongoing battle between poachers and anti-poaching patrols, have also made the southwest of Uganda a perilous place for gorillas, as well as travellers.
Our gorilla-tracking day begins at 7am with a rose-pink sun peeping up from behind the low-level hills that form a natural boundary between the mud huts and banana plantations of Bwindi village and the park’s more dramatic slopes on the horizon. Looking out from the veranda of my canopy-level cottage at Wild Frontiers’ Buhoma Lodge, I can see the bottle-green treetops rattle with birdlife and red-tailed monkeys pouncing from creeper to vine.
I join an eight-strong group at Uganda Wildlife Authority’s headquarters to learn more about the park’s gigantic primates from Sunday and his fellow guide, Zipora Kabugho. In the expedition safety briefing, we are checked for good health and warned to keep a minimum of seven metres’ distance at all times. We are told that to help preserve the gorillas’ way of life, interaction with humans is minimised and park visitors are limited to one hour within the company of a group. Having similar DNA to humans, gorillas are highly susceptible to our illness and disease, and even catching a common cold could wipe out an entire family of them. Which begs the question, why are tourists even allowed here in the first place?
“Having 300 of them here pays dividends,” Sunday says. “Without tourists, local farmers would encroach into the park’s boundaries and their habitats would be in even greater danger.”
Fortunately, thanks to government measures – only 72 permits (costing up to $450 in high season) are issued every day – the battle has subsided, the number of critically endangered gorillas in the wild has steadied, and for the first time in decades, it is slowly on the rise. Rangers also carry a gun for safety but rarely, if ever, use one.
“If a gorilla charges at you, whatever you do, do not run,” Zipora says. “Stay calm, crouch down and be quiet – remember they are wild and can be incredibly dangerous. Trust me, you wouldn’t stand a chance against an angry silverback.”
As we leave the park HQ, the reddish colour of the earth underfoot comes to an abrupt stop. Ahead is an endless canopy of green that stretches 300 kilometres to the border with the DRC. Vast, almost theatrical swathes of trees, vines, branches and bushes soon surround us as we penetrate deep into the rainforest. The smell of tropical vegetation is overwhelming. At times, according to Sunday, so are the mounds of gorilla shit.
Close encounter with another kind
After only one hour, there is a violent shake in the canopy above our heads. There is a fluster, a bang and a clatter, a branch snaps clean off and a dark shape comes plummeting into a clearing in front of us. Within striking distance is a wild gorilla. My adrenalin levels rocket and, in the warm, thin air, my glasses fog over.
We retreat behind a clutch of trees, and then, as the trees shut us in, one by one, a band of gorillas lumber out of the undergrowth to rest and feed. There are 10 of them, recognised by Zipora as from the Rushegura group, christened because of their individual markings in the local tongue. There is Karungi, Nyamunwa, Kibande, Nyampazi, Ruterana, Kalembezi, Buzinza and her baby. Their broad shoulders may look menacing but their eyes show wariness.
Kibande plays with her firstborn, Ruterana climbs effortlessly and Nyamunwa nurses an unknown wound. Momentarily, we are in the midst of playtime for gorillas, thousands of miles away from the nearest zoo enclosure. Then, as the gorillas start to settle, an enormous shape crashes through the trees. It is the silverback that we had been warned about. He marches into the clearing, towering over his family – he is colossal. Nearly twice the size of the females, this is Mwirima, thought to be the world’s largest silverback. Sensing his glare, I feel my stomach flip.
“Just don’t move,” whispers Zipora reassuringly. “He won’t charge.” Then, seeing us from the corner of his eye, Mwirima pauses, shakes his neck in defiance and turns back into the jungle. And then they are gone. They leave behind muddy prints the size of baseball mitts, broken trees and chewed pieces of bark and bamboo – the sign of very hungry, very happy gorillas.