Lair of the Silverbacks

Deep in the Albertine Rift Valley of Uganda lies the Bwindi Impenetrable Forest,where mountain gorillas have found refuge.

By Gladys Kalema-Zikusoka

It’s a lush green tropical forest in southwestUganda, home to about half of the world’s estimated 700 mountain gorillas.

But what makes Bwindi so special is not only these critically endangered, magnificent, andcharismatic cousins with whom humans have in common 98.4 percent of their genetic material, butalso the special charm and hospitality of the people who share this fragile World HeritageSite with the planet’s gentle giants—and whose livelihood is increasingly dependenton gorilla ecotourism.

When I first went to Bwindi as a veterinary student in 1994, I thought Ihad reached the ends of the Earth. On my first morning in Bwindi I got up tothe most stunning scenery of mist rising over the forest, steep slopes, andnarrow valleys, which truly looked impenetrable.

I had to wait—impatiently—for four days before tracking the gorillas, because I had anasty cold. During this time, I reflected on the health risks we pose to the gorillas. This hasshaped my career as a wildlife veterinarian and community health advocate.

While in Bwindi I came to appreciate unique sounds and smells—the calls of the cuckoo and touraco,among other bird species; the whiffs of fresh, misty air and pungent gorilla dung. By the time Ihad completed my stay, I had fallen in love with the place, which has since become a second home.

My first sighting of a mountain gorilla was of a young silverback, called Kacupira, whose namemeans “broken hand.” He was alone, feeding on bark.

What struck me was how calm and accommodating Kacupira was to our group ofsix tourists and three park rangers.

By now I have tracked gorillas over 200 times, and everyone in my family,including my elderly mother, has joined me at one time or another.

Each time I learn something new, and it is always an emotional encounter (especially forme, when I am faced with treating sick gorillas).

This is what draws visitors from around the world to Bwindi. I have watched people cry when they first see the mountaingorillas.

I’ll never forget one lady who said, “That baby gorilla is cuter than my grandson.”

Dr. Gladys Kalema-Zikusoka has worked with the Bwindi mountain gorillas for 15 years. She is thefounder and CEO of the Ugandan-based non-profit, Conservation Through Public Health.



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