Travel

A gorilla safari with a difference in Uganda

In the mountains of Uganda, gorilla-safari tourism is helping the displaced Batwa people find a place they can call their own

  • Jun 17, 2019
  • 1,903 words
  • 8 minutes
A mountain gorilla near Vocanoes Safaris Mount Gahinga Lodge in Uganda. (Photo: Volcanoes Safaris)
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My butler woke me by singing a “good morning” song as he approached my banda at Mount Gahinga Lodge in Uganda. He tapped on my door, placed a tray with my morning coffee on the table and stepped back into the darkness. It was two hours before dawn.

I’d spent time at three of the four luxury lodges Volcanoes Safaris operates in the Great Lakes region of Uganda and Rwanda (see “Lodge life,” below), and my favourite part of each stay were these sung wake-up calls. None of these were as early as on this particular morning, though. And none seemed as important. After nearly a week in the region, I was finally going to penetrate the Bwindi Impenetrable National Park. I was finally going to see gorillas.    

After morning coffee, our posse of five drowsy travellers drove for two hours on a rough road to reach the park entrance at Rushaga in time for a briefing by park officials. Our group was assigned to visit the Bikingi gorilla family, a habituated group of about 15 gorillas. Armed with walking sticks, we followed our guide into the forest accompanied by three enthusiastic porters and a black-uniformed Ugandan soldier with an assault rifle. We hadn’t made it far before our guide received a radio call from our tracker. He had good news. I’d heard stories of people hiking for hours, sometimes in the pouring rain, to reach their assigned gorilla groups. On this morning, however, the Bikingi clan was on the move. And they were coming toward us.

We plunged off the trail and down into the forest proper. Our guide hacked a path for us with a small scythe while our porters helped the less sure-footed among us navigate the slippery logs and tripwire vines. We hiked for about half an hour. Then, at the bottom of the valley, we found our gorillas. 

A mountain gorilla in Uganda's Mgahinga Gorilla National Park. (Photo: Volcanoes Safaris)
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A mountain gorilla in Uganda's Mgahinga Gorilla National Park. (Photo: Volcanoes Safaris)
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Adult mountain gorillas are startlingly huge. They stand up to nearly two metres tall and can weigh up to 200 kilograms. Yet their movement through the forest, while slow, is effortless — especially juxtaposed with the energy you must expend to reach them. After the pre-dawn wake-up, the rattling road trip and the steep hike through dense bush, a selfish part of me desired some reciprocal curiosity from the gorillas. At least some mild interest. But the Bikingi adults would not oblige. They slowly stripped the leaves from branches with a stoic indifference to our presence that was even more humbling than their immensity. The gorillas leave no doubt as to whose forest we have stepped into. And they are so, so cool.

The young were more generous with their attention. As we gazed at a feeding silverback, a two-year-old gorilla leapt onto a treetop just above us. He then slid down the trunk like a fireman down a pole and bounded directly toward me. I stepped out of his way — we had been told to keep our distance. The youngster chugged past and hugged the legs of the woman standing next to me. She froze in a sort of stunned bliss for a few seconds until the gorilla pushed through her legs and carried on into the forest. Later she would say the encounter left her forever changed. It left me forever jealous.

We saw eight gorillas that morning. To write they were “human-like” would be a cliché. And yet what else can you say about their familiar facial expressions? About the way the adults idly scratch at their shoulders the way we all do? About their self-satisfied farts? Not long before we left the Bikingis, I watched two infant gorillas wrestle each other in a small clearing. As a former wrestler myself, this caused much joy. Not only were the gorillas just like us, these two were just like me

For the sake of the gorillas, the Batwa were rendered homeless and became conservation refugees.

Mountain gorillas used to share Bwindi, and other high-altitude forests in the Great Lakes region, with the Indigenous Batwa people. Historians consider the Batwa to be the original human inhabitants of the region. They were already living alongside the gorillas, hunting small game, gathering plants and fruits, and building huts of leaves and branches long before the first farmers arrived a thousand years ago.

In 1991, in an effort to protect the endangered gorillas, Uganda declared the Bwindi Impenetrable Forest and the nearby Mgahinga forest as national parks. Officials with the Ugandan Wildlife Authority informed the Batwa that they would have to leave their ancestral homes in the forest — a decision made without the Batwa’s consultation or consent. For the sake of the gorillas, the Batwa were rendered homeless and became conservation refugees.

The Batwa have not thrived during their more than 25 years in exile. Access to education, employment and health care for expelled Batwa remains poor. Many ended up as beggars, opium addicts and gasoline-huffers in Kampala, Uganda’s capital. Batwa can no longer harvest their traditional herbal remedies from the forest, nor visit their sacred sites. According to Penninah Zaninka, coordinator of the United Organisation for Batwa Development in Uganda, half of Uganda’s estimated 6,700 Batwa live as squatters on other people’s land. Virtually all live in absolute poverty.

Zaninka understands the importance of gorilla conservation, but cannot understand the need to expel the Batwa in the first place. “At the time they were evicted, they lived in harmony with the flora and fauna, including the animals that the UWA is now protecting,” she says. What frustrates her most is that the Batwa receive so little benefit from a flourishing gorilla tourism industry. To date, no Batwa are employed as gorilla trackers or guides. And while a small percentage of each gorilla permit goes to community projects in the areas near the parks, no funds are allocated specifically to the Batwa. “How come the ancestral land generates a lot of money for the country and the Batwa are not compensated?” she asks. “They are suffering.”

A girl from the Gahinga Batwa Village in one of the community’s farming fields. (Photo: Alexandra Avila)
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Batwa children stand among some of the partially built houses in the new Gahinga Batwa Village. (Photo: Volcanoes Safaris)
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Volcanoes Safaris decided to do its part to ease this suffering. Praveen Moman, the company’s founder, established the Volcanoes Safaris Partnership Trust in 2009. The trust aims to create long-term and self-sustaining projects that serve the local communities near the company’s four lodges. The company contributes $100 from each safari booking, as well as private donations from guests, to the trust. In turn, the trust supports tea and coffee plantations, donates sheep and water tanks to villagers, offers hospitality training and internships to locals and funds beekeeping and mushroom-growing projects.

The trust’s most ambitious venture, though, was the establishment of the Gahinga Batwa Village, a permanent settlement for more than 100 displaced Batwa. Eighteen homes — one for each Batwa family — now stand on four hectares of land a short distance from the Mount Gahinga Lodge. Produce from the village farmland can be sold in markets in the nearby town of Kisoro or to the lodge itself. The villagers will also maintain a garden of traditional medicinal plants. At the village dedication in May 2018, Moman said: “This is a landmark project and it is a privilege to be able to support the Batwa to have a new beginning. The Batwa are our forefathers and we need to honour their place on the Earth. In seeking to support conservation for the gorillas, we need to change the paradigm and make local communities the focal point.”

Crafts created at the Batwa Vocational Centre, which was established by the Volcanoes Safaris Partnership Trust. (Photo: Volcanoes Safaris)
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A Batwa woman holds a basket she made at the Batwa Vocational Centre. (Photo: Volcanoes Safaris)
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The lodge encourages its guests to visit the village. Five of us followed a trail leading from the lodge, past fields of wheat and sweet potatoes. Village children met us along the path, grasped our hands and led us the rest of the way. We could hear the singing before we arrived. About 50 Batwa men, women and children had gathered on the edge of the village to sing us a welcome. The children pulled us into a dome-shaped community centre built of eucalyptus poles painted with recycled engine oil, galvanized metal sheets, grass mats and papyrus. Windows made of corrugated opaque plastic softened the afternoon light. 

Once the villagers finished their welcome, they sat and told us their stories. Elder Batwa described being beaten with soldiers’ batons on the day of their eviction and being led out of the forest at gunpoint. Most of these Batwa settled in the nearby village of Musasa where they found work as farm labourers. But even the farmers who first employed the Batwa treated them like primitives. “They did not even want to share the same plates and cups with us,” Myiragatete Vanis said. “When they gave us food, they made us hold it in our hands.”

The Batwa remain a marginalized people and are still treated with disdain by many Ugandans. But for these 18 families, land and home ownership in the new village has increased their social station. “People have started to respect us and treat us with value,” Vanis said.

I thought of the two groups of forest dwellers we visited. The gorillas and the Batwa. The in situ and the expelled. Both endangered in their own way, and one for the sake of the other. The new Gahinga Batwa Village offers these Batwa a dignity they have not enjoyed since their eviction, the same sort of dignity the gorillas display in the forest they once shared. “We are happy now,” Vanis said. “We have a place where we belong.”

Lodge life

Volcanoes Safaris operates four luxury lodges in Uganda and Rwanda that cater to travellers interested in gorilla-and-chimpanzee safaris. Each lodge offers private accommodation in a banda, full-board with meals and drinks, private butlers and complimentary laundry service — a blessing after soggy jungle hikes. For more information on each lodge, visit volcanoessafaris.com.

Virunga Lodge, Rwanda  None of Volcanoes Safaris’ lodges boast better views than Virunga Lodge. Perched atop a high ridge at an altitude of 2,200 metres, each of the 12 bandas here overlook either the Virunga Volcanoes and the Musanze Valley to the west, or lakes Bulera and Ruhondo to the east.

Mount Gahinga Lodge, Uganda  This seven-banda lodge sits on the opposite side of the Musanze Valley — and across the border — from Virunga Lodge. In addition to gorilla and golden monkey tracking, Mount Gahinga Lodge offers its guests a chance to interact with Batwa villagers in their new settlement nearby.

Bwindi Lodge, Uganda  Each of this lodge’s eight bandas overlooks the lush Bwindi Impenetrable Forest. Guests should pause at Bwindi Bar just outside the lodge gate for Ugandan coffee, cassava chips or a “Rolex” — an omelette and chapati roll ubiquitous in Uganda.   

Kyambura Gorge Lodge, Uganda  Housed in a converted coffee storehouse at the edge of Queen Elizabeth National Park, each of Kyambura’s eight bandas has views across either the savannah or the eponymous gorge. Chimpanzee tracking is the main draw, but other activities include a Kazinga Channel boat cruise and hiking in the Ruwenzori Mountains.

See more images of mountain gorillas, the Batwa people and Volcanoes Safaris’ Mount Gahinga Lodge in the gallery below. 

Marcello Di Cintio (@DiCintio) is the author of four books, including Pay No Heed to the Rockets: Palestine in the Present Tense, Walls: Travels Along the Barricades and Poets and Pahlevans: A Journey into the Heart of Iran.

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