Bwindi Impenetrable Forest

Visitors here who make eye contact with mountain gorillas often say they get the impression our interest in them is shared by theirs in us—not inappropriate since, though our ancestors went down separate paths 6.5 million years ago, we share 98 percent of our genes. Gazing across this gulf, long in years, narrow in genealogy, we recognize shared facial expressions of joy, sorrow, anger, fear, and surprise.

Other primates as well—more of this closely-related familial order than anyplace else on earth—find homes in “Omu Bwindi” or place of darkness, and truly almost impenetrable—127 square miles (331 km2) in the Virunga volcanic mountain range on the edge of the western Rift Valley in southwestern Uganda. Chimpanzees grunt and pant-hoot to tell others of a fruiting fig tree—some say altruistically, others suggest they are only trying to attract females. But other species hear and come as well—blue, red-tailed, and L’Hoest’s monkeys, baboons and handsome black-and-white and rare red colobus, always on the move since they must eat 33 percent of their weight in leaves every day.

Other primates rule the night—strange little pottos and Demidoff’s and needle-clawed galagos, or bushbabies, enlivening the jungle with vocalizations ranging from clicks to spine-chilling wails and screams. Some can hunt in almost pitch darkness with heads that rotate 180 degrees and visual fields 50 degrees wider than ours, able to see 30 yards (27 m) or more when only one percent of starlight reaches the forest floor, and capture swift flying insects and lizards with lightning grabs of sensitive hands.

Bwindi is by IUCN rating the richest and most diverse faunal community in East Africa—202 species of butterflies; some 120 mammal species, including endangered African forest elephants; 346 bird species, including 214 that are forest-specific; and hundreds of plants and trees, many rare and endangered either on a country or worldwide basis.

But it is the mountain gorillas that most visitors come for—about half the world population, around 300, of this rarest subspecies of earth’s largest primates, males standing up to six feet (2 m) tall and weighing up to 500 pounds (227 kg). (The other half are in nearby Rwanda and Democratic Republic of the Congo.)

They are not always easy to see—the trek can require hours-long hiking up steep hills through jungle and sometimes swamp-like valleys, with no guarantee the gorillas will feel like being watched on any given day. It is not inexpensive and reservations can be filled months’ ahead.

But for those who have sat quietly in the jungle watching—and being watched by—these intelligent beings so closely related to us, it is well worth any difficulty.

Usually the gorillas go about their business, aware of but not disturbed by visitors, which they have become habituated not to fear. Sometimes young gorillas want to take a closer look at visitors than the 25-foot (5-m) distance guards try to maintain, largely to protect the huge primates, vulnerable to human-carried germs.

To minimize disturbance, visitor groups are kept small, usually six to eight, limited to an hour, and no flash photography is allowed—protective measures taken because the government values the gorillas’ continued survival as important contributors to the economy. Ecotourism dollars they bring in now far exceed their former value as trophies and souvenirs sold by poachers (everything from baby gorillas to mummified gorillas’ hands for ashtrays). Therefore care is taken to maintain and protect gorillas and their refuge and tourist groups as well, which are accompanied these days by armed though usually inconspicuous guards.

Best times are dry-season December–February and June–August. Several comfortable lodges are located in and near the park, reachable by (sometimes rough) road and chartered plane.

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