First day with the gorillas.

May 18th 2011

Today was very special. I met with UWA warden Gessa at 7:30am and he sent me with tracker William to find the Rushegura (R) group of 20 gorillas with the advanced team. Rushegura group was very close today, just a short walk from Gorilla Forest Camp Lodge. As we approached two additional trackers Albert and Michael, I saw my first glimpse of a mountain gorilla hanging from the trees. We were able to watch 3-4 individuals for a few minutes before they began to move. Being that close to these rare animals in the forest is one of the most unique experiences I will ever have. It makes you feel alive and closer to nature more than ever. And when you are among all of them at once it is truly how some people have described to me as magical or a spiritual experience.

Buzinza with her baby breast feeding, one of my first sightings.

They were very calm with us in their presence but kept moving away to forage. Today I wanted to see how feasible it would be to obtain their saliva from plants and fruits but there were two main issues this Wednesday morning. They weren’t eating fruit, which are easiest to get the saliva from and this part of the forest was extremely thick on the forest floor. A really good fruit that I wanted to catch them eating, marenthas, wasn’t ripe enough for them to eat. We followed them for about two hours, cutting our way through the bush with machetes. Michael was an excellent leader full of knowledge, William was the best at identifying individuals often from behind several metres away, and Albert was very practical to consult about samples. We found some plants that one female had been chewing on, a plant that kind of looks like a chive. They peel and rip the exterior parts of the afromomum stem in order to eat the inside portion. While they are ripping away at the plant the stems slide through their mouth and saliva falls onto plant stems that they discard on the ground. I skipped the first plant that we inspected because I wasn’t confident about how much saliva was on it. Remember that there is a lot of dew on plants in the jungle and even more so in the morning. At the field station my clothes and blankets are often damp in the mornings until the sun comes out.

Outside stems of plants that gorillas peel off while feeding.

So we moved on cutting through the bush some more. The terrain is often quite steep and very slippery. We came across Buzinza, an adult female probably in her mid-twenties. She was eating on the root plant that I am still not certain its name. I need to learn a lot of names and plants in the next for weeks. I was very excited to see what she left behind. After a half hour we found what remained of her meal.

The remains of Buzinza’s meal.

Unfortunately, she ate the whole root vegetable I looked forward to sampling but we found some plants that she definitely had chewed on. I swabbed the inside of the plant stems as shown in the picture. These plants had more saliva on them than the first pile.

Afromomum plant believed to be a medicinal plant used by the Batwa local people for back ache. They eat the fruit and peel the outside stem to eat the inner portion.

I tried to get as much of the swab saturated in saliva while trying to avoid as much plant debris as possible. I was confident in this sample so I put my gloves on and swabbed the plant. I placed it in one of my many vials that is filled with blue lysis buffer. Lysis buffer prevents the DNA within the saliva from denaturing and will allow the sample to be stored for months at room temperature, and if needed a much more extended period of time in a freezer. I plan to collaborate with either a laboratory in the Netherlands or Germany. They will run PCR, polymerase chain reaction, in order to make a large number of copies of the gorillas’ DNA and then the samples can be screened for diseases. We will focus on viruses that both humans and apes carry, especially Tuberculosis and respiratory viruses like Respiratory Syncytial Virus (RSV), Influenza, Human Metapneumovirus (hMPV), and Adenoviruses. There was a recent 2011 published paper on Metapneumovirus in gorillas in Rwanda, where both a mother and infant died. They discovered from DNA analysis as well that this was from a South African strain. Many people believe this could be the first case to show that viruses have been passed from tourists to mountain gorillas (Human Metapneumovirus Infection in Wild Mountain Gorillas Rwanda; Palacios et al., 2011) I am also swabbing 25 tourists and 25 Uganda Wildlife Authority staff.

Briefing and collecting saliva swabs from Uganda Wildlife Authority guides and trackers Medad, Alex, and Catherine.

I believe there are just under 20 trackers and guides whom are in the most contact with the gorillas but we will also swab some administrative staff within the headquarters office in the park.

My first gorilla sample from Buzinza being placed in a lysis buffered vial.

Shortly after this we heard word via radio walkie talkies that the tourists were approaching for their trek. The advanced team finds the exact location of the gorillas in order to make sightings easier for tourists and they make sure the area is safe. The Congo border is only three kilometres away and today we trekked exactly toward its border.

All of a sudden the bush opened up to a path and we were with the tourists. Where did this path come from? It was awfully convenient. From there we were all only a few steps from the gorillas. I followed behind to see what the tourist trek was like.

The gorillas were doing an assortment of playing, eating, sleeping, and lounging. The adolescents in particular are very playful and goofy. At one point the dominant silverback, Mwirima, came towards us in a stern serious manner on his way to the blackback. We were very close at this point so were instructed to back off slowly. I was the closest to him on the far left of the group of tourists and I was very frightened at that moment. Gorillas have been known to weigh up to 270kg (600 pounds) and Mwirima is a large silverback.

Mwirima, silverback dominant male passing tourists very close on his way to Kabukojo, blackback.

Although we started at the seven metre rule it is really hard to keep that distance because they all move about us, often from all sides. The bush was not as thick here and the gorillas were playing and resting enough in order for us to have a wonderful experience with them. It is remarkable to be this close to such a magnificent animal, especially when all 20 of them surround you and don’t mind you being there. It is almost as if we are invisible to them. This part of the forest was much more open and the time of the day made the sun shine down on the animals making it ideal photography conditions. It was especially enjoyable to watch the infants playing and falling out of trees. The older ones will fall out of a tree and somersault/roll down a hill to break their fall but infants will often fall and you can’t see them but you hear a thump and see them pop up again.

Kibande baby gorilla taking a look at me while climbing a tree.

I was told they start napping at about 11am and they did exactly that at around 10:45am so we headed back to the briefing point at that time. In one of the bandas we talked about the trek, I gave a short talk on the research I am undergoing, and the tourists received certificates for their completion of gorilla tracking. The tourists were very happy and inquisitive at this time, asking numerous questions. I think it will be easy to distribute questionnaires and ask for interviews at this time in the future when the tourists will be very keen to assist efforts in gorilla conservation.

I then returned to the Uganda Wildlife Authority (UWA) headquarters to discuss research plans and write some colleagues. I have been given a desk and will soon get some gum boots and a poncho. The Uganda Wildlife Authority staff and all Ugandans have been very kind and professional throughout my whole time here. I look forward to the days ahead and it will be really hard to leave. I have already been asked to stay longer and return for consultancy work or my PhD. They are going to email me their current research priorities, which is apparently long. I am shocked there is a lot to be done on such a high profile great ape species. I am very grateful and happy to have this opportunity, especially to be given a rare privilege to track mountain gorillas daily with the people that know these incredible animals best.

Today one of my close friends now at UWA said to me “you have to come to this other part of Bwindi to see some gorillas…they are located near Ruhija…they are very special…you must see them…you really must see them…we will go when you finish your work…promise me you will see them?” I replied “what is so special about them?” And he said “They are the FUNNIEST gorillas I have ever seen!” Gorillas are already very funny at times, I can’t wait for this!

Baby gorilla dangling upside down in tree.

1 thought on “First day with the gorillas.

  1. Just amazing Allison!! You are really living your dream and it looks wonderful!! That’s exciting they already want you back and I wish you the best of luck in all your research!

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