It's a lush green tropical forest in southwest Uganda, 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, and charismatic cousins with whom humans have in common 98.4 percent of their genetic material, but also the special charm and hospitality of the people who share this fragile World Heritage site with the planet's gentle giants – and whose livelihood is increasingly dependent on gorilla eco-tourism.
When I first went to Bwindi as a veterinary student in 1994, I thought I had reached the ends of the Earth. On my first morning in Bwindi I got up to the most stunning scenery of mist rising over the forest, steep slopes, and narrow valleys, which truly looked impenetrable. I had to wait – impatiently – for four days before tracking the gorillas, because I had a nasty cold. During this time, I reflected on the health risks we pose to the gorillas. This has shaped 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 turaco, among other bird species; the whiffs of fresh, misty air and pungent gorilla dung. By the time I had completed my stay, I had falien 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 name means "broken hand." He was alone, feeding on bark. What struck me was how calm and accommodating Kacupira was to our group of six 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 for me, 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 mountain gorillas. 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 the founder and CEO of the Ugandan-based nonprofit, Conservation Through Public Health.