28 Jan Look at the gorillas in the eyes
At the age of sixteen, I was looking for ways to get closer to my mom. In the evenings we sat down to watch movies, and for the first time I saw one of her favorites, with the beautiful Sigourney Weaver – “Gorilla in the Mist.” At the time, I already knew that gorillas were an endangered species, that there were not many of them, that they were as vulnerable as most of the wildlife on our planet. “People are cruel,” Mom then said while watching the film.
People really looked cruel. Poachers killing mountain gorillas for their paws or heads, abducting juveniles to lock them in cages and expose them to the rich of the world. When people are humanized, we use the word “dehumanization.” And what word should be used to refer to animals?
I cried at the end of the movie. I felt like a foreign shame, and over time, many questions arose. Why do we humans consider ourselves superior and more important than other forms of life? Where does our ego come from? Why do we choose to kill? Why is it difficult for us to accept nature as a value?
The influence of Diana Fossey
Diana Fossey, a scientist embodied in Sigourney Weaver, became my ideal at the time, linking feminism, altruism and the environment. Diana worked mainly with Rwandan mountain gorillas. 1967 she founded the Karisoke Research Center, a secluded campground in the jungle. The center is by far the longest running gorilla research organization in the world.
At a time when the organization was just emerging, mountain gorillas were thought to be extinct by the 2000s. Although only one of the four subspecies of gorillas, all gorillas are considered critically endangered and are on the IUCN Red List . During Diana Fossey’s active career (1967-1985), the number of mountain gorillas in Rwanda’s territory doubled from 240 to 480. However, without constant concern and effort, the number would fall very quickly again.
Rwanda is one of three states that own and protect mountain gorillas. Their population in the world currently stands at 1063 . The other two are the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Uganda. Having the opportunity to travel to one of the mountain gorilla houses in Uganda, I took it as an opportunity to answer questions I once asked myself. There I realized that there are no simple answers. We traveled to Bwindi National Park, home to 459 mountain gorillas that live with families, the national park that protects most gorillas in Uganda.
One of the things that fascinates me is the similarities between us and the gorillas – Cambridge scientists found that 98 percent. human genes overlap with gorilla genes. They get sick like we do, behave like we do, even feel the flow of time. The connection between the local communities and people of Bwindi and the mountain gorillas is multifaceted, but it helps to understand the current situation of these animals and the dynamics of wildlife and man in the face of the climate crisis.
A step into the “inaccessible” forest
We arrive in Bwindi at night. The jungle is not visible, only the bus jumps on the winding roads of the mountainous area. Only silence is heard. Not as usual in Lithuania – I don’t hear car engines, neighbors’ conversations or police sirens in the distance. The roar of the monkey in the cottage is the monkey’s footsteps on the metal roof. When you go out on a wet morning, you are also greeted by the chirping of birds. All the sounds of the field and all the smells of the forest seem to be perfectly in place, conducted by established forest rules.
Here, in the woods, much cooler than in the hot Ugandan capital of Kampala. Feel calm. We seem to have almost confused her when we arrive so late, but even then, the hostess Cylia welcomes us warmly. Diana Fossey probably didn’t have as many amenities, now everything is suitable for tourists.
The next day we get up early and head to the gorilla tracking starting point for There we are greeted by park ranger Herbert Twesigye. “Today we will follow the Mukiza family,” he says.
For the past twelve years, Herbert Twesigye wakes up at six in the morning, has breakfast and rides to meet people who want to see a mountain gorilla. “I grew up next to the forest. I saw him change, ”he says. Herbert says it has not been easy to become a ranger: “We have employment problems in Uganda. Thousands of people applied for these twenty jobs. It was hard. ”You have to be physically ready to walk in the jungle or even run through it, you have to speak good English, be reliable and sincere. According to Herbert, such a profession is not for everyone.
We followed one of the largest families of Bwindi gorillas with him. The Mukiza family consists of 14 gorillas. Their head is a silver mackerel Mukiza. It is under the silver fur on the back that the males of the mountain gorillas are indicated. We listen to the briefing before going to the jungle.
“It simply came to our notice then. We lead people through the jungle, through the whole process. When tourists check their body temperature when they arrive, they have to write down their data to prevent COVID-19. Then we divide them into groups, mostly eight, and go to the forest, ”he says. While searching for gorillas, the ranger communicates with gorilla trackers , who spend every day between these animals from morning to evening.
However, in order to reach the shallows, it is necessary to cross the forest. It is no coincidence that the name of this place is Bwindi National Inaccessible Park. Without the ranger, tourists would not get into it. When leading tourist groups through the jungle, the rangers always follow the same paths so as not to thin out the vegetation. According to Herbert, what they cut or walk away with tourists grows in a matter of weeks, because it’s raining a lot in the jungle: “We don’t disturb the environment of gorillas.”
On these paths we go up and down steep hills, about 2 thousand. meters above sea level. In places, the legs are scratched, the bushes and dense vegetation scratch the sides, you have to slip on clay and grab the nearest tree so we don’t fall. “Even I still fall here while walking,” says Herbert, “so you don’t have to laugh.” After about an hour and a half, we reach the gorilla, where the gorillas are already waiting for us.
Meet and accompany the sun with the gorillas
“I just decided – I’m going to follow the gorillas,” says Hebert Nkunda, a tracker at Bwindi National Park. – All you need is the right mood. When you come to such a workplace, employers immediately check your ability to follow in the footsteps and your knowledge of how to do it. ”Officially, you become shallow within three months. Hebert has been a follower for four years, meeting and accompanying the sun with gorilla families.
Gorilla shoals perform several functions. They count gorillas and monitor the health of the animals by checking their feces and monitoring their behavior, as well as tracking them down so they can report to the rangers leading the tourist groups. When we reach the Mukiza family, we are greeted by three shallows with medical masks on our faces and machetes in our hands (to thin out the bushes). We leave our walking sticks because the gorillas are afraid of them and put on medical masks. It was raining at night, and since there were elephants here, we headed for a kind of swamp.
In order to get close to the gorillas, they need to feel comfortable in the company of people. So the most important duty of the shallows is to accustom the mountain gorilla to the people. Bwindi is home to twenty-two habituated families. “With domesticated gorillas, you feel like a dog at home,” says Hebert Nkunda. – You need to get used to them, and they need to get used to you. The more time you spend with them, the more you interact with them, the more they get used to you. The process usually takes two years. Sometimes they attack, but you still follow them. ”
When gorillas attack shallows or rangers, they defend themselves by lifting sticks into the air. Ranger Herbert Twesigye says gorilla sticks are afraid because they remind them of gunpowder guns. However, they do not touch the gorillas. Anaiptol – if the gorillas are not frightened by the raised sticks and still attack, they shallowly fall to the ground and pretend to be dead, thus showing that they have lost, and the gorillas retreat. Approaching the gorillas, they shallowly emit similar sounds to them, letting them know that they are coming in a friendly mood and are already imitating their behavior while in the gorilla society.
“Gorillas know that tourists will walk, take photos and leave. They even feel the flow of that hour with the tourists. Gorillas react more calmly to tourists than to rangers because sometimes getting used to the rangers leads to conflicts. It happens that the gorilla ranger attacks. But with tourists, they feel safe, ”says Herbert Twesigye.
“It was the individuality of each animal and their shyness that left the biggest impression during the first meeting,” Diana Fossey wrote about her first experience with gorillas. We meet them almost like in a movie, very slowly. At first we hear the calm roar of the silver duck male, then we see the female with the cub among the trees, and finally we walk in their footsteps for an entire hour unable to believe we are here. Too thick socks are bitten by ants and starved thorny leaves. At that moment, I realized why Diana Fossey decided to stay and what enchanted her so much. However, not everyone wants to protect the gorilla from a good heart, and in Bwindi Park you have to remember the Maslow pyramid – food is more important than ideas.
How tourism saved the gorilla and the gorillas saved the local communities
Gorillas are used to people so that they can be shown to tourists. For communities living around national parks, gorilla tourism is the main source of income – 20 percent. an entrance fee to the park and another $ 10 from each pass to follow the gorilla is allocated to them . Around hundreds of thousands of people depend on Bwindi.
“It simply came to our notice then. We only have one factory and it employs 30 people. There are several high schools where teachers work. There are no other industries, so people here depend on tourism. Some work at the guest house, others sell their handicrafts, still others work as park rangers. Even people who work the land benefit from tourism. They know that without this jungle and without gorillas, their standard of living would fall sharply, ”says Ranger Herbert Twesigye.
In the past, there were many poachers in Uganda, as in other gorilla-protecting states. The realization that gorillas can be profited has changed this situation – the number of mountain gorillas is growing every year, and the community is making money from it. So the situation is quite pragmatic – gorillas are protected for the benefit of them, but only in this way have people learned to reconcile their lives with those of the wild.
Sequel Hebert Nkunda says that after realizing the benefits of gorillas, people stopped poaching: “The more gorillas, the more tourists. The more tourists, the more the community benefits. ”Cylia Namara, manager of Bwindi Guest House, believes that without tourism, nature would only be important to a small number of locals. “The community benefits greatly from tourism. When tourists come, we get money, and for that money I can buy food from the community. Full benefits. Nature has become more important to me and myself when I find out how useful it is for me, ”says the guest house manager.
After returning from Uganda, I had the opportunity to speak to one of my goddesses, the founder of the non-profit organization Conservation Through Public Health , a wildlife veterinarian, dr. Gladys Kalema-Zikusoka. In December, it was honored by Science and Innovation category for improving the conservation and health of humans and gorillas in Bwindi National Park. We talked to her for a few hours during Zoom. Dr. Gladys Kalema-Zikusoka says that nature is not only important for the benefits it brings us – it also helps to preserve it. It is therefore important to find a balance and connection between us and wildlife.
“Protecting nature is important for two reasons. First of all, it is a value in itself. It is our duty to leave this world better for future generations. But nature also gives us a lot. The better for nature, the better for us. If the gorillas are protected, it will be possible to make money from them. It has already helped a great many people out of poverty and learn to live in peace with the wild. There are so many useful resources in the forest that people can also use, such as honey, medicinal plants, and so on. In addition, forest water bodies are needed by both animals and humans. It also helps to stabilize the climate and mitigate the effects of the climate crisis, ”she said. It is not always realistic to expect everyone to love nature as a value and not seek benefits for themselves, but a balance must be sought. Especially in countries where there is a lot of poverty and the use of natural resources is one way to survive.
Evict people and create space for gorillas
However, the non-current villagers of Bwindi were the first to enter the forest and began to cultivate a dynamic and peaceful life with the gorillas. One of the oldest tribes in Central Africa, Twa (aka Batwa) is believed to have lived there for more than 300 years . Because of their long knowledge of the forest and their ability to live with their animals, the villagers of Bwindi villages call them forest keepers . However, in 1991, after the protection of the Bwindi Mountain gorilla began, the Ugandan authorities deported them from the forest. The tribe was forced to settle outside of it.
“They were hunters, they knew how to live with animals. The gorillas seen in Twa culture meant disaster, so the tribe simply avoided them. The Twa tribe managed to get along with them, but when people live in the forest, it is difficult to engage in tourism, so it was decided to remove the Twa people from the forest and start controlling their visit to the forest, ”says Dr. Gladys Kalema-Zikusoka. Ever since they were exiled from the Bwindi Forest, the people of Twa have lived in extreme poverty: they no longer own any land, they have become squatters.
Now it is hard for people to make money. Most of them (about 51.4% ) drop out of school in adolescence or even childhood to help their families. Some become guides or gorillas shallow, others make handicrafts. Dr. Gladys Kalema-Zikusoka says her organization aims to involve Twa people to protect gorillas and join local communities: “They know the forest well, some of them have been hired to work shallow, and they are doing amazingly well. With so much knowledge, they can make a living, so I hope they pass that knowledge on to their children and to anyone they can. ”
Ugandan environmental journalist Fredrick Mugira, examining the current situation of the Twa people in the country and methods of conserving gorillas in the Bwindi Forest, found that from 1990 to 2015, Uganda’s forest cover has fallen from 24 to 9 percent. Some residents of the villages surrounding Bwindi claim that the eviction of the Twa tribe was a necessary step in establishing a national park. However, Dr. Gladys Kalema-Zikusoka says there is no perfect solution and more can be done for the Twa community. “We need to find ways to involve them, to preserve their knowledge and to help them make money from it so that they don’t feel exploited.”
Dr. is working on this and other issues. Conservation Through Public Health (CTPH) was founded by Gladys Kalema-Zikusoka. She has been looking for a balance between the communities of Bwindi and the surrounding nature since 2004. A non-profit organization is trying to find ways to conserve nature while helping locals. According to her, the basis of environmental protection is the support of local communities.
“Most of the most isolated and poorest families live around protected areas in Africa – their way of life poses a direct threat to the survival of wildlife and habitats, and ultimately to themselves. “Agriculture, competition for food, and zoonotic diseases (a common disease for humans and animals) are a grim daily reality,” the organization . The CTPH is trying to address these issues by finding sustainable solutions. Although tourism is effective in protecting gorillas and helping lift local communities out of poverty, the COVID-19 pandemic has shown that dependence on it is too high – what to do when tourists are gone?
The pandemic raised the issue of sustainability
“We will never have that, our people are young and strong,” said Dr. Gladys Kalema-Zikusoka watched the news from India last year, but it turned around this summer. Ranger Herbert Twesigye says the park did not receive any tourists from March to September. “However, we are glad that our organizations saved money and were able to pay salaries to the rangers.”
Dr. Gladys Kalema-Zikusoka says that the lack of tourists has had consequences for both the locals and the gorillas: However, quarantine makes people very poor. Most of the locals living around the national parks have forgotten how to engage in activities that were carried out before the start of tourism, such as farming. This has led to an increase in poaching. ”
was killed with a spear in Bwindi National Park silver gorilla Rafiki . As the hunter pulled the bushy pig out of the trap, the gorilla was frightened by her screaming and took a defensive position to protect his family. The man was frightened by the silver backbone and killed him, for which he was sentenced to 11 years in prison. Because silver amphibians are the head of the family, the Rafiki family was left without a leader. After his death, a young male took over the management of the family, but the females felt insecure with him, did not trust him, and fled to other families. Dr. Gladys Kalema-Zikusoka says there was chaos at the time.
“After a while, everything got back on track, but this situation showed how much economic impact tourism has on the local community and that people are determined to poach in its absence. We planned to provide people with fast-growing seedlings so that they could grow food again. We want people to learn traditional lifestyles, only this time we need to do it more sustainably. The pandemic has opened our eyes, we can no longer depend on tourism alone. We want to ensure that people have food, otherwise poaching will only grow. And it is not only growing up in Uganda – I also got knowledge from my colleagues in Zambia “, says Dr. Gladys Kalema-Zikusoka.
Our diseases are gorilla diseases
The pandemic is dangerous for gorillas not only because of the growing poaching, but also because they can easily become infected with COVID-19. Because our genes are similar, one of the major threats to mountain gorillas is human disease. Dr. Gladys Kalema-Zikusoka says that it is now easier to persuade tourists not only to put on a mask, but also to keep their distance: “Change is happening. In the past, tourists rushed to gorillas, wanting to touch them because they had seen others do it on social networks. It is now much easier to agree with travel agencies on the regulation of behavior near gorillas. And so we can better protect gorillas not only from COVID-19, but also from other diseases, both now and in the future. ”
Restrictions also help ensure that gorillas are not exploited. “The balance between the environment and the economy is delicate. The only way to protect gorillas is to promote responsible tourism. This is done by limiting the number of people who go to the gorilla. We also encourage tourists to support local communities. Tourism is the most sustainable way to secure funding for the protection of mountain gorillas. This money is used for both park work and patrols to combat poaching, as well as for other purposes, ”says Dr. Gladys Kalema-Zikusoka.
Local communities have also been trained in caution. Residents know what to do if a gorilla gets stuck in their village during a pandemic, they start washing their hands more often, wearing masks. Settlement committees have also been set up to monitor families for symptoms of the virus.
“We need to start respecting nature again”
There are now many theories that are trying to prove why the pandemic started: from the bat to the creation of the virus in the laboratory . Dr. Gladys Kalema-Zikusoka attributes COVID-19 precisely to the climate crisis: “I think the pandemic has shown that we have gone too far in destroying nature. We are destroying forests, we are destroying the habitats of wild animals – we are moving closer and closer to the wild, even where we can be infected with various diseases. At the Wuhan market, the animals are kept in cages, they get stressed, they get sick, and we take over the diseases. We need to start respecting nature again, protecting it and thus trying to reduce the possibility of another possible outbreak. Another pandemic will probably be worse than this. It took several years to overcome the Spanish flu, for example, and then there were no medical options like now. We have had this pandemic for two years now, and the end is not in sight. It all seems to be because we are doing the wrong thing to our planet. ”
Uganda has also been affected by the climate crisis. The country is suffering from droughts, floods and other extreme weather conditions. “Because food production depends on climate stability, it has a negative effect. In addition, there is a risk of disease in extreme weather conditions. Bwindi has had no malaria for a very long time. No one even thought about malaria because it was just too cold. Now, when the air temperature rises, people have started to get sick, ”says Dr. Gladys Kalema-Zikusoka.
The country is undergoing changes in the rainy and drought seasons, which affect people who depend on natural resources, ie 85 percent. Ugandan population . The country is also experiencing average air temperatures. According to Reliefweb , the average temperature in Uganda (currently 26 ° C ) will rise by 1.5 ° C over the next 20 years due to the man-made climate crisis, and by 2080. – even 4.3 ° C.
Dr. Gladys Kalema-Zikusoka says that the climate crisis is having the greatest impact on the rural population: “In Uganda, those who live by nature literally have lower incomes. If there is a drought – they are starving, if there is a flood – they suffer the most. I think the burden of the environment and climate change is being borne most by them, even though they are doing the most with the least money to take care of it. ”
The country was hit by a long drought last spring. According to the Ugandan daily The Monitor , the drought has affected much of the country and farmers have suffered heavy losses. Dr. Gladys Kalema-Zikusoka says there is a climate change committee in the country’s parliament. NEMA, Uganda’s National Environmental Management Authority, is also established. “The problem of the climate crisis in the country is really being monitored, we are trying to deal with it. A much bigger taboo is conservation. Many people think – why protect a gorilla when it comes to rescuing people? ”
Climate crisis and gorillas
The gorilla climate crisis is affecting the same as humans. The European Commission says deforestation and agriculture are among the main causes of the climate crisis. The consequences around Uganda’s national parks are twofold. Bwindi National Park is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and is strictly forbidden. However, according to Ranger Herbert Twesigye, this is not enough: “Bwindi National Park is 331 square kilometers in size. The number of gorillas is growing and the forest remains the same. If the gorilla population grows and the forest does not, it will become a problem. That’s one of the reasons why gorillas are still on the verge of extinction. ”As a result, Bwindi National Park is trying to expand: it is buying land from the community and increasing the forest.
The effects of agriculture on gorillas are also mixed. “Farming can be affected by gorillas because their land is being taken away and they are getting closer and closer to their habitats. But if done neatly, gorillas can benefit from it. If farmers protect the soil and water, they can continue farming even as tourism declines. And they don’t need to start poaching, “says Dr. Gladys Kalema-Zikusoka. It is therefore particularly important for local communities to understand the importance of the environment.
More importantly, know why you need to protect a mountain gorilla. What would happen if they disappeared? Dr. Gladys Kalema-Zikusoka states that mountain gorillas are a keystone species. In a sense, they bind different natural processes and support the whole system. “Their presence helps to preserve the forest, as it distributes seeds. The forest is a climate stabilizer and a very important source of water for local communities, ”says the researcher. According to her, the extinction of mountain gorillas would accelerate deforestation in Uganda, killing other animals such as chimpanzees, elephants, monkeys, shrubs, tufted antelopes, conifers, and many species of birds and butterflies.
Teach children to prevent their extinction
The researcher emphasizes that nature is especially important for children: “Nature is very important for human psychological health. Children with little natural life who grow their eyes on the screens may experience attention deficit disorder. It is especially important for the townspeople to have the opportunity to go to the park, the forest or their village. People do this here – they return to their villages or grandparents during the holidays or holidays. They return to the cities after resting and recovering psychologically. ”
The researcher recommends reading the book “Last child in the woods” by the American author Richard Louv, which discusses the direct link between a child’s development and the role of nature in his life and the importance of nature for the health of both children and adults.
Nature was important and dr. Gladys Kalema-Zikusoka as a child: “My neighbor had a pet monkey. It was fashionable in the seventies. Once that monkey jumped through my window into my house and played one note on the piano, and I thought, wow, how smart she is! That monkey was very naughty, but I was fascinated by her thinking and behavior like that of a human. ” Gladys Kalema-Zikusoka became interested in primates.
Although she grew up in the Ugandan capital, Kampala, which has a population equivalent to that of Lithuania, as a child her pets helped her discover a connection with nature. Later, after visiting Kazinga National Park (also known as Queen Elizabeth National Park), she decided to become a veterinarian: “When I first went there, I could just walk. Now you wouldn’t do that because the park is full of lions. In the past, they were almost exterminated by poachers. ”
The Ruhija Community Rest Camp, which we have visited in Bwindi, features a shelf with wood-carved gorillas, wicker baskets and paper necklaces. It was all made by local children. Guest house manager Cylia Namara leads handicraft and environmental classes: “We started before the pandemic because I came up with the idea of teaching children about the environment. People here are pretty poor, a lot of them can’t afford things like exercise or uniforms. Girls drop out of school simply because they don’t have the means. But I had a dream – what if I taught them to make money from handicrafts? For example, weaving or carving. That’s what we’re doing now. ”
Children now gather at the guest house during the holidays and weekends, and the elders of the community teach them handicrafts. Girls are taught to weave baskets and boys to carve gorilla sculptures. All of this is sold to tourists, and the money received goes to the facilities needed by children at school. “They like it a lot, sometimes we celebrate sales with coca and cake. I will visit them on other days as well. It’s important for me to know how they live, what their environment is. When I was little, we also made hats, bags and other snails at school. All the children had to learn something, ”she says.
There are also nature clubs in Bwindi schools. “We try to provide teachers with knowledge about forests. This is how students learn that nature is important, ”says Ranger Herbert Twesigye.
“When we protect nature, we protect ourselves. We are preventing our extinction. If people want to be healthy, there must be a healthy planet. Everything is connected, ”says Dr. Gladys Kaloma-Zikusoka.
Out in the woods
Bwindi tree branches move with the wind, the forest breathes. We are still here. Turning back, one still hears the muffled roar of Mukiza. After an hour spent with the gorillas, we go back to the pole pole – slowly slowly. Leading us back, Ranger Herbert Twesigye talks about how a scar appeared on his arm. A shard of falling bamboo crashed into it when he and other rangers suddenly encountered elephants in the jungle.
We get out of the woods and get dirty. Only in the bus do I find the strength to put into words what I have seen and felt. Even now, as I write, I best remember a gorilla mom with a chick knocking on her chest asking for attention. Just like I was with my mom when I was little.
After a trip to Bwindi, I still feel longing: it’s a mixture of sounds, smells and excitement that keeps me going backwards. Watching Bwindi National Park’s efforts to preserve gorillas, I realized why it is more important for a person to survive than to nurture ideological values, and that environmental decisions are not always one-sided. That is why it is important to find a balance in the fight against the climate crisis, as well as in the protection of the gorilla. In her book The Gorilla Mist, Diana Fossey wrote, “As we realize the value of our lives, we begin to think less about the past and more about preserving the future.” the future.
Julija Stankevičiūtė is a freshman in journalism at Vilnius University. With the publication “LGBTQ + Rights in South Africa: A Reality Against the Law”, she became one of the winners “Africa is not a Country” . Together with NARA and the AfriKo team, Julia traveled to Uganda in the fall of 2021, from where she slammed this journalistic story.