A reason for the steady recovery is that gorilla tracking is now big business. Tourists purchase a $600 permit entitling them to visit the gorillas for a strict limit of one hour. Numbers of visitors are restricted to eight per day. Even so, each gorilla family is bringing in $4800 daily in permit-fees alone. And in Bwindi, there are a dozen families available to visit. (There are about 20 more wild gorilla groups.)
The gorillas you can visit have all gone through a five-year process known as “habituation”, through which rangers gradually accustom them to humans. Park staff spend hours each day crashing after the animals until, finally, the great apes learn to ignore, or at least tolerate, human presence.
People who spend an hour with gorillas often describe the brief experience in almost religious terms. With luck, I am about to go one better. Under a new programme, visitors to Bwindi can spend four hours with the Bikingi family group, which is midway through the habituation process. That means the gorillas are shier, wilder and more unpredictable, though visitors can take comfort from the fact that even a 500lb silverback with an arm-span of eight-and-a-half feet is vegetarian at heart.
We depart at 6am, driving higher into the terraced hillsides to meet the rangers. My guide will be Augustine Muhangi, a 34-year-old dressed in army-style fatigues. He is accompanied by two machete-carrying trackers and another man armed with a gun to scare off any prone-to-charge forest elephants. There is one other tourist, a lawyer from California. We set off and, after an hour of panting uphill to a height of about 2000m, we enter the “impenetrable” forest.
It is darker and cooler under the canopy. The ground beneath is spongy with leaves. Augustine says there are at least 21 gorillas in the family, which makes it a large group. There may be more, since many in the group are still timid of humans. The family has one silverback, Rushenga, which Augustine translates as “one who breaks up the forest”. It is, he says, the biggest silverback he has ever seen — “a monster”.
Augustine knows where the gorillas were yesterday, so now it’s a question of finding where they spent the night. “We’re looking for droppings, broken vegetation and leftover food to see the direction they’re travelling,” he says. Once the nests are located, the gorillas, which generally don’t move more than 1km a day, won’t be far away.
A radio coughs into life. “The trackers are telling me they can hear them,” Augustine says. Before long, there’s a strong smell of urine and he spots the nests — hastily assembled piles of broken branches laid out on the ground “like spring mattresses”. Excitement levels mount. We push forward in silence. The only sound is the swoosh of machetes. Suddenly, there’s a noise like the crackle of artillery; breaking branches. There, just five or six metres away, is Rushenga, possibly one of the largest silverbacks alive, lying on his back, stripping leaves from a branch. His banana-sized fingers clutch vines and branches. When he lumbers off, with that unmistakable ape-gait, his silvery back ripples with muscle.