Sue Watt goes gorilla tracking and takes a look into the past at life with the Batwa Pygmies, evicted from Bwindi Impenetrable Forest to protect these vulnerable primates.
Half the world’s mountain gorillas, totalling some 880 individuals, live in Uganda’s aptly named Bwindi Impenetrable Forest. Come in November, April and May (the rainier months) and permits cost only US$350 instead of US$600, yet the chances of seeing them are just as good.
Any gorilla encounter is a magical experience, but our Bwindi trek reminded us that despite being habituated, gorillas are still, thankfully, wild animals.
It took us over four hours to reach the Habinyanja group, their tracks lost in dry leaves underfoot. When we eventually found them, only four of the nineteen in the group were visible. Their silverback Makara was tense and angry - so angry that he charged us twice in twenty minutes, backing off as our guide calmly raised his arms to appear larger and made quiet rumbling noises to placate the big boss.
A week later, it saddened me to read that Habinyanja’s only black back had been killed by poachers in a snare that was – ostensibly – meant for antelopes. Suddenly, Makara’s black mood made sense: normally seeing people for just one hour a day, he’d probably felt threatened by poachers’ activity in the forest, and had clearly run out of patience.
Today, no one lives within the National Park. Yet for 4000 years, it was home to the Batwa Pygmy tribe. They were perhaps the forest’s greatest conservationists, protecting it for their own survival. In 1992, however, they became conservation refugees, evicted without land rights or compensation, to ensure that human diseases didn’t spread to the gorillas. Ironically, they would never have killed a gorilla – in their culture, that was taboo.
Stigmatised, unable to cope with town life and in desperate poverty, the Batwa were dying out, along with their unique heritage and intimate knowledge of the forests. However, they now have a “living museum” on land adjacent to Bwindi which preserves their culture for visitors and – crucially - for Batwa children.
We witnessed a fascinating glimpse into a past world, with Batwa elders showing us how they’d lived in trees, used medicinal plants, made cloth from bark, hunted with bows and arrows, worshipped their gods, danced and told stories for their children.
Batwa communities benefit from the fees (from US$60pp) and I would urge anyone tracking gorillas to visit the Batwa Experience too, to gain a deeper, broader insight into the magic of Bwindi: www.batwaexperience.com