India and the Gorillas

The silverback hesitated, watching us intently from behind a screen of foliage. He then seemed to make a decision and began moving toward us quickly. His size was intimidating, roughly 450 pounds we had been told by our guide. Trust me, that’s BIG when you’re up close. Our rules had been clear: maintain a minimum distance of seven meters from the gorillas. This big silverback didn’t seem to care about the rules. He was within touching distance. I held my breath and stopped shooting photos. What was he going to do? In the end, he sat down near our group and just hung out. The rest of his family was nearby, playing with the baby and grooming one another. It was a special moment.

The last remaining mountain gorillas live in Uganda, Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of Congo. Fortunately, their numbers have been increasing steadily, after being nearly decimated in the 1970’s. Now they survive because they are tourist attractions, generating roughly $20 million annually. Let me stress this — if it were not for tourists, the future would be extremely bleak for the mountain gorilla. The human populations of Uganda and Rwanda are among the densest in the entire world. It’s common to have ten or more children and there appears to be no end in sight for the rapid growth. As a result, the need for more and more farmland has become increasingly important and de-forestation is rampant. Unfortunately, mountain gorillas live in the forest.

The wildlife authorities have been clever, however. They charge tourists large fees for spending one hour with a gorilla family (Rwanda charges $750 per visit, Uganda charges $600 and the DRC charges $465) and much of this money goes into community projects such as schools and health care and the local people can earn much needed extra income as porters and tracking guides for tourists. Basically, the community now views gorillas as something good in their lives. “If it pays, it stays”. The gorillas are used to us and don’t seem to mind the one hour per day their lives are intruded upon. Maybe they understand that their lives depend on this one hour of viewing per day…

Happily, because of this symbiotic relationship, gorilla poaching has becoming virtually nonexistent. Can you guess what gorillas used to be poached for? It’s hard to believe that, aside from bush meat, the primary use for gorillas was to make ashtrays from their hands. Sometimes I am truly ashamed to be human…

There are lots and lots of babies among these family groups, I’m happy to report. Their future growth will only be limited by the amount of forest that has been cut down for farming. Basically, the mountain gorilla will survive if we humans want them to.

I cannot describe how much I enjoyed my experience spending time and photographing four different gorilla families in Uganda and Rwanda. I hope you enjoy the photos and I particularly hope that you will get out there and see these magnificent beings for yourself one day.



2 Comments on “India and the Gorillas

  1. Exquisite photographs, India. When I started college, Jane Goodall was still researching among the chimps and the movie, Gorillas in the Mist, with Sigourney Weaver, had not yet been released. I am so thankful to hear that at least they have a chance now. Weaver’s movie was so depressing in the hopelessness it conveyed about the security of the silverback gorillas. Thank God somebody found a way to save them, at least for now.
    I’ve been a medical researcher and I’m a college professor now in biology. Thank you for sharing this with us.
    Terri Reynolds-Rogers

  2. Marvelous photos, especially those with the infants. The ones of adults in pensive moods with soft light are absolutely stunning. It so encouraging that humans have figured out a way to reverse the urge to poach and now preserve these magnificent creatures. In an entirely different venue, hopefully you’ve appreciated the intuitive intelligence of other primates, such a Koko, a lowland gorilla who is fluent in American Sign Language and also understand over 1000 spoken word. This video is of a wonderful and respectful interaction she had with Robin Williams several years ago.

    Cheryl, your photos really conveyed your awe and admiration during your brief time with the mountain gorillas. Well done!

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