The world of wild animals by Andrey Gudkov

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Gentle monsters of impenetrable forest

Life of these animals has always been shrouded by set of legends, surprising and at times improbable histories and the gossips, which remind scripts from films of horrors. Till now many tribes constantly living in impassable jungle of the African tropical forest, feel the genuine fear involved on Mumbo Jumbo while talking about them. However remains not more that 600 of them all around the world, they are included in the international Red Book, protected by WWF and also by uncountable set of the international nature protection organizations. They are east mountain gorillas (Gorilla gorilla beribgei) the largest anthropoids of today existing.

More than 10 hours have passed since I started from Kampala fussy Uganda capital accompanied by my acquaintance and headed to south-east of the country to the very border of Congo (Zair). Final destination of our route is the Bwindi national park, which encircles parts of Rukungiri, Kisoro and Cabale. Road from Kabale to Buhoma is loamy earth and slippery, washed away in many places from constant rains. The road passes through east edge of Bwindi Forest, twisting on numerous passes and narrow gorges, crossing fast mountain rivulets, so rises upwards, almost completely disappearing in an evening fog, so abruptly goes down downwards, to the very mountains toe, to extensive sites of banana plantations and dense lianas thickets. Here and there the road is so narrow, that it is absolutely not clear how counter transport can scrape. It is raining again and it is getting cool and damp. My attendant's name is Boniface, and he goes with me only up to park border to help to settle some formalities, once again to confirm the sanction for shooting and to talk to local guides as further entire success of expedition will depend on them. Already in complete darkness we have approached a barrier at which several military in camouflage and with “Kalashnikovs” machineguns stood. Nearby the wooden tablet had been drove “Bwindi Impenetrable national park”. The speedmeter drum stopped on 560 km. Short documents and luggage check and in a few minutes I got at my disposal comfortable tent surrounded by dense green walls of a tropical forest. Boniface again warns about tomorrow's early rise at 6 in the morning and a difficult route and today he should settle some formalities. Short farewell and his figure disappears in the darkness. Silence is set in around; only occasionally it is broken by sounds of large raindrops chaotically falling from leaves. Almost at once I recognize smells of damp African tropical forest known from Congo.

Clamped by mountains from two sides, Bwindi forest is almost impassable. Taking into account species diversity this is, probably, one of very few places in Africa, where the flora and fauna has been kept almost in a untouched form, as well as many hundreds years ago. Huge forty-meter trees hanged up with infinite lianas and parasitic plants, which are hanging down from them as a dense fringe, look fantastic. Huge ferns as big as three-tier house impressively supplement the picture. Impassable and huge thickets of bamboo prosper in this damp atmosphere, refracting and deforming sunlight. At least 120 varieties of mammals, chimpanzee, black-and-white Colobuses and other primates, 346 varieties of birds, 14 varieties of snakes, 27 varieties of frogs and toads, 6 chameleons, 14 lizards and 202 varieties of butterflies live in this one of the richest African ecosystem.

But our aim is majestic and mysterious Greater mountain gorillas or as they are also called “Silvery gorillas” (about 300-350 individuals living in this forest out of 600 existing in the world). A task: to find these animals, to come nearer to them, to supervise and to photo. The license to visit the gorillas, which have been given out by the ministry on tourism and natural parks of Uganda, is valid during 4 days only.

Morning of the next day is gray-haired and damp. The dense gray fog slowly slips from tops of mountains in gorge. The guide assures me that the sun will appear soon and asks to check up once again the equipment and inquires if everything is all right with the equipment. I ask him where such interest to photo techniques comes from. He explains that chances to find gorillas are fifty-fifty and everything should work when we shall see them. Besides, time of stay with gorillas is strictly regulated and I will have only an hour and a half. The next shooting is only tomorrow and again anybody cannot guarantee anything. But he has immediately added that he will try hardly as he has never accompanied any Russian photographer before.

At seven o'clock in the morning two security guards with inevitable “Kalashnikovs”, the guide, the porter and me have made a move in twilight of dense forest curtain and almost in the full silence occasionally broken by shouts of a cautious bird by monkeys' flight running on the top crones. Between this and then during a short halt the guide has declared, that generally a way is not that short, about 7-10 kilometers downwards-upwards up to a ridge, then long descent in a valley, and then we shall search for gorillas. In fact gorillas are not cows and do not graze on a lawn by all herd, expecting when somebody will come to have a look on them. Besides vegetation is so dense and high, that it is easy to pass gorillas by and simply do not notice them.

Therefore we shall often stop and “listen” to the forest. Dung is a true attribute that gorillas are somewhere near. If we see it there is an occasion for joy. We take the most necessary equipment and begin "prosecution" already on traces, keeping silence. At visual contact with animals do not do sharp movements and do not swing hands, speak whisper. In this case there is a chance that gorillas will allow us to come close, literally for 3-4 meters. “This is a chance for you”, my guide summarized, having a meditative look somewhere into the distance. I agreed. Flash cannot be used, it can scare gorillas and they may get back. Gorillas can be frightened and run away. They do run very fast, moving on dense bamboo thickets. Then it is impossible to reach them. It is probable to provoke aggressive reaction especially from a main male (they are called “Silverback” because of gray-haired strip on a back), or of females with little babies. It might happen that babies will show interest and come right up to us. Do not try to touch them, as a female can treat this gesture as danger to a baby.

Just in case, it is necessary to know, that if gorilla suddenly shows aggression you should stand on all fours, to lower your head and eyes, do not stare at them. But I think it will not happen. In general, these animals are mild, quiet and timid despite their impressive sizes.

Body length of adult males reach 180 cm, weigh it 250 kg and more. Gorillas live by families of 5-20 members, where gray-haired-back male-leader dominates. It is not certain how long gorillas live. There are some data that gorillas in natural environment can live up to 30-35 years. I read that gorillas were by 99% vegetarians. Their daily ration consists of soft bamboo offshoots, some trees cortex, wild celery, etc. “And what is included in this 1 percent of food?” - I asked the guide. He made serious look and said: “One percent is tourists who approach gorillas to close”. Then he added, “Don't be afraid, I'm just kidding”.

Sun appeared around nine in the morning. Very soon it became very hot and stuffy. There were no signs of the treasured top. The narrow footpath tiresomely and infinitely lasts upwards, abruptly turning off to the right, to the left, bending around huge roots of trees, lianas and stones. Occasionally the guide stopped and lifted hand upwards, in the very center of trees' crones. “This is a chimpanzee, look, what a beautiful bird has taken wing”. But nobody already cared about beautiful birds.

By the end of the fourth hour, totally exhausted, wet from sweat and forest evaporations, we have in literal sense crept on top, having dragged with ourselves almost 20 kg of photo technical equipment. Views opening from the top were moral indemnification for tiresome rise. Mountain chain covered by a dense carpet of tropical forest with damp dense haze heat of evaporations shaking above lasted in the infinite African sky. I find out, that because of temperatures differences and high humidity all lens and objectives have misted. And the moisture unexpectedly and deceitfully has appeared on internal lenses. I declare a smoke break and display all equipment to dry. The escort is pleased with such an unexpected rest. Procedure takes about an hour, forces are a little restored. Accompanied by a waving cloud of insects, we move further. In an hour we go down to a valley.

Dense underbrush bamboo paling spreads in front of us. It's work for machetes. We cut a corridor for ourselves in this green wall. We move slowly. Legs stagger in roots basketry. In the next half an hour we find out gorillas “berth” the vegetation trampled down with signs of life around. Our joy has no limits. Everyone understands that gorillas are very close. We stop for a short halt and I prepare the photo equipment. Only now the real work begins “hunting” for object and struggle for a good foreshortening.

The guide motions we have to stop. We're listening carefully. We hear champing sounds and soft grunting in about 20 meters. We note time. Now every minute is precious. With utmost carefulness we're creeping to these sounds' direction. In a minute a pair of cautious, watchful and almost human eyes appears between foliage. They're watching to our direction without winking for a few seconds. We are not in rush. The guide cautiously tramples down sprouts of a bamboo, clearing away space for shooting. The small glade opens to our eyes. Directly in front of us silverback male sits slowly, eating bamboo sprouts. He pulls to a mouth a bough after a bough with powerful hands, and having bitten them half-and-half, eats away a core, spitting out rigid and inedible parts. We try do not make sharp movements, but the male looks askance to our direction, emitting uterine sounds. In 5 meters from him there is a female with a small baby. Like all kids, he is curious, careless and fussy. After a dinner he tries to make for himself a plank bed of bamboo leaves, but he does it ineptly and clumsily, scratching the stomach filled by food. Not far away we notice a few more gorillas occupied by a meal further. We squat and observe this entire picture. In an hour and a half gorillas' nervousness passes and they, apparently, do not notice neither our presence, nor clicks of camera's shutter. A few young animals are so careless, that come to us in the distance of couple of meters only. Now we are nervous. At their each approach we look down and fade. Having convinced, that there is no danger, gorillas continue the meal. As it seemed to me, gorillas are not that notably for cleanliness and it is evident that above them midges cloudlet constantly waves. When the vegetation is eaten all around, gorillas move slowly to other place where they continue to eat, interrupting on short rest, or to clean their hair. Sometimes there are short skirmishes and quarrels between females or between young males. But they do not go to any serious consequences. Thus main male only observes what is happening and, as a rule, does not interfere into civil strife. Gorillas' emotions are very similar to human. In a short time, you start to distinguish them by muzzles+ well, better to say by faces, you start to understand their mood by mimicry and grimaces. Exactly like with people!

The hour flies very fast. Exited, I do not notice that almost 200 shoots have been done. The guide shows by gesture that it is necessary to leave. This is very strict. We slowly walk backward not hiding regret and leave the group of gorillas. Seeing my discontent with such a short stay, he claps my shoulder: “You have three more days; you will have time for everything”. However, there are no guarantees on successful search. Gorillas can walk big distances within a day. And again it will be necessary to creep in this hated mountain, counting on success, favor of the nature and experience of the guide. But everything will repeat three more times. And all three times will be successful. Last day I learn that two groups walked in vain. Gorillas did not appear.

Leaving Bwindi, I realize what has happed. Again and again I scroll in memory all four days spent in just a few meters from these rare animals in their natural environment, discrediting myths and confirming the facts by own presence.

Passing a barrier at the park's gateway, one of guides lifts upwards the big finger and shows aside forest. The mountain gorillas remain there animals, which has become a terrible legend for ones and object for studying for others, and now such familiar and gentle.

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