Tracking Twins in the Wind

Featured | 12/03/09

Jaime here. It’s an uncharacteristically warm day high in the mountains on the Southern edge of Bwindi Impenetrable Forest National Park here in Southern Uganda.

At over 7,000 feet (2,300 meters), the chill during cloudless nights can have a bite, and foggy mornings demand the toasty warmth of a fleece top and thick socks. This morning, as the sun peaks over the horizon, I am in t-shirt sleeves and a groggy smile (mornings have never been my forte), anxious for tracking the twins.

I’ve come back to Clouds Mountain Gorilla Lodge, IGCP’s innovative partnership project with the local community, to update myself on our work with the villages bordering the park, and hopefully get a glimpse of a very rare occurrence: twin baby gorillas, which were born to mother Kwitonda in November 2008 in the Nkuringo gorilla family, which lives just over the ridge from Clouds on the forest’s edge.

Even rarer than a mountain gorilla mother having twins is the survival of both into juvenile status and adulthood. It’s still early, but the rangers at the local Park office say that the twins are holding their own so far. I am excited for a peek of even a few seconds of the tiny furry phenoms.

First though, we have to get down the mountain. Clouds and the Park office are high on the ridge, with the Park boundary deep down in the next valley. My bad knees (three surgeries) are always happier climbing than descending.

As my guide Silver and I slip down the loose dirt slope, he updates me: the twins are ok, and the family is doing fine, although the second ranking silverback Kisoro, who was my first introduction to the group last time, has left. It seems he was squabbling with some up and coming young male blackbacks, and he eventually decided the constant taunting wasn’t worth it anymore and took off, wandering Bwindi’s thickets for another family to join, or perhaps as a confirmed bachelor.

Silver is the expert: he habituated (sensitized to human presence) this group over ten years ago, and has been with them ever since. Though Kisoro has not been spotted for about two months, he is confident he’ll be fine.

After a quick stop at the ranger tracking camp on the forest’s rambling green lip, we plunge into the bamboo, vines and mud in search of dominant silverback Safari and his extended brood. But it turns out to be a dip rather than a plunge: they are only about 600 feet (200 meters) from the camp and moving out of the forest towards the community land on its margins. Apparently, the food pickings are good: a ranger tells me they’ve been hanging around here a few days.

Rafiki (Friend), a huge blackback male, is the first family member we meet. Or, is it Bahati (Chance)? I am not well acquainted with the Nkuringo family yet, and am too nervous and thrilled to ask the rangers. It doesn’t matter how many times I see mountain gorillas: the anticipation and simple joy of approaching these huge gentle creatures in their thousand-shades-of-green forest home always has my heart beating almost out of my chest.

After a few minutes we get a glimpse of Safari, and I think Kashotora, who has her nine month old baby clinging to her back while the family chews their way up a steep ridge.  “The advance team hasn’t spotted the twins yet,” Silver informs me.

As I snap a few shots of Safari sitting in a huge thicket tearing up some young vines for a snack, a ranger whispers, “There are the twins…..over there, hidden.”

The twins are jealously guarded by Kwitonda and Safari, and sometimes are completely out of sight. Kwitonda, however, has decided to take a rest underneath some bushes on the steepest part of the ridge. Wiping away some branches, I get an obstructed view of two tiny furry lumps, clinging tightly to Kwitonda’s side and breast. They are scrawny, but look healthy, with thick spiked rock star hair and big bright eyes. Kwitonda doesn’t run, but seems determined to keep them out of sight of our prying eyes, inching further under the shady brush. A sturdy wind picks up and screams down the mountainside, prompting everyone to get up and head to calmer corners.

I am angling for a clear photograph, but I don’t push it. I quickly realize Kwitonda wants – needs – her privacy and the twins don’t need woken up by some hairless ape causing a ruckus tumbling over because he isn’t nearly as good at climbing the forest’s almost vertical slopes as their mother.

The wind picks up and howls as I scramble up the hill and catch Safari hiding behind a huge tree, poking his massive oblong head out from behind every once in awhile to check on the others. Gorillas love to snack on dead wood, and apparently Safari has found a treasure trove.

After fifteen minutes I leave him, still munching away, and head back up the mountain, the steady wind now threatening to knock me over backwards.

The International Gorilla Conservation Programme (IGCP) currently consists of Conservation International, Fauna & Flora International and the World Wide Fund for Nature. We recognise that the earth's survival is dependent on humanity's ability to maintain a healthy and balanced environment that includes all species of wildlife.