The recent and escalating coronavirus crisis is making people within society acutely aware of their own mortality, along with that of family, friends and loved ones. Aside from some negative aspects reported in the media, the way most of society has responded to help and support each other in the face of this existential threat has been truly heartening.
People are inherently social creatures, so the increasing restrictions on our interactions with others are a heavy burden and unfortunately it appears this situation will persist for some time. Many creatures live in a social structure because of the overall benefits it brings, including some of our closest relatives like gorillas and chimpanzees.
Whilst no spring chicken, I consider myself reasonably healthy and assume I am at low risk. However, the spectre of this pandemic has caused some reflection on what is important in my own life as well as the impacts on others. Whilst working in nature conservation has been a key driver for most of my adult life, like many people I have a bit of a bucket list with things I’d like to do and see before age finally catches up with me. And it is fair to say 2019 was a good year. I visited Gaudi’s La Sagrada Familia towering over Barcelona (complete with peregrine), stood mesmerised under the stunning replica of the Altamira cave paintings in northern Spain and soaked up the landscape from the breathtaking Trolltunga rock outcrop in Norway. However, the end of the year brought the most visceral things on my list, with Eastern (mountain) gorillas and chimpanzees up close and personal during a trip to Uganda.
I was fairly obsessed with wildlife in my youth, African mammals in particular, so the famous encounter by David Attenborough with gorillas in Rwanda in 1978 was an obvious highlight. As the great man whispered ‘There is more meaning and mutual understanding in exchanging a glance with a gorilla than any other animal I know’.
There are two recognised subspecies of eastern gorilla, the mountain gorilla (Gorilla beringei beringei) of the volcanic slopes of Rwanda, Uganda and eastern Democratic Republic of Congo; and Grauer’s gorilla or eastern lowland gorilla (Gorilla beringei graueri) in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo. Both subspecies were classified as critically endangered by the IUCN, though in 2018 the mountain gorilla (despite being the rarer of the two) was uplisted to endangered due to an improving conservation status.
While I was out there in December last year there was an announcement on mountain gorilla numbers. The Uganda Wildlife Authority announced the most recent survey in Bwindi Impenetrable National Park, Uganda, and the contiguous Sarambwe Nature Reserve, DRC, had found that mountain gorillas had increased from an estimated 400 in 2011 to 459. This transboundary protected forest, one the oldest and most biodiverse in Africa, is just a tiny 340 square kilometres, which graphically highlights the fragility of their world.
When combined with a population survey of 604 animals in the Virunga Massif to the south, the total world population of mountain gorillas now stands at around 1,063. This is a small but encouraging increase for the work of a huge multi-agency conservation collaboration. However, serious risks remain, including habitat encroachment, poaching, civil unrest and, under particular scrutiny at the moment, potential disease transmission.
In Bwindi, the park organises daily visits by small groups to see a number of habituated troops of mountain gorillas. Whilst not a cheap day out at $600 (and $1500 in neighbouring Rwanda!), it was difficult to begrudge the amount when considering the fragility of their world, the wealth of other wildlife the forest holds and the benefits to local communities.
Trackers are out early to relocate these family parties, so encounters are almost guaranteed – but the sense of anticipation among my small group was understandably palpable. The surreal encounter did not disappoint. We were allowed just one very special hour, which flashed by all too quickly. Like ourselves, family is the cornerstone of society, and gorillas are highly social, living in relatively stable groups held together by long-term bonds between adult males and females. The dominant silverback generally determines the movements of the group, leading it to appropriate feeding sites. He also mediates conflicts within the group and protects it from external threats. Whilst many families are completed habituated and appear totally unconcerned by their daily human visitors, you do wonder what they, through their soulful amber eyes, make of these encounters! I debated about which photograph to use for this blog, but selected one of the last I took of the silverback just chilling out.
Corvid-19 and earlier pandemics have brought into focus the increasing stresses the consumerism of mankind is placing on the natural world and the inhumanity of how some animals are kept for the food market. It appears this is creating unwelcome opportunities for new strains of viruses to enter human society. It is with some irony that after all the massive efforts to conserve gorillas, that human interactions with them are now being restricted because of concerns about coronavirus transmission and the risk we pose to them.
We live in a very different world at present, and the immediate future looks very difficult for many. Hopefully, as we emerge from this crisis and assess what lessons society needs to learn, that a greater respect for the natural world will prevail. This can only help all of us in the longer term and hopefully reduce the chances of these catastrophic events ever happening again.
Image taken with Canon 70D at 1/160 second with a Canon 70-200 f4.0L lens at f4.0 ISO 2000.