Against the backdrop of political violence in Uganda, mountain gorillas are fast depleting in numbers. Janeece Keller reports.

In the mountainous region of the Virunga Conservation Area, the Myakagezi gorillas live isolated as a family group and do not interact with other wild gorillas in the park.

While violence in Uganda’s capital city Kampala stopped local government voting last Thursday, the south-western corner of the country witnessed no unrest.

Ten kilometres from the border of Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) is the town of Kisoro where its locals voted in both national and local elections in the same week without issue.

“Here it has been the most boring elections possible in Kisoro – it’s a pretty small place,” says local resident and hotelier Jan Wudkamp.

Scattered along the roads throughout the farming villages, polling booths were manned by election officials lazing in the shade. Occasionally their rest would be disturbed by a farmer arriving to vote and have their fingernail painted with henna to indicate they had cast their ballot.

But I wasn’t in Kisoro to monitor the elections. Rather, to see Uganda’s primary tourist attraction – the critically endangered mountain gorillas.

We drive to Mgahinga Gorilla National Park. Almost 34 square kilometres in size, the park is part of the much larger Virunga Conservation Area which includes national parks in both Rwanda and the DRC.

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When the gorillas cross the border out of Uganda, it’s not possible to track them in Mgahinga and as a result the park sees fewer tourists than the nearby Bwindi Impenetrable National Park.

“It’s hard at Mgahinga when the gorillas cross into Rwanda, because then the tourists can’t see the gorillas and we don’t know when they will come back to the Ugandan side of the park,” says Uganda Wildlife Authority and gorilla guide Allem Uwihoreye.

“At this time, we can not guarantee, but it is likely that they will still be on the Uganda side for about three months because they are close now and they don’t move very fast.”

Last year, a census by conservation groups revealed there are only 786 mountain gorillas left in the world. That’s approximately one gorilla for every nine million people according to a sign at Mgahinga Park headquarters.

All remaining mountain gorillas live in the Virunga Conservation Area and Bwindi National Park. There are 480 in the Virunga mountainous region and only one habituated group in Mgahinga.

It takes two years to habituate a gorilla group. But work doesn’t stop there. Once they are in the wild, they must be closely monitored and protected from tourists.

Only eight people are permitted to track them each day and for only a short amount of time to ensure minimal disturbance on their lives.

“The gorillas don’t eat while we are watching them so we can’t stay more than an hour,” says Uwihoreye.

“The gorillas like us but we have to let them be wild and not scare them with cameras and a flash.”

The only people who can stay for more than an hour are the wildlife trackers.

The Myakegezi Group are monitored daily by Uganda Wildlife Authority trackers who set out at 7am each morning to spend the day with the gorillas and return after 5pm.

“It is important that we stay with the gorillas all day because if they are sick or if there is a problem then we know and can get help from the vet,” explains Uwihoreye.

It also makes tracking for the tourists much easier the next day. Mountain gorillas typically move between one and two kilometres a day which means a couple of days away from them would significantly increase tracking time and reduce the likelihood of finding them.

But tracking is no easy feat. Along with three other tourists, I leave the park headquarters at 9am and spend the next two hours clambering through the forest and along buffalo trails tracking the Myakagezi Group.

Once there, we see eight of the nine group members relaxing and playing in a small clearing. Two infants spin around in circles, much to the amusement of two Silverbacks who watch them fall over in dizziness.

When they see us, the 10-year-old Blackback male Rukundo pulls away the vines obstructing our view but continues grooming his older brother Mdugutse, unfazed.

But in the presence of other wild gorillas this is not the case. The Myakagezi gorillas live isolated as a family group and do not interact with other wild gorillas in the park.

“If the gorillas meet other groups they fight. It happens sometimes and we can’t stop it but it is better if they don’t fight too much,” said Uwihoreye.

Even after dark Mgahinga Gorilla Park is watched over by conservationists.

Funded by both the Uganda and Rwanda governments, a group of seven national rangers from both countries work together as a singular team for week-long assignments, removing snares and arresting poachers when needed.

The one hour we spend with these gentle giants that share 97% of our genes is not enough. Time flies by.

We leave the mountain gorillas and drive eleven hours back to the capital city Kampala where armed presence is even more noticeable in contrast to the tracker presence in the mountains.

Whilst protectors of both kinds wear khaki uniforms and carry guns, the people protecting the mountain gorillas flash wide smiles and engage eagerly in conversation.

The soldiers and police in Kampala are, however, stony-faced and refuse to even give directions to the nearest bank.