TRAVEL TALES

The women who track endangered Ugandan mountain gorillas, and help tourists meet them

Their work in Bwindi Impenetrable National Park is protecting half of the world’s 880 remaining gorillas.

Shillah Ainembabazi has had an experience she shares with very few people. She once was punched by a mountain gorilla – that near mythic creature.

The 26-year-old woman encountered the beast – which is often depicted as frightful in low-budget movies and is, in fact, much larger and stronger in real life – in Uganda’s Bwindi Impenetrable National Park. But Ainembabazi wasn’t scared. The jab, which landed on her thigh, wasn’t delivered in anger. It was the gorilla’s version of a high-five.

A peasant’s daughter, Ainembabazi is a professional gorilla tracker, part of a small band of wildlife lovers who protect the magnificent – and endangered – species and give tourists the rare opportunity to see them. She chose the unconventional job out of love for the lush forests that carpet one of the last remaining gorilla refuges in the world – a region spanning the border areas of Uganda, Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Every day, a group of trackers like Ainembabazi search the forest and then follow a troop of gorillas to habituate them to humans. Bwindi is home to around 480 mountain gorillas. There are only 880 gorillas in the world and most of them live in the forests of Democratic Republic of Congo, Rwanda and Uganda.

Though gorillas are closely related to humans, they do not naturally take to seeing people – hence the need for trackers like Ainembabazi. She is a little taller than five feet and her near slender body does not give any hints about the strenuous work she does every day.

Bwindi national Park is home to around 480 mountain gorillas.
Bwindi national Park is home to around 480 mountain gorillas.

Tracking gorillas

On a good day, when they find the gorillas easily, trackers follow the animals for about eight hours. A troop of gorillas which usually consist of an adult male – called a “silverback” because of the white hair on his back – and assorted female, teenage and baby gorillas.

During the habituation process, the trackers start by acting like gorillas themselves. “We just follow them in the forest and imitate them,” said Ainembabazi. “When we start following a new troop of gorillas, we maintain a distance but as days pass we try going closer to them.”

It usually works but sometimes, gorillas decide they don’t like a particular tracker. “There is no reason, but there have been times when a gorilla just hates a tracker,” said Ainembabazi. “If they hate one of the trackers, the person stops coming to the forest. Gorillas have good memory. If the tracker they hate rejoins after some days, they remember it.”

Tracking can be challenging, especially for women. Ainembabazi has been left behind in the forest because she could not keep pace with the team of trackers following a troop. “The troop may move quickly and I may lag behind compared to my male colleagues,” she said “But I am building my stamina.” Ainembabazi is now a ranger guide who leads small groups of tourists into the forest to see gorillas who have been habituated to humans.

“Only after we are sure that the gorillas are comfortable among humans do we expose them to tourists,” said Sara Nemigisha, a former tracker who is now a ranger guide. Her curiosity about baby elephants and gorillas led her to apply for the job at Bwindi.

Not all of Bwindi’s 480 gorillas get exposed to humans. Only 43 gorillas belonging to four groups are habituated to humans and thus exposed to tourists who come to see them. This is by design: the Ugandan government deliberately limits human-gorilla interactions so as to help preserve the animals as much as possible in their natural state. Even the gorillas who are habituated are exposed only to small groups of humans for strictly limited amounts of time.

 Sara Nemigisha. Photo credit: Mercedes Sayagues.
Sara Nemigisha. Photo credit: Mercedes Sayagues.

Not a safari

A trip to the Impenetrable Forest is not your stereotypical African safari – there are no jeeps for tourists to drive in to view the animals. Guides like Nemigisha lead groups of 10 to 12 tourists trekking through the dense forest. To help the communities living around the park, the tourists can hire porters – residents of nearby villages trained by the park authorities. “These trackers can help you with your bag and also give you a push while climbing and remove you from the ditch in case you fall,” said Nemigisha. But with gorillas constantly on the move, the treks can sometimes last many hours – and some groups fail to find gorillas at all. When this happens, they can return to try another day.

The trek can be memorable even without the sight of gorillas, though. Bwindi Impenetrable National Park has 160 species of trees and many endangered species, according to the UNESCO, which has certified the park as a World Heritage Site. But usually trackers are able to bring tourists to the main prize. They start looking for gorillas hours before the tourists set out, and use walkie-talkies to tell guides where to lead the tourists.

“We don’t track them in the night,” explained Ainembabazi. “By afternoon, we leave them and the next morning start from the spot where we left them and follow their trail.”

Nemigisha carries a sickle to chop off the bushes and twigs to make way for the tourists trekking to see the gorillas. And two guards with guns escort the group of tourists.

Bwindi National Park is a World Heritage Site.
Bwindi National Park is a World Heritage Site.

Conserve and protect

The Ugandan government decided to employ people from the communities to help them directly benefit from the tourism activity. A percentage of the cost of the permit tourists have to buy to enter the forest is also used to help the communities living around Bwindi.

“We had to include the locals to conserve the forest and protect the gorillas,” said Nemigisha. “Earlier, if a gorilla would stray into a human settlement, people would kill him. Now, they call us and even help us with the rescue.”

A pass to see a gorilla isn’t cheap. Non-Ugandans must pay US$600 for the privilege. But the revenue not only supports trackers and guides, but also helps communities build schools, water tanks, roads and churches, said Nemigisha.

Nemigsha and Ainembabazi live in the park, and get only eight days off annually to see their families. “But the gorillas have become our families,” they say in unison.

“I miss the gorillas when I go home,” said Ainembabazi.

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Swara Bhasker: Sharp objects has to be on the radar of every woman who is tired of being “nice”

The actress weighs in on what she loves about the show.

This article has been written by award-winning actor Swara Bhasker.

All women growing up in India, South Asia, or anywhere in the world frankly; will remember in some form or the other that gentle girlhood admonishing, “Nice girls don’t do that.” I kept recalling that gently reasoned reproach as I watched Sharp Objects (you can catch it on Hotstar Premium). Adapted from the author of Gone Girl, Gillian Flynn’s debut novel Sharp Objects has been directed by Jean-Marc Vallée, who has my heart since he gave us Big Little Lies. It stars the multiple-Oscar nominee Amy Adams, who delivers a searing performance as Camille Preaker; and Patricia Clarkson, who is magnetic as the dominating and dark Adora Crellin. As an actress myself, it felt great to watch a show driven by its female performers.

The series is woven around a troubled, alcohol-dependent, self-harming, female journalist Camille (single and in her thirties incidentally) who returns to the small town of her birth and childhood, Wind Gap, Missouri, to report on two similarly gruesome murders of teenage girls. While the series is a murder mystery, it equally delves into the psychology, not just of the principal characters, but also of the town, and thus a culture as a whole.

There is a lot that impresses in Sharp Objects — the manner in which the storytelling gently unwraps a plot that is dark, disturbing and shocking, the stellar and crafty control that Jean-Marc Vallée exercises on his narrative, the cinematography that is fluid and still manages to suggest that something sinister lurks within Wind Gap, the editing which keeps this narrative languid yet sharp and consistently evokes a haunting sensation.

Sharp Objects is also liberating (apart from its positive performance on Bechdel parameters) as content — for female actors and for audiences in giving us female centric and female driven shows that do not bear the burden of providing either role-models or even uplifting messages. 

Instead, it presents a world where women are dangerous and dysfunctional but very real — a world where women are neither pure victims, nor pure aggressors. A world where they occupy the grey areas, complex and contradictory as agents in a power play, in which they control some reigns too.

But to me personally, and perhaps to many young women viewers across the world, what makes Sharp Objects particularly impactful, perhaps almost poignant, is the manner in which it unravels the whole idea, the culture, the entire psychology of that childhood admonishment “Nice girls don’t do that.” Sharp Objects explores the sinister and dark possibilities of what the corollary of that thinking could be.

“Nice girls don’t do that.”

“Who does?”

“Bad girls.”

“So I’m a bad girl.”

“You shouldn’t be a bad girl.”

“Why not?”

“Bad girls get in trouble.”

“What trouble? What happens to bad girls?”

“Bad things.”

“What bad things?”

“Very bad things.”

“How bad?”

“Terrible!!!”

“Like what?”

“Like….”

A point the show makes early on is that both the victims of the introductory brutal murders were not your typically nice girly-girls. Camille, the traumatised protagonist carrying a burden from her past was herself not a nice girl. Amma, her deceptive half-sister manipulates the nice girl act to defy her controlling mother. But perhaps the most incisive critique on the whole ‘Be a nice girl’ culture, in fact the whole ‘nice’ culture — nice folks, nice manners, nice homes, nice towns — comes in the form of Adora’s character and the manner in which beneath the whole veneer of nice, a whole town is complicit in damning secrets and not-so-nice acts. At one point early on in the show, Adora tells her firstborn Camille, with whom she has a strained relationship (to put it mildly), “I just want things to be nice with us but maybe I don’t know how..” Interestingly it is this very notion of ‘nice’ that becomes the most oppressive and deceptive experience of young Camille, and later Amma’s growing years.

This ‘Culture of Nice’ is in fact the pervasive ‘Culture of Silence’ that women all over the world, particularly in India, are all too familiar with. 

It takes different forms, but always towards the same goal — to silence the not-so-nice details of what the experiences; sometimes intimate experiences of women might be. This Culture of Silence is propagated from the child’s earliest experience of being parented by society in general. Amongst the values that girls receive in our early years — apart from those of being obedient, dutiful, respectful, homely — we also receive the twin headed Chimera in the form of shame and guilt.

“Have some shame!”

“Oh for shame!”

“Shameless!”

“Shameful!”

“Ashamed.”

“Do not bring shame upon…”

Different phrases in different languages, but always with the same implication. Shameful things happen to girls who are not nice and that brings ‘shame’ on the family or everyone associated with the girl. And nice folks do not talk about these things. Nice folks go on as if nothing has happened.

It is this culture of silence that women across the world today, are calling out in many different ways. Whether it is the #MeToo movement or a show like Sharp Objects; or on a lighter and happier note, even a film like Veere Di Wedding punctures this culture of silence, quite simply by refusing to be silenced and saying the not-nice things, or depicting the so called ‘unspeakable’ things that could happen to girls. By talking about the unspeakable, you rob it of the power to shame you; you disallow the ‘Culture of Nice’ to erase your experience. You stand up for yourself and you build your own identity.

And this to me is the most liberating aspect of being an actor, and even just a girl at a time when shows like Sharp Objects and Big Little Lies (another great show on Hotstar Premium), and films like Veere Di Wedding and Anaarkali Of Aarah are being made.

The next time I hear someone say, “Nice girls don’t do that!”, I know what I’m going to say — I don’t give a shit about nice. I’m just a girl! And that’s okay!

Swara is a an award winning actor of the Hindi film industry. Her last few films, including Veere Di Wedding, Anaarkali of Aaraah and Nil Battey Sannata have earned her both critical and commercial success. Swara is an occasional writer of articles and opinion pieces. The occasions are frequent :).

Watch the trailer of Sharp Objects here:

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This article was published by the Scroll marketing team with Swara Bhasker on behalf of Hotstar Premium and not by the Scroll editorial team.