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.

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.

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.

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.