Today, May 19th, marks Endangered Species Day, a global day of action to acknowledge the vital importance of wildlife conservation and learn about the efforts made to protect the Earth’s wildlife since the creation of the Endangered Species Act (ESA) in 1973. This year, 2023, will mark the 50th anniversary of the ESA, a landmark piece of legislation that spearheaded international commitment to the conservation of animal and plant wildlife and their habitats.
Not that many decades ago, the mountain gorilla was on the brink of extinction, with less than 400 remaining worldwide. Its survival was in serious doubt. Today the number of mountain gorillas in existence has increased to around 1,063. Through dedicated conservation efforts and vigilant safeguarding by committed park rangers, the mountain gorilla has been declassified from critically endangered to endangered; while there is still a lot to be done to ensure their survival, it is important today to recognise and celebrate this immense progress.
Habituation of the mountain gorilla is an essential component of conservation efforts designed to preserve and protect their population. It is a process of gently introducing wild mountain gorillas to the sight and presence of humans, which is crucial for providing habituated mountain gorilla groups with continual protection and veterinary treatment for snares, respiratory illnesses and other life-threatening conditions. As well as helping to prevent severe declines in their numbers, habituation also acts as a measure to promote the positive growth of their populations.
In February 2020, Leo visited Uganda to observe The Gorilla Organization’s community-led conservation projects, which are supported by donations from That Gorilla Brand. It was on this trip that he first embarked on a trek into the Bwindi Impenetrable National Park (BINP) with Emmanuel, one of the very knowledgeable and cheerful guides of the region, hoping to catch a glimpse of the majestic mountain gorillas, the gentle and mighty creatures that have inspired and driven the heart of That Gorilla Brand from its inception.
This adventure was a dream come true; walking through this incredible location, filled to the brim with biodiverse richness and wonders, Leo can vividly remember the forest filled with a chorus of birdsong, hidden deep in the vegetation. Catching much more than just a glimpse, Leo and Emanuel were lucky enough to encounter the Nkuringo mountain gorilla family, the first group to be habituated in this southern part of the BINP. At this time, the Nkuringo troop consisted of over twenty gorillas, extensive by usual group standards, and led by their only silverback, a 25-year-old known as Rafiki, whose name is the Swahili word for ‘friend’. Rafiki’s leadership provided his family with protection, provision and guidance. Blackbacks and babies played in the bushes, somersaulting and falling off trees, cavorting energetically in their forest playground, while Rafiki gently held an infant in amongst the merriment. Witnessing the tenderness and love between this mighty, magnificent beast and the tiny, defenseless newborn is an experience Leo will never forget.
Three months later, back home in Athens, Leo learned the devastating news that Rafiki had died at the hands of a poacher hunting for wild meat in the forest. Rafiki had been fatally stabbed with a large spear. As the only silverback in the family, after Rafiki’s death, conservation groups were worried that the Nkuringo troop would disperse and eventually dissolve. Usually, in the wild, when the dominant silverback dies and there is no other silverback to take its place, the family can feel directionless and vulnerable, prompting individual gorillas to scatter, either wandering into the forest as loners or joining other families.
Thankfully the group remained intact with the help of increased park patrols and daily monitoring by park rangers. Although its numbers diminished, with a few leaving to join other groups, Rafiki’s death inadvertently brought new life. The individuals who left had joined the Christmas troop, which had dwindled to just two or three gorillas; with their new members, they grew to a size of seven which revived this troop for habituation. Rafiki had also left behind a pregnant adult female who gave birth to an infant male. He was named Rafiki Junior in memory of his father.
In January of this year, 2023, Leo returned to Uganda to fulfill his sixth fundraising challenge, an ultra marathon around Lake Mutanda with local community members running alongside him, to raise money for That Gorilla Brand’s Bwindi Community Water Project.
To thank his crew who had accompanied him throughout his arduous run, Leo organised a new trek with Peace, another dedicated guide. Again, the experience proved exhilarating. Trekking through the thick vegetation, the team came upon the Nkuringo family. The group was now led by Rafiki’s brother, Rwamutwe, who was just a blackback at the time of Rafiki’s death but had confidently assumed the group’s leadership when they had lost their lead silverback and has taken care of the group and ensured its safety and wellbeing ever since, with the help of their other brother Tabu who also became a second Silverback. Leo was overjoyed to see the family thriving with their new silverback leader, numerous blackbacks, females and babies.
As the trek continued, the team was blessed with another breathtaking moment; as they rounded the corner, they encountered a very rare sighting of the Nkuringo family meeting a neighbouring troop. The silverbacks from each family postured up to the other, sizing each other up, beating their chests and making their native howls. It seemed as if this extraordinary, spectacular scene was the forest’s way of bestowing its gratitude to Leo and his troop.
The footage in this film, captured by the TGB team, captures some of the magical encounters of this trip, filled with wonder and awe of the magnificent mountain gorilla’s might, majesty and gentleness.