Tragedy in Paradise: Memories of Bwindi, the Impenetrable Forest of Uganda

By Jane Dewar
On March 6, 1999, I was interviewed and quoted in an ABC News online story about tourism in Uganda. I’m flattered and a bit surprised to be in the company of other amazingly well respected gorilla experts mentioned in the story. The tragedy in Uganda unfolding last week has hit us personally very hard. While we didn’t know any of the people massacred, we have been to Bwindi Impenetrable Forest and have seen the awesome and inspiring mountain gorillas there. We stayed at the same camp where the tourists were abducted, and in more irony, I used to work for A&K, the tour company which operated the fancier camp called Buhoma. While there, we had armed guards around the camp, protecting our belongings (and us) in our tents from bandits, since the island of luxury in the middle of such poverty was a bit out of place and therefore in need of some security. The guards would walk us to and from our tents and the main dining/meeting areas. Typically, they were all smiling, friendly and eager to please.

Steuart and I wanted to visit Karisoke and the mountain gorillas in Rwanda, but 1994’s genocide there made that impossible. When we learned the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund’s scientific director, Dieter Steklis, was leading a small group to Bwindi in April 1995, we jumped at the opportunity, knowing full well the risks of traveling anywhere, but especially to a Third World country. We were pleasantly surprised by the friendliness of the people, who welcomedRwandisa.jpg (11098 bytes) “mzungas” (Swahili for white people) with huge smiles and frantic waves of delight. And while the actual trek to see the gorillas nearly killed me (another story – dehydration didn’t help), it remains the highlight of my life. They don’t call Bwindi the Impenetrable Forest arbitrarily! Seeing my first free-living gorilla – a juvenile hanging by one arm, dangling from a shaky tree branch in typical juvenile gorilla playfulness – was like a religious experience for me (photo left). I started to weep from sheer joy, until the Prozac kicked in and I regained my composure to concentrate on the experience and absorb the magic for the hour our visit was allowed to last. In another ironic twist of fate, I managed to take this photo (right) of the M group leader, Rwandesa, which at the time was one of the only good photographs taken of these hard-to-photograph and elusive animals!

The beauty of Uganda, its people and its wildlife are second to none. I’d been to Uganda in 1971 – just after the famous Raid on Entebbe and at the start of Daddy Amin’s reign of terror. When we visited in April 1995, it was the culmination of a life’s dream for me. Although I’d been to Africa several times before – Kenya, Uganda, Botswana, Tanzania, Zimbabwe, Zambia, Egypt and South Africa, I’d never seen free-living gorillas. In 1971 I was staying with my dear friends who run Giraffe Manor in Nairobi, Kenya. Betty and Jock Leslie-Melville were going to see gorillas and asked if I wanted to come along. I was 17 years old and it would cost me another $200 or so. It might as well have been 200 million dollars, since I’d spent all I had just getting to Kenya, so I couldn’t/didn’t go.

Betty and Jock raved for years afterwards about the wonderful time they’d had. Years later I asked my friend (Betty’s daughter), D’Ancy, just where they went and who they went with, since in 1971 there was no gorilla tourism as it was to develop later. It turns out they went with Adrien DeSchrijver (Zaire), one of the pioneers in gorilla studies and conservation. Today I cringe when I think of this missed opportunity. I have no doubt if I had gone, I would have stayed in Africa forever, helping to defend gorillas. I might have even worked with Dian Fossey, and been killed, since my outrage for the killing of gorillas wouldn’t have had any diplomatic counterbalance that age and life experience would later bring. But I believe Fate has its own plans, and I was supposed to end up doing Gorilla Haven and helping gorillas in another manner.

At Bwindi, one day I didn’t go on the gorilla trek and stayed behind, talking to the park rangers and guides still there. They were all fascinated by this odd American woman, they named Gorilla Lady (a name that others have given me as well). I showed them photos of my then-home in Chicago and animals in my back yard such as raccoon, squirrel, possum, deer, coyote, etc.
They were fascinated to see these animals, which so many of us take for granted. I also had photos of me with various zoo gorillas, and wore my gorilla t-shirt, gorilla socks, gorilla necklace, gorilla earrings, gorilla bracelet, gorilla fanny pack, gorilla hair pin, etc, etc. Peels of laughter and shrieks of hysteria pierced the air when I told them I refused to show them my gorilla underwear! I smile now when I think about the sweetness of the Ugandan people and then feel a deep sadness to think that some of these men and boys might well have been involved in last week’s tragedy.

It is important to remember that almost one million people have lost their lives in this region, due to ethnic hostilities. If humans can’t get along, the future of all wildlife including these magnificent gorillas is in serious jeopardy.