Face to face with a 400lb gorilla
• Silverback is the name given to the adult male because of the silvery fur running across their backs and hips
• Adult male gorillas are approximately six times as strong as a man
• Standing at up to six feet tall with arms that extend up to eight feet wide, gorillas are the largest living primates
• Generally quiet and calm, they can become aggressive towards one another. Dominant males, in particular, will beat their chest, scream, roar and bark while standing upright in a show of power
• In different circumstances, gorillas can be truly dangerous. Most gorilla violence is directed towards other gorillas. They live in groups, in which one dominant male silverback controls several females and youngsters.
• A 2018 survey found numbers had jumped to 1,000 individuals from 680 in 2008, enabling scientists to reclassify them from critically endangered to endangered
Choy Aming is quite at home swimming among tiger sharks and giant humpback whales, but seeing a silverback mountain gorilla charging towards him was a wildlife encounter like no other.
The senior aquarist at Bermuda Aquarium, Museum and Zoo has just returned from a three-week vacation in the dense forests of Uganda hanging out with some of the rarest animals on the planet.
He and his partner, Alet Coetzee, spent much of their time watching the animals from the sidelines but on their second visit to the Bwindi Impenetrable Forest in southwestern Uganda, they found themselves at the heart of the action.
“All of a sudden, our guide said 'There's a silverback coming!' and then he said 'He's going to charge!',” recalls Mr Aming who has spent ten years researching sharks in Bermuda.
“He just came and ran at us and did this display — he didn't beat his chest but his arms were flailing in the air. He did the full gorilla growl and ran at us.
“The guide growled back; it was a threat display.
“It was wild but we were fine. I wouldn't say I was scared, it's like when I am with the sharks — my brain goes into excited mode whenever there is an encounter like that.”
Despite the exchange, Mr Aming felt honoured to have had the opportunity to spend time with the endangered gorillas in their natural habitat. There are only about 1,000 left in the wild owing to a combination of war, habitat loss and poaching.
It was no mean feat getting to them. He and his small group had a three-hour trek through forest so thick it was difficult to determine which was way up and which way was down.
“To start with, there were trails but eventually the trails started to disappear until you are literally in the bushes,” he recalls.
“For the last hour of hiking you are thinking, 'Where are we?' You have trouble telling up from down because the jungle is so thick; the stinging nettles are six-feet high. These are pristine, virgin forests and you have to use a machete to get through them.
“We were also about 7,000 feet up in the mountains so you get a little winded, too.”
On the first day in Bwindi, Mr Aming became acquainted with a much less threatening mountain gorilla — a nine-month-old baby.
“The guide suddenly said, 'Drop your backpacks, just take your cameras. The gorillas are here'. You can't see them at first, but you can hear a rustling.
“The guide cut a vine back and about 300 metres in front of us there is this 400lb silverback, and others started appearing from the trees — there were at least ten of them.
“We sat with them for 30 minutes until a baby gorilla appeared and kept crawling over to us. Every time he would get within a metre of us his big sister would pull him back — just like a babysitter.
“It is totally different — you get used to the sharks but with the gorillas, there is a majesty to seeing them in the wild.
“Watching the baby play was just like watching a three-year-old — you can see yourself in them. I have seen thousands of sharks but I have never thought, 'Oh, that one is like me.'”
Mr Aming and Ms Coetzee also had the chance to visit chimpanzees in the Queen Elizabeth National Park in the western part of Uganda, where they saw a mass congregation of game drinking at a watering hole.
“You cruise on a boat and in just five miles we must have seen about 5,000 hippos, 5,000 buffalo, hundreds of elephants — loads and loads of life. Everything was coming to drink. There are large fig trees in Queen Elizabeth Park and the lions climb them. At one point we saw six lions up the tree.”
While he admits that Uganda was the trip of a lifetime, Mr Aming warned it is not for everyone.
“It's hot, it's dry, there was a lot of travelling and lots of hard walking so it is an adventure. I've been to the Amazon and worked with orang-utans in Borneo but this was the thickest, toughest forest I've ever seen.
“It is challenging, but if you think you can do it, I highly recommend it.
“After 20 years of chasing wildlife around, that was hands down one of the top experiences ever.”
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