Saving the Mountain Gorillas
The Peace Corps, gorillas and eco-tourism in Uganda
by Camilla Mortensen
THE IMPENETRABLE FOREST: My Gorilla Years in Uganda, memoir by Thor Hanson. 1500 Books, 2008. Hardcover, $24.95.
Thor Hanson, a Peace Corps volun-teer and conservation biologist, lived in Uganda for two years, habituating mountain gorillas to the presence of tourists in Bwindi National Park, also called “the Impenetrable Forest.” He went into his adventure armed with not much more than some Peace Corps training and a copy of Michael Crichton’s thriller Congo featuring wild-eyed, human-skull-crushing gorilla hybrids.
The gorillas of The Impenetrable Forest are not monsters (though a couple of them manage to scare the newbie Peace Corps volunteer once or twice) but, as Hanson shows them, truly near human. Hanson’s book is a mix of ethnographic and ecological description; it is as much about the people of Uganda as it is about that country’s gorillas. As Hanson said in a recent interview, “I’ve come to believe very strongly that these people are ultimately responsible for the gorillas in that forest. If we’re going to have hope for the gorillas, we’re going to have to have a better understanding and empathy for the human cultures that surround them.”
Hanson’s job with the gorillas was to track them and get them used to humans; the gorillas need to be calm enough so that humans can come close and see them but not so habituated that they try to overly interact with the tourists. Bwindi National Park is one of the few places in the world people can go and see some of the 720 endangered mountain gorillas that are left, and the tourism has become a key part of Uganda’s economy. But the mountain gorillas face danger both from human diseases and from human encroachment and poaching. “The conservation effort is really only as sustainable as the social and political context in which it takes place,” says Hanson.
Hanson writes vividly about both the groups of gorillas and the people he lives and works with. The characters of the gorillas — aggressive Makale, gentle Karema — come to life as Hanson describes tracking, watching and sometimes being charged by them. In one case he watches as a gorilla steals a machete from one of the trackers: “From the standpoint of developing safe, ecologically responsible tourism, this was a low point. Our first visitor from park headquarters was instantly charged and now the gorilla was armed.” The incident ends with no harm done to gorilla or tourist but, Hanson writes, it results in, “a lingering rumor that armed gorillas were roaming the depths of the Bwindi Forest.”
Hanson intersperses his tales of gorilla watching with historical discussion of Uganda’s sometimes bloody history as well as the AIDS crisis faced by the people he lives and works with, “Everyone you see here is carrying the virus,” he is told by one of his hosts, and Hanson deals with the sickness and death of some of the people he came to know over the course of the two years he spent in Africa.
The Impenetrable Forest reads almost like a series of vignettes, and sometimes the chronology of events and large cast of characters can be difficult to follow, but Hanson’s humor and his charming writing style make up for the flaws. It’s a book in the tradition of classics like Elenore Smith Bowen’s (aka Laura Bohannan) Return to Laughter that show an American’s immersion in Africa, both as humorous chronicler of interactions between foreigner and native and as a witness to tragedy.
Hanson’s talk, sponsored by the UO Bookstore, promises to be more of a performance than a traditional book reading. Hanson is a dynamic speaker and will show photos and play music in addition to reading from his book.
A portion from the proceeds of The Impenetrable Forest will go to protect and preserve mountain gorillas in the wild.
Thor Hanson will read from The Impenetrable Forest and give a multimedia presentation at 7 pm Thursday, Nov. 20, 182 Lillis Hall, UO.