Photo Credit Bob Eck.

Mountain Gorilla Protection and the Batwa Pygmies of Buhoma, Uganda


My intention is to describe an example of how the powerful abuse the powerless, intentionally, or by lack of consideration of the potential consequences of what they do; a story repeated all over the world.

In 2006, a year after retiring as a veterinarian, my wife Claudia and I traveled to Africa for the first time, visiting Buhoma, a village in far southwest Uganda, at one of the entrances to the Bwindi Impenetrable National Park, where we trekked to see critically endangered mountain gorillas and where we first met some Batwa Pygmies. They previously had been evicted from the forest to protect mountain gorillas. Our tour leader stated that the Batwa were “happy” to now be living outside of the forest, but their demeanor and living circumstances indicated otherwise.

The small-statured, hunter/gatherer Twa have lived for millennia in the equatorial forests of central Africa, of which they are believed to be the original human inhabitants. There is evidence that the Batwa are one of the oldest races on earth. Their sustainable, low-impact use of forest spanned thousands of years. But agriculturalists and pastoralists started clearing forests for cultivation in the nineteenth century, and colonialism-associated large-scale forest logging and trophy game hunting caused the overexploitation and destruction of forest habitats, which impacted both wildlife and Batwa Pygmy communities.

Mountain gorillas and the Batwa lived alongside one another in the Bwindi Impenetrable Forest until 1992. But to protect the gorillas, the Batwa were forcibly evicted from that forest when it became a national park and was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site, a decision made jointly by the United Nations and the Ugandan government. The Batwa did not hunt the mountain gorillas, calling them sacamunto – “just like me.” Occasionally, however, a mountain gorilla was caught in one of their hunting snares. Further, it was felt to be easier to keep the park free of poachers if entry required a permit.

Toddlers Playing, Rushegura Group. While the tourists observe the gorillas, there seems to be little interference with their normal life. The young ones play, and sometimes approach the tourists, showing no fear. This can make the silverback a bit nervous.

Gorillas live in family groups, each led/controlled by a dominant male, the “silverback.”  As part of the ecotourism enterprise, since 1998 fifteen of these groups have been habituated to the presence of human beings.  Each member of these groups is named and studied over time. Trackers locate and follow the habituated groups in the forest, return in the morning to the last place they had been seen the evening before, find their current location, and then inform the base camp, so that small groups of tourists can trek to observe them for an hour. The gorillas are comfortable with and generally seem to ignore the human beings observing them, and do not appear fearful or aggressive. Young gorillas often frolic together and are more likely to interact with their observers. Viewers routinely are fewer than twenty feet from them as the gorillas go about their business; people often find this proximity a very emotional experience.

Ecotourism is critical to the gorillas’ survival. It provides money for rangers who help prevent poaching, veterinary support and, a system that helps protect the gorillas and their habitat. Ecotourism also brings tourist-derived money to the government of Uganda, critical to attaining national and local support for conservation efforts. But why are indigenous cultures that are endangered not equally of importance and deserving of protection?

Until very recently, mountain gorillas were listed as “Critically Endangered” by the International Union for Conservation of Nature. But conservation efforts resulted in an increase in the number of mountain gorillas to 680 by 2008, and to 880 by 2016. In November 2018, the IUCN estimated that there were over 1,000 mountain gorillas in the three countries, so their classification was changed from Critically Endangered to Endangered.


Kanyonyi, Silverback, Mubare Group. This photograph was taken only a few days before the death of Kanyonyi in 2017. He had been injured by a fall from a tree and attacks by another, itinerant, male gorilla, Maraya, who eventually took over all of the females in the group, and killed the three babies. At least two of the four females were known to be pregnant by a year later.


Male Infant, Mubare Group. This was one of the babies of the group, who later was killed by the silverback Maraya, who took over the group on Kanyonyi’s death.

In December 2017, Claudia and I again visited Uganda, seeing the Mubare Group, the third of the three habituated gorilla groups we have visited near Buhoma.  Kanyonyi was its dominant silverback, and by the time I visited there then were four females and three babies in the group, down from a total of eleven in the group in 2016. What I did not expect was that I would witness the cycle of life of gorillas in the forest. I learned that Kanyonyi had been seriously injured by falling from a tree in September 2017. Further, over the next two months Kanyonyi was attacked several times by Maraya, a solitary silverback who had left the Habinyanja group approximately ten years earlier, wandering about the forest by himself. Three of the females in the group left with Maraya; Kanyonyi then was too weak to move. He was treated for a wound with antibiotics, anti-inflammatory drugs and vitamins several times by Gorilla Doctor Fred Nizeyimana, after which he showed some improvement.  When I viewed Kanyonyi in December 2017, he was off by himself, and appeared unconcerned with the females or babies and soon after was found dead, likely from a serious infection. Following his death, Maraya took over the remaining 4 females and 3 babies. After several days he killed the babies, probably associated with an innate desire to propagate his own gene pool.

One of the major reasons I returned to Buhoma was to meet and converse with the Batwa Pygmies, to better understand their life and background. I was fortunate to meet Dr. Scott Kellermann, a medical missionary who has lived in Buhoma with his wife Carol since 2001. (Scott has provided me important information about the Batwa, cited herein, and concerning politics in Uganda.) He had purchased 100 acres of old growth forest, adjacent to the Bwindi Impenetrable National Park, to establish a “living history” site where the Batwa’s rich heritage could be preserved. The Batwa elders had built traditional huts and religious sites there, and chose as the name for the site, the “Batwa Experience.” It was to become a venue where Batwa children would be taught the ancient ways of life in the forest, and it has become a source of tourist income for the Batwa. As always on such tours, an armed guard accompanied us.  A surprise DRC rebel attack in 1999 in the Bwindi Impenetrable Forest resulted in several tourists being tortured and killed. Since then, there has been an obvious military presence in the area.

Batwa Elegance – Mamia Margaret. Margaret was about 88 years old when this photograph was made in December 2017. There were no written records in the forest, so exact birth dates are not known. Margaret’s vision had been impaired due to the infectious disease trachoma (the second leading cause of blindness in sub-Saharan Africa). She clearly was the instrumental musician of this group of Batwa, as she was nearly always in possession of her traditional musical instrument, an “African finger hub,” or “ikyembe” in both the local Rukiga (Bakiga) and Lutwa (Batwa) languages. She is dressed in bark cloth, which along with animal skins was the typical dress of the Batwa in the forest.

When we arrived at the “Batwa Experience,” the Batwa performed demonstrations and described their previous life in the forest.  They showed us how they made fire, harvested honey, and created an example of a shrine to their god Nyabingi. They also demonstrated how they hunted with snares and bows and arrows and dressed in clothing made of tree bark. We saw several types of huts built as they had been when they were in the forest. They only had positive things to say about their lives prior to their expulsion, and although some of it seemed romanticized, they clearly believed what they said.

Many of the Batwa spoke of their food, fresh safe water, and medicines, which they said were easily found in the forest – they only had to look for them and eat and drink. The women gathered wild yams, wild fruits, mushrooms, wild honey, herbs and roots. The men used to hunt several kinds of animals, including bush pigs, duikers, bush bucks, vervet, red-tailed and black and white colobus monkeys, squirrels, porcupines, civets, mongooses, buffaloes, baboons, sometimes elephants, etc. Some said they only ate monkeys when no other meat was available.

Several of the Batwa mentioned that after the eviction some of the elders were killed by rangers because they refused to leave the forest. Many of the Batwa now live in Buhoma. During the interviews I was told: “Our life is so terrible now. We become sick all the time, we have no food and we get hunger spells, we are no longer strong like in the past and we are living a miserable life today.”

Since the eviction, the Ugandan government has provided the Batwa with no reparation, jobs, or housing assistance. Nor have the Batwa shared in any income associated with ecotourism. Eight years after the eviction, 38% of the Batwa children died before their fifth birthday, translating to a mean life expectancy of 28 years. Their annual mean income was $25. Despite improvements in their condition since then, they remain classified as “ultra-poor,” i.e., they live on less than $0.80 per day. NGO’s, such as the Kellermann Foundation, have provided help to the Batwa community.


Making Fire III – The Torch is Ready. The Batwa impressed us by how quickly they could start a fire using only the friction created by spinning one stick (an obusingo) against another. Fire was used to cook their food, but the Batwa love honey and demonstrated how they also used the fire to harvest honey from a tree; the smoke was said to sedate the bees and drive them from the hive. They still received multiple stings.


Mutwa Madonna (Mutwa is the singular of Batwa). Life now continues to go on in the community with their non-Batwa counterparts, as they become integrated; but this is a slow and still painful process. Many of the Batwa not receiving help from the NGO’s of the region, remain essentially slaves to those of the greater community who offer them work and housing.

The eviction has led to an increasing loss of the Batwa’s ancient culture and knowledge of the forest. They spoke their Rutwa language in the forest. They now must speak the local Rukiga language to be understood; the young ones also speak English. Death of the elders will continue to dilute first hand knowledge of their life in the forest. Though all of those interviewed stated their unhappiness with their situation, one of them said that her parents are proud of her because she is going to school. When asked if Ugandans who are not Batwa treat her as well as they do other Ugandans, she answered: “Yes, now we are the same.”

It is not likely that the Batwa will ever be able to return to their beloved forest. Hopefully, the Ugandan government will become more aware of the plight of the Batwa and engage in supporting them through land acquisition, and by promoting better health and education. Internationally, the militarization of efforts to prevent poaching has been necessary to protect endangered animal species.  This has not been without problems for people living in the areas where animals are being protected. Elsewhere in the world there have been recent allegations of torture and killings of innocent people by rangers hired to prevent poaching.

Given human behavior, there is no template for preventing such abuse of the powerless.  But in his 1997 book, “In the Dust of Kilimanjaro,” David Western discussed the Amboseli National Park in Kenya, an example of an integrated approach to conservation, involving both animals and nearby people. Continued coexistence, not segregation may offer the best hope for the world’s wildlife. The approach should not be solely pragmatic, however.  Ethically, people affected by wildlife conservation should be considered and protected.






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