Wild Gorillas Groom U.S. Tourist in Uganda

28 December 2011 Ape Alliance News

National Geographic News ׀ Brian Handwerk ׀ December 2011

A troop of wild mountain gorillas recently turned a typical ecotourism encounter upside down when the animals paid a visit to a tented camp in Uganda's Bwindi Impenetrable National Park.

Video footage, now gone viral, shows baby and adult gorillas approaching U.S. tourist John J. King II, sitting with him, and even grooming him as he sits in quiet amazement-right next to a giant male silverback gorilla.

"These gorillas were interacting with me just like I was one of their own, and it happened completely naturally," King said. "Who knows why it happened?"

Local rangers were also stumped, telling King that, while baby gorillas sometimes interact with humans, the rangers had never known adult animals to take such an interest.

Mountain gorillas are listed as endangered by the International Union for Conservation of Nature. Only about 800 are thought to exist in the wild, though recent studies suggest their numbers may be growing. (Related: "'Spectacular' Gorilla Growth in Congo, Despite War.")

A major population of some 300 animals can be found in Bwindi, where King's astonishing encounter took place this month.

"A Total Gorilla High"

Visiting the gorillas in Bwindi is a serious endeavor that requires permits issued by the Uganda Wildlife Authority and the help of local rangers and trackers who can find wild gorillas that are habituated to human presence.

Permits run $500 (U.S.) a day-with no guarantee of anything more than a "nice spirited hike of one to eight hours," said King, a wildlife photographer and conservationist. (Visit King's blog for more details about his gorilla experience and other travels.)

But on two successive days, King's group found and observed gorillas eating wild celery, playing, nursing, and resting.

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