(Written By Gina Flaharty)
Early one August morning in 2009 I set out on foot with 2 forest rangers and 3 travel companions in search of a family of mountain gorillas that had made their home within the Bwindi Impenetrable Forest in Uganda. The Habinyanja family had been habituated to the presence of humans over many years in an effort to improve research and promote tourism. The money generated from tourism is returned in an effort to preserve the forest, improve research and discourage poachers. The rules are strict and the rangers follow them. You in no way are allowed to do anything that would harm the gorillas physically or mentally. And if you find the family, you get to be in their presence for exactly one hour, that’s it.
After a couple hours of walking up and down mountain hillsides we were informed that the family was sitting across from us in a forested area on a steep mountain slope. Our hearts raced at the thought of spotting a gorilla and being able to “hang out” with the family for an hour. As we began our steep hike up our excitement grew as we caught our first glimpse of a mother and her baby lounging in an area that had served as a bed for the night. Continuing up this steep climb, we could barely maintain our footing when suddenly out of nowhere we were startled by a grunting noise, branches moving and before any of us knew what was going on a huge gorilla had ran past, stole the GPS out of our rangers hand and made himself comfortable about 15 feet in front of us. This was Mizano, our ranger explained, he is known as the family comedian, a jokester per say, who likes to play pranks. The ranger then makes a grunting noise, Mizano replies, giving our ranger confirmation that he is comfortable and ok with us being there.
For the next 40 minutes we stood there while gripping our feet to the side of the hill above Mizano, watching him; every move, breath, expression. He was beautiful, amazing and unforgettable. He eventually left the GPS for our ranger to retrieve and when our hour was up we had to say goodbye to Mizano and his gorilla family.
When I got the email last week that Mizano had died I was in shock. I looked at the photos of him I had taken and my heart sank. Mizano was killed by antelope poachers. He was speared through the shoulders and neck by poachers who had encountered him while looking for antelope in the forest. My heart goes out to Mizano’s gorilla family and the community of humans around him who have worked so hard to preserve his species. With only 786 Mountain Gorillas left, Mizano’s loss is felt across the world. Farewell Mizano. I am honored to have met you.
Poaching continues to be a huge threat to the remaining mountain gorillas within Africa. For information about Mountain Gorillas and their conservation visit the International Gorilla Conservation Programme.