Meet Jane, a young mother whom I recently hired as a porter in Southwestern Uganda. The duties of a porter in Bwindi’s Impenetrable Forest are not unlike those of a Sherpa in the Himalayas, except instead of climbing mountains, they are tracking jungle animals. Jane and I had a long and arduous day ahead as we set out with a team to pursue a family of Mountain Gorillas. The goal was to find the gorilla family in its natural environment, purely for the joy and privilege of being in their midst.
Jane was tasked with following on my heels, carrying my twenty pound backpack filled with water, and providing any assistance I might need. She was ready with a hiking pole if I wanted it, and frequently offered me her hand for balance on rocky stream crossings. As an avid hiker, I really had no need for a porter. But I’m also an avid conservationist, and had learned how hiring Jane could help the very gorillas we were seeking. It turns out that the welfare of Uganda’s wildlife is very closely tied to not only its national economy, but to local village economies, and the well-being of borrowers like Jane.
Designating Bwindi’s national park boundaries to protect gorilla populations meant the loss of habitat for local tribes who were used to living in the forest. Outside, tribe members were left to reinvent their entire way of life. Jane explained to me that even a generation after their expulsion, families like hers are still struggling, always seeking new ways to make money. Which is why Jane decided to take a small loan. She used it to buy supplies and equipment to offer porting services, where she can earn over $15 per day.
Porting services, small cafes, and local artisan craft shops are just a few of the businesses that now surround the park, many started by microloans. As villagers make more money, one of the local guides explained, they have more energy to care about the gorillas and other wildlife. He said that it hasn’t always been this way, but villagers have a growing awareness that human disease spreads to forest animals. They understand that gorilla livelihood affects theirs too, and caring for them, their responsibility.
So when asked “What kind of animal would you be and why?” I now know that “Mountain Gorilla!” is the correct reply. When they are not napping or foraging, which gorillas spend the majority of their time doing, they can be found playing. But an even better reason to be a Mountain Gorilla is because we need more of them. They are highly endangered, right up there with the white rhinos, whose populations may never recover. Passing time on the long trek, I posed the question to Jane, who would also choose to be a gorilla. She broke into a wide smile, and laughed out loud at the thought of hiding from tourists in the treetops.