Kampala — NOTHING makes Benjamin Bayenda happier than conquering the hearts of mountain gorillas. Their acceptance of human presence in their homes delights Bayenda. This is what he has been doing for the last two decades.
Through his successive exploits in Bwindi Impenetrable national park, the largest homeland for gorillas globally, thousands of tourists have had the rare privilege of tracking the gentle giants.
Four decades ago, when Bayenda's career was starting, he did not imagine that he would be famous. In October, a club of professionals under Nateete-Kampala Rotarians decorated him with a vocational award given to people who selflessly serve society.
They also lavished praises on Bayenda describing him as part of Uganda's pride.
"We are really blessed and the team led by Bayenda is extraordinary. It has made it possible for humanity to see the gorillas," says Daisy Buruku, a Rotarian. To her, the landscape where Bayenda has been nurturing gorillas is "the beautiful heaven on earth".
She says it was declared a United Nations Educational Scientific Cultural Organisation (UNESCO), site in 1994 because it is the only place where two apes, gorillas and chimpanzees live in the same habitat.
Prior to the colourful ceremony at Wakaliga, Nateete, some of the Rotarians went up to the mountainous terrain and confirmed that he was still contributing to building the nation.
Bayenda says habituation begins with gorilla trails, following plants they eat as they move. "We also have to observe gorilla droppings," he says. "It is important to provide clues on the freshest trail."
What you should know
Gorillas are both shy and aggressive when they are still wild. "Anyone who has trailed them will tell you that it is like following fire," says Bayenda. "You feel it in your mind and stomach."
He says befriending gorillas is not a simple thing. It takes time, fearlessness and empathy to understand them. It is something Bayenda has perfected only in the last two decades, but has handed over the skill to other rangers.
"Once rangers have been trained, the fear goes away. I have been doing this to pass on the skills to many rangers."
Gorillas sometimes get drunk after eating intoxicating plants, according to Bayenda.
One day, he says, a gorilla charged at and threw him down as if he was a leaf. "I thought the gorilla was going to harm me, but he retreated. He must have been drunk," he says.
Bayenda's humility is seen in the way he learns new tricks from people younger than him. "Moses Mapesa, the director of the Uganda Wildlife Authority (UWA) taught me the different tree species which mountain gorillas feed on," he says.
"Chimpanzees have a lot of similarities with the gorillas, but because the gorillas forage on slightly different trees, it is possible for me to follow the right gorilla path."
Bayenda says gorillas are not only similar to chimpanzees. Each night, he says, the gorillas make nests which act as beds.
They, however, never return to the nests they made the previous night. This, he explains, is done to avoid pests and enemies.
So, another clue to gorilla tracking is gorilla nests. This, he says, helps to establish the number of gorillas living in the group. However, some of the gorillas have babies and the nests do not give the exact number.
On one's first encounter, it is advisable to maintain a distance of 10 metres, which can be reduced to seven metres as the gorillas become friendlier.
"The alpha male will charge, but the trackers have to remain firm and should never turn their back against the gorillas," Bayenda says.
Although Bayenda has been following gorillas for two decades, he was initiated into forestry work about three decades ago. He started as a volunteer monitoring trees and gorillas.
When the White Man left, he continued working with the forestry department and the national parks. To his credit, he has trained many rangers in habituating gorillas. He says he knows that even if he left today, the practice will not die away.
But Bayenda does not only befriend gorillas. Like most of his Bakiga tribesmen, Bayenda has a large family of eight children, two of them graduates and the youngest started primary school recently.
"I know the best form of inheritance to give my children is education, but it is a challenge to get enough money because my pay is small," he says.
His delight is that part of the award included a sponsorship for one of his daughters for one year.
Bayenda, however, is nearing retirement. He has been planning to buy land for his children. Sometime back, Bayenda started a mushroom enterprise. With more land, he intends to grow pastures to support his livestock initiatives.
As Bayenda was being crowned with the accolades, some people were overhead saying: "Society cannot be improved by only politicians. We too can do something to help make a difference."
Bayenda is a living testimony that the world would be a better place if each of us worked selflessly. The Rotarians also deserve a pat on the back for recognising ordinary locals, a move which is likely to inspire others to contribute more to humanity.
A graduate of Bulindi Agricultural College in Masindi district, Bayenda first worked with tea growers, but left a disappointed man. "This was at the era of Idi Amin and the currency had lost value. My salary could not even buy a toothbrush," he says.
He later worked as a research assistant counting gorillas, with specific emphasis on census and habituation. In 1989, he participated in the habituation of the first research group at Kyagurilo.
This was a landmark event because Rwanda was the only country with research groups. He has led the habituation processes for eight gorilla groups in Bwindi.
Between 1991 and 1992, Bayenda took a course in wildlife management at Lake Katwe Wildlife Management Institute.
He is currently an assistant head ranger at Rushaga outpost where he is in charge of habituation at the edge of Bwindi national park.