Photographer Jiro Ose met the rare mountain gorillas in Uganda’s Bwindi rainforest – his pictures show the animals, people and unique natural scenery of the East African country
Mr. Ose, you got right up close to the mountain gorillas in the Bwindi rainforest to take your photos. How did the animals react to you?
The first time we came upon the gorillas, they kept a very close eye on us for a while before returning to their normal behavior. Looking into their eyes is almost like looking into those of another human; they are very like us. I soon felt a special connection to them, not like with other animals. Then a young animal in the group became curious, just like a human child would, and came to within arm’s length of us. He even played with one of the rangers, one he was familiar with, but in the end, his worried mother came over and pushed him away.
Did you ever feel uneasy?
Not at all. Their sheer size was a bit daunting to begin with, yes, but you can tell straight away how intelligent these animals are – and they have no interest in harming humans as long as they don’t feel threatened. They live in the wild, but they are used to us visitors. There’s often something very human about the way they behave. It felt a bit like spying on a family in its own living room: the father sitting in one corner surveying the whole situation, the mother looking after the children, and the children mainly interested in playing. One young gorilla even snatched up a camera lens that was lying on the floor and starting playing with it. In the end, the father intervened and threw the lens into a bush. Luckily it wasn’t harmed.
How long could you stay close to the gorillas?
One hour was the maximum time organized groups were permitted to spend with the gorillas. That is, of course, a sensible and important rule to ensure the animals’ protection, but it was far too short a time for me. I found every move they made fascinating. I could have stayed and watched them for far longer.
The International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources (IUCN) still includes mountain gorillas on its red list of threatened species because their population is so small. Is the officially imposed “gentle” tourism actually benefiting the animals?
The situation has definintely improved over the past few years. That is due partly to gorilla tourism, which has become an important source of income in Uganda. Mountain gorillas inhabit two small areas in East Africa, between the Virunga Massif and the Bwindi rainforest. Since special wildlife reserves have been established in Ruanda, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Uganda, the population has increased in number from around 620 animals in 1989 to some 880 animals at the most recent count. When the Bwindi Impenetrable National Park and the Mgahinga Gorilla National Park were set up in 1991, there was a bitter social downside to them: The Batwa pygmies, an indigenous ethnic group of hunters and gatherers that had always lived in the forests, were driven from their traditional territory; robbed of their livelihood overnight.
How are the Ugandan authorities dealing with that today?
The situation of the Batwa has improved thanks to individual initiatives and private donations – also from foreign visitors – and aid from different NGOs. Today, many Batwa are working in gorilla tourism themselves, as rangers, tour guides and in the lodges.
How was your accommodation on the gorilla trekking tour?
There’s a great deal of choice, from luxury lodges to simple tents. We spend one night in a tent in the garden of a private house on a small island in the lake. The house owners were very friendly. They cooked us a traditional meal and we sat around a campfire, made music and sang together. The next few nights, we slept in tents at a campsite, then we stayed in simple accommodation in one of the villages at the entrance to the national park. I spent my last night there in a very comfortable lodge – a nice way to end the trip.
Would you say ecotourism in Uganda is chiefly a means to boost sales or are the organizers serious about ensuring sustainable development?
The tour organizers I came into contact with came across as authentic and credible, I would say. It’s true that the concept of ecotourism is still a new one here and only just becoming established, and that the country is still a little behind other African countries when it comes to wildlife tourism in general, but my impression was that everyone was keen to get the different interest groups in the region, in other words, the tour operators, the Batwa, other indigenous ethnic groups, government representatives and nature conservationists to cooperate with each other.
And where, in your opinion, do problems exist?
Safe mobility, tourist transportation – driving on the roads here is really dangerous. The traffic in Uganda, especially outside of the cities, is a real challenge. The roads are not asphalted and you need four-wheel drive. I have witnessed some really hair-raising passing maneuvers as well as an accident right up ahead of me, when I had to give first aid to save a man from bleeding to death. There’s not much of a domestic flight network so you are dependent on cars and buses.
What do you aim to tell the observer with your photos?
I want to tell stories with my pictures. I have no specific theme, but one focus of my work is to draw attention to social problems. Photos have the power to do that. For me as a craftsman, the difference between moving pictures and photography is that I can capture a single, special moment in a still. The art of photography consists in finding a situation or scene, positioning yourself in the best possible light and also being able to wait in order to capture that perfect moment. Sometimes you’re lucky – and sometimes it doesn’t come off. If people can understand and also get a feel for the pictures I’ve taken, I am happy with my work.
You moved to Uganda only recently. What do you like about living there?
It is a very poor country, but the people are very friendly and easygoing. Politically speaking, the situation is relatively stable compared with that of South Sudan and Congo. That’s why Uganda also has quite a few refugee camps. With the express exception of the breakneck traffic, daily life is pretty safe.
I could have stayed and watched them for far longer
I don’t need to worry about being mugged. Also, I was overwhelmed by the country’s greenness, and how beautiful and diverse the scenery is here. Even in the capital, Kampala, you see trees everywhere and the species diversity is gigantic. The animal population density may not be as high as it is in Kenya or Tanzania, but there are lions and elephants living here, too, as well as the mountain gorillas – and the national parks are much less overrun by tourists.
What’s your next project going to be?
I don’t know yet. Maybe I’ll do something in South Sudan. I recently finished a project in which I spent time with people from the gay, lesbian, bisexual and transsexual scene. There was a law in Uganda for a while under which homosexuals could be sentenced to life imprisonment, and originally even to death. It has been abolished now, but for me that was a reason to photograph and record video interviews with those people.