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How to track a Gorilla

Since getting this position I have enjoyed replying to the ever-present “what do you do?” question with: “I’m a Gorilla Tracker”. I like this reply, primarily because I think it sounds quite cool, however if I am honest it is a little disingenuous and it takes away the credit of tracking the animals from the people who deserve it. A more accurate answer would be “I’m a Gorilla Researcher”.

The tracking is done by a group of local men who work for the project, who are all from the local BaAka pygmy tribe. They are “forest people” with a long and ancient history of living in this environment. Their ability to track animals is quite remarkable (as is their ability to laugh, joke, drink and dance: they are quite a lively bunch, but that is a story for another day). Occasionally they don’t find the Gorilla groups, but their success rate is probably around 95%.

Considering that the size of the national park is around 8,000 km square (an area twice the size of Cornwall), a single Gorilla group’s range can be up to 30 km square (half the size of Manhattan Island), and bearing in mind that these areas are thick with dense, tropical rainforest, then we are not quite talking “needle in a haystack” odds, but nonetheless finding them so consistently is an impressive achievement.

So, how do the trackers achieve this? How do you track down a Gorilla?

Firstly, we almost always know where the group was on the previous day, which gives us a big advantage. We know on average how far they will move during the late evening and early morning, so we have a rough idea of where to start.

Every day, the trackers meticulously “mark” where we are in the forest in relation to the nearest path. They do this by making scuffs on the ground with their feet, or by breaking small saplings in such a way that an animal would not. These marks always direct you to and from the nearest path. The paths themselves are mostly natural elephant trails, but with some additional man-made sections. We use these paths to quickly cover large sections of the forest.

So we follow the paths we used the previous day, then we follow the markings to direct us to the exact point in the forest where the Gorilla group was last seen. Once we are at this starting position, the real tracking begins.

To find the animals, the trackers use all five of their senses:

Sight

While the other senses are essential, this is the most important. What you are looking for essentially breaks down into three categories:

  • Evidence of foods the Gorillas have eaten;
  • Droppings;
  • Footprints or disturbed vegetation.

These are best illustrated with photos. Below, I take you on a tour of a typical day’s spoor.

An easy one to start with. This is the fruit of the Nguluma tree. Bright orange and easy to spot. The Gorillas tend to sit and eat many of these in one go, so you’ll often find a quite a few, which can tell you how long they’ve spent in that place.

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This time remnants of the Djele plant. A favourite gorilla food and a staple which they eat every day.

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Starting to get a little harder now as these droppings are almost exactly the same colour as the forest floor.

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Now onto the really advanced stuff. There are, believe it or not, two gorilla footprints in this photo.

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This is the Kussa plant and we can tell it has been very recently eaten as the end of the stem is still moist. We know we are getting close now.

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So we use these kind of visual cues to get ourselves as close as we can. However, bear in mind that the forest is so dense that in some places you could be less than 10m from the Gorilla and not realise it. We also have to rely on some other senses too.

Taste & Touch

These are admittedly much less used than the other three senses, but you do occasionally see the trackers picking up remnants of plants that the Gorilla’s have been eating and touch it, some times putting it in their mouth, to ascertain how long ago the Gorilla had passed by.

Sound

Anything that moves in the forest makes a sound and each animal makes a distinct noise. Some of this is obvious: noises from above you are normally tree-dwelling monkeys; lots of noise at ground level, coupled with cracking of bigger branches probably signifies an elephant. But most of the noise detection skill is much more subtle and often the trackers just stop mid-stride and listen for minutes at a time. If you are lucky, you might hear a vocalisation from the Silverback (perhaps a chest-beat or a hoot) but this is not that common. Considering a Silverback can be 2.5m high (over 8 foot) and weigh 200kg (440 pounds or 31 stone), they are incredibly quiet when they move through the forest. Hearing them takes patience, skill and experience.

Smell

Something that surprises most people on first contact with a Silverback is their very distinctive smell. This is not an unpleasant body-odour kind of smell, but is musky and slightly sweet. It is part of a chemo-signalling communication system. There is evidence to suggest that the males control how much and what kind of smell they produce, depending on what they want to communicate to their females or to rival males. The smell does not linger for long, so you know that you are really close once you pick up their scent.

After all of this, you hopefully find what you are looking for:

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This whole process normally takes around an hour each day. Sometimes you get lucky and you find them in the first quarter of an hour if they haven’t moved far. Some days you walk around for four hours, following the spoor, before you eventually find them.

 A “sixth sense”

Having said all of this, and despite the tangible, describable skills that our trackers have, I believe there is a kind of “sixth sense” involved in the art of tracking. There are long periods of tracking during which the BaAka have no cues at all. They consistently follow the correct trail, for hundreds of metres at a time, without any sensory information at all. How can this be explained?

When you watch the trackers at work, there is a feeling that something almost mystic is happening. Their whole manner changes, I would say that they are in a trance, but this is not quite the right word. But it does feel as if their entire frame of reference changes, that they inhabit a different mental space and see the physical world differently. It is as if they are able to “put themselves inside the mind of the animal”.

To project your mind outside of yourself and to imagine that you are the animal seems to be the key to great tracking. It is the difference between asking:

“Where did the animal go?”

and

“I am the animal, where would I go?”

One can immediately start to imagine how this second question would yield better results.

I believe that this ability comes from our history as predators. Tracking down animals is the original, and most fundamental, predatory skill. We are all here because somewhere in our ancestral history, our father’s fathers had the ability to track down an antelope, kill it and provide it to their families.

In fact there is evidence to suggest that our human brains actually evolved into the complex simulation organs that they are, exactly for this tracking purpose. Because if you think about it, almost everything the brain does is in some way a simulation. When we think of what to do next, we are simulating different possible futures; when we recall a memory, we are re-running a simulation of the past. When tracking an animal, we are running a simulation of how the animal would think and predicting the decisions it would make. Indeed, many of the subsequent features of the human brain: consciousness, problem solving and creativity can all be thought of as a by-product of this ability to “simulate different realities”.

So to track down a Gorilla, sight, sound and smell are all important; but perhaps these are only a par with the ancient ability to project your mind into the animal and simulate it’s decisions.

Which, I suppose, is a neat thought to end on. That, yes, a significant proportion of my day is spent looking for Gorilla poo in a forest. But maybe in the process, I’m picking up some ancient tracking skills that are the foundations of human consciousness.

From the ridiculous to the sublime.

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