Although I have moved into a very different field – working in marine chemistry, and chasing new molecules from the sea, these days – I will always have fond memories of my days following the Bwindi gorillas (and collecting their food plants and poo). I do even still get the occasional inquiry about Aframomum and gorillas.
I was down there between 1995- 1997, when working on my PhD research which focused on the chemistry of the Mountain Gorilla diet, and particularly the possible role of some of the antimicrobial components of their plant-based diet in relation to their enteric microflora (i.e. bacteria in their guts).
In part, this evolved out of an interest in “zoopharmacognosy” - or the use of plants, and their chemistry, by animals for self-medication - and in some cases, the food items (e.g the bark of Dombeya) which contained the antimicrobial metabolites were apparently eaten/used primarily when the gorillas showed signs of gastrointestinal illness (based, at least, on the observation of the trackers). More generally though, I showed interesting patterns/correlations of apparent sensitivity and resistance to antimicrobial components relative to their consumption of these plants/food items. In particular, this difference was based on range (i.e. Comparison between the lower elevation Buhoma and higher elevation Ruhija).
This was when we were following a gorilla group being habituated by ITFC (starting around 1994-1995).). By the time that I was finishing 1997, they were actually quite accustomed to seeing us.
I (still) have (this) photo on my office desk. Ah, the good old days down at the swamp!
One amusement to share from the times:
Aaah, there were many, but I have to say the top two that pop to mind had to do with being in the field with the gorilla group during their habituation.
I vividly recall all of us squatting in the bush alongside the (gorilla) group pretending to be fellow (apparently hairless) gorillas to put them at ease with our presence – this, of course, involved pretending to chomp on leaves, and mimic their constant grunts and farts. Glamorous stuff!
I also will always remember one of the more dominant females running past me, as she left and snapping a 10-cm wide branch in front of my face – presumably to let me know that it could have just as easily been my neck. That sort of stuff sticks with you.
John Berry is an Assistant Professor with the Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry, Marine Science Program at Florida International University. He was with ITFC in the years 1995-97.