It is completely magical having time with the great mountain gorillas in the wild tropical rain forests of Africa. There are two amazing places where gorillas can be seen; the Bwindi Impenetrable National Park and Mgahinga Gorilla National Park. Nothing prepares you for a meeting with the great apes characterized with the sheer beauty and physique, those soulful brown eyes, their amazingly human-like expressions or their very gentle conduct. This unique safari experience usually lasts just a single precious hour, but Uganda is presents a new extended experience in a thrilling evolution in gorilla tracking adventure.
About 1000 mountain gorillas roam the western Uganda’s rain forests of Bwindi Impenetrable National Park and the Virunga Mountains that span the borders of southern Uganda, Rwanda, D.R. Congo (Democratic Republic of Congo). They are not found elsewhere on earth in their natural wild. Once on the verge of extinction, their survival is one of Africa’s greatest conservation success stories.
George Schaller, a renowned mammologist was the first to research on mountain gorillas in the late 1950s. However it was American primatologist Dian Fossey who brought their plight to international attention, researching on them for 18 years in Rwanda’s Volcanoes National Park. She lived with them in the rain forest, raised funds for rangers and protected the gorillas despite extreme danger from poachers, culminating in her strange murder in 1985. At that time, Dian Fossey had estimated that just 250 gorillas survived, under threat from habitat loss, extensive poaching and the crossfire of civil wars.
In Bwindi Impenetrable National Park, funding conservation efforts, so-called gorilla tourism started in 1993, when the Mubare group became the first family to be fully habituated, or familiarized, to humans. Now Bwindi has 13 habituated groups, creating an experience for visitors interested in gorilla trekking – and it provides a mesmerizing insight into one of the world’s most endangered animals.
Traditional trekking encounters
Today, Bwindi is home to about 480 gorillas, with 13 fully habituated family groups available for tracking. The day starts early at one of the 4 park Park Headquarters in either Buhoma, Ruhija, Rushaga and Nkuringo where guests are allocated their group and guide before being briefed on essential trekking etiquette that help protect both primates and people.
Gorillas sharing 98% of human DNA, are very susceptible to human infectious diseases (a common cold could kill them) so visitors are asked not to trek if they are sick. Only eight people are allowed to track each gorilla family group, staying for just one single hour in their presence. Rules also state that visitors should never proceed to within 7m of the giant apes, but occasionally the gorillas will cross this threshold and approach you to almost stroking distance. However, always resist the temptation to touch them. Although usually calm, they can easily be startled by flash photography, loud voices or sudden movements.
Strategically some groups are just a short walk from the park headquarter while others can take as long as five hours to find. Bwindi is called the Impenetrable Forest for good reason: a dense jungle spanning 321 sq km, it makes hiking a challenge, with tangled vines and vegetation sprawled across steep muddy terrain. For around US$15, you can hire a porter to carry your bags and help you negotiate the tough, slippery trails (they’re worth every cent).
The reward of seeing the gorillas makes one forget all the efforts and fatigue went through before finally reaching them, being with these incredible gentle giants is a truly an extraordinary feeling and a moving experience that you will gain on a gorilla safari in Uganda. Amazing to watch, your permitted hour flies by as they carry on their daily activities of eating, sleeping, preening and playing, usually paying little attention to strange onlookers. Youngsters chase each other, swing in tree branches, and laugh and squeal just like children. Mums dote on babies, suckling and cradling them, and big daddy silver back watches over them all.
Mountain Gorilla Habituation Experience
Mountain Gorillas aren’t always so placid to human presence: it takes time and effort to achieve this relaxed, almost casual attitude in a process known as habituation. Bwindi’s exciting new gorilla experience allows you to be part of this process by tracking a group that is only semi-habituated. During habituation, trackers visit wild gorilla groups every day for around three years, gradually getting closer and spending longer in their company. At the semi-habituated stage, the primates are familiar with trackers but not strangers, so this new experience can now help them get used to seeing different people.
In usual encounters, trackers find your gorillas and they take you directly to them. Instead, this four-hour experience starts from where the gorillas were last seen a day before. You walk with the trackers, learning the tell-tale signs that eventually lead to the primates’ nests, such as knuckle prints in the mud, bent and broken vegetation and discarded food. Gorillas build new nests each night then move on looking for food: what they leave behind is vital for checking their health and numbers. At the nests, the team collects samples of hair and dung before continuing their search.
It’s until you find the gorillas that the real challenge begins. The aim of habituation is to follow the group and stay in their vision as they move, finally getting closer to reach that magical 7m cut-off point. But unlike fully habituated groups who mooch around patiently during your permitted hour, these gorillas move fast to feed, striking through dense rainforest, storming up and down slippery slopes and crawling on knuckles through bushes, with you and the tracker team in hot pursuit. It’s like a rainforest boot camp, and it’s not for the unfit or fainthearted.
Much as all gorillas are wild, some are wilder than others and these semi-habituated ones have an air of randomness about them. There is a heightened risk of the silverback charging, but it’s more or less always warning rather than an attack your trackers will have briefed you to stay calm, crouch down and avert your eyes. It’s easier said than done…
While they’re still, you stay still, mimicking their behaviour to make them feel at ease. You crouch down when they do, imitate them picking up grass pretending to eat it, and talk to them in gorilla-language, a series of vocalizations that have specific meanings. To have a gorilla reply to your low throaty rumbling, demonstrating contentment, is completely spine-tingling.
Compare the best?
Usual tracking costs US$600 per permit at Impenetrable forest of Bwindi (now US$1500 in Rwanda’s Volcanoes National Park), offers you an effective guarantee that you’ll see gorillas up close and personal in a relaxed, even docile, mood for one unforgettable hour.
Mountain Gorilla Habituation Experience costs USD $1500, and lasts four hours, however the longer you spend in their presence depends on how long it takes you to find them. You may not get very close to the gorillas and being in pursuit can be physically challenging and exhausting. You might equally spend some time simply watching them sleep, but you learn so much more about these awesome animals in this edgier and more immersive encounter.
Gorilla Trekking Rules
Before carrying out the activity, there are rules and regulations you have to consider while going to meet these mammals that are almost extinct. In most cases, they are referred to as the dos and don’ts. All of them will be given to you at the briefing before the tracking but again it’s better to know them as you prepare to have your safari today.
Before gorilla tracking:
- A maximum number of 8 visitors will see a group of habituated gorillas in a day as this minimizes the risk of behavioral change and exposure to diseases.
- Only people of 16 and above will be allowed to track the gorillas. There are porters to help the elderly and the frail.
- Ensure that you have clean hands as you head out to the gorillas, wash them before if need be.
- Always keep you voices low to watch out for other forest wildlife and not to scare the gorillas.
- Don’t liter any rubbish in the park. Ensure that you carry all the trash you move with
- You will be taken to where the guides observed the gorillas the day before. It is from there that you will follow the trail to locate the gorillas. The guides will inform you when you approach the gorillas.
- Keep a distance of about 7 meters simply because the further back you are, the more relaxed the group will be and the more chances to have the best experience.
- Stay in the company of your group members.
- Keep your voices down at all times. But, it is okay to ask the guide questions.
- Avoid eating or smoking near the gorillas as this may increase the risk of disease transmission.
- Sometimes the gorillas charge. Follow the guides example (crouch down slowly, do not look the gorillas directly in the eyes and wait for the animals to pass). Do not attempt to run away because that will increase the risk.
- Flash photography is not permitted and dangerous! When taking pictures you can move slowly and carefully.
- Do not attempt to touch the gorillas. They are wild animals like any other.
- The maximum time with the gorillas is 1 hour however if the gorillas are agitated the guide will advise to leave early, please adhere to this.
- When heading away from the gorillas try to keep your voices low until you are 200 meters away from the gorillas.
- Respect the number of visitor limit imposed by authority per day as this limits the risk of diseases and hence saving for the future.
- If you are ill or carrying a contagious disease like a cough please endeavor to stay behind and your money will be refunded or an alternative visit will be organized for you.
- If you feel the urge to cough or sneeze when you are near the gorillas, please turn your head away and cover your nose and mouth in order to minimize the spread of bacteria or viruses.
- If you need to go to the toilet while in the forest, please ask the guide to dig you a hole with his panga. Make sure the hole is 30 cm deep and fill it in when you are finished.
- Don’t litter rubbish for example food wrappers and bottles in the park; foreign items can harbour diseases or other contaminants.
What to bring on your Gorilla Safari:
- Wear comfortable hiking shoes that will enable you hike as well as in sloping.
- Put on ear plugs if you are not comfortable with the jungle sounds
- Carry a packed lunch and enough drinking water.
- Carry rain gear, sunscreen lotion, a hat (as the weather is unpredictable) and insect repellent.
- You may also carry your camera in case you may want to take a few photos but put in mind that flashes should be off.