Why are they special?
Gorillas are the closest living relative to us after chimpanzees in that they share 97%-98% identical DNA with humans. The largest of the great apes, they are also highly endangered and in terms of sheer numbers, the mountain gorilla is the most vulnerable of the gorilla species. As of 2010 there are currently believed to be approximately 790 mountain gorillas left on the planet.
How come gorilla trekking is so popular?
Because it’s a totally unique experience. Unlike a zoo visit, it is much more personal, a lot closer, quieter and more intimate
to watch these critically endangered relatives at often close quarters in the wilds of the cloud forest of the Virunga Mountains. On a trek you can often get close enough to really see how similar they are to us – things like their hands – finger nails, palms and thumbs are so ‘human’ as well as their eyes and eyelashes.
We seem to share similar gestures and facial expressions too. One to note when trekking is to remember a stare is seen as a thre at or a challenge that can invite a reprisal. Keeping your head low and eyes down is a way of expressing submission and friendliness. Generally mountain gorillas are shy, calm, highly social and gentle and communicate through complicated sounds and gestures. The famous chest beating can mean anything from “I’m nervous” to “I’m excited”. The full charge display is rare and is only the province of the leading male, and follows a set ritual of vocalisations, and demonstrative body language including ripping and throwing vegetation, running bipedally, ground thumping and chest beating.
Gorillas can live up to 35 years and usually have 3 babies in their lifetime. Babies crawl at 2 months and walk aged only 9 months. Silverbacks, the dominant male gorillas, are usually over 12 years old, and tend to lead a family from 5 – 30 members. Blackbacks are sexually mature males up to 11 years, and leave their family when they reach 11 years, travelling with other young males for 2-5 years, before starting their own family. When the young gorillas are feeling active, you can see them play with their siblings and cousins, and clambering around their elders. They will climb up bamboo and branches, and love tumbling around and swinging from vines, while the ever present silverback presides over it all, keeping a careful eye on his family.
How does the day go when gorilla trekking?
We start early in the morning. Arriving at the gorilla office, everyone is split into teams of 8, and each group is allocated a family of habituated gorillas and meets up with their guides. Just 8 people in each trekking group head out plus the allocated guides and security for your trekking group. Once everyone sets off, we have a drive to the start point of the actual trek, which could be anywhere from 30 minutes up to 3 hours.
The trek itself often commences with a stroll past flower farms before we reach the fringe of the forest. We then head into the jungle for a steady climb into the lower part of the gorilla’s mountain home. Some sections of the trek can be quite steep. The trek can be over quite quickly, or take all day depending on the location of the gorillas and the time it takes to find them. On 99.9 % of treks the gorillas are located and usually within a few hours. Once found you have an hour with them as they continue on with their daily routine – feeding (which they do for about 30% of the day), slowly moving and foraging which usually absorbs another 30% of the day and then for the rest of the time they sleep and sunbathe. Sometimes they are found in thick vegetation, perhaps in a bamboo stand. Other times a group might be found in a clearing, which is a very special privilege. Whilst every trek is different once found the guides will carefully push back the vegetation as much as possible without disturbing the gorillas to enable everyone in the group the best views.