Sir David Attenborough, Life on Earth: “There is more meaning and mutual understanding in exchanging a glance with a gorilla than with any other animal I know. Their sight, their hearing, their sense of smell are so similar to ours that they see the world in much the same way as we do. We live in the same sort of social groups with largely permanent family relationships. They walk around on the ground as we do, though they are immensely more powerful than we are. So if there were ever a possibility of escaping the human condition and living imaginatively in another creature’s world, it must be with the gorilla.”
Embarking on a journey to meet one of the world’s most endangered species – the majestic mountain gorilla – is high on every wildlife lover’s bucket list. But it’s not just an incredible experience that you will treasure for a lifetime; money from gorilla tourism gives valuable funds to the wildlife authorities of the countries where visitors trek. This tourism income also goes directly and indirectly to local communities across the region.
Before we get started on all things trekking with gorillas, below are some quick gorilla facts for you:
Gorillas are generally the largest of the great apes. They inhabit the forests of central Sub-Saharan Africa. They are basically ground-dwelling and get around on four limbs day to day. They can move just on their back limbs too. They can weigh up to 600 lbs and stand as tall as 6 ft when standing on two legs.
They are predominantly herbivorous, their diet being mainly bamboo shoots, stems and fruits.
Mountain gorillas live in extended families in the main with a dominant mature male – “the silverback” – females and their offspring. Many of their relatives then live in the family and the “silverback” can hold his leadership position for years keeping the group relatively stable. Each female only gives birth every four to six years. The “silverback” is known as such because around 14 years of age white back hair starts to appear.
There is ongoing debate about how to classify different species and sub species as more is discovered and found out about the gorillas. Perhaps the easiest division currently is to divide the gorillas into Western and Eastern Gorillas, depending on their location. Mountain gorillas are a sub species of the Eastern gorillas.
The DNA of gorillas is highly similar to ours, from 95–99%, and they are the next closest living relatives to humans after chimpanzees and bonobos. Like other apes they have a similar body structure to humans, with small eyes set into a hairless face and human-like hands. They display similar behaviour and emotions to humans.
Where can you find mountain gorillas?
Gorillas are found in the moist, tropical rainforest of Africa. Whilst lowland gorillas tend to live in re-growing fo
rests in clearlings of low vegetation, the Mountain Gorilla is found at high altitudes (from 5,400 to 12,440 feet or 1,650 to 3,800 metres) in the DRC, Rwanda and Uganda. They are found in two isolated populations. The first in the Virunga volcanic mountains of Central Africa, with groups scattered between Uganda, Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. The second population lives deep in Bwindi Impenetrable Forest.
On our trips we regularly visit Uganda’s Bwindi Impenetrable Forest, and occasionally Mgahinga in the Uganda section of the Virungas.
Gorillas are generally quiet animals, however, they communicate with each other using many complicated sounds and gestures. Gorillas use at least 25 recognised vocalisations, including grunts, roars, growls, whines, chuckles, hooting, etc. Some gorilla gestures include chest-beating, high-pitched barks, lunging, throwing objects, staring, lip-tucking, sticking out the tongue, sideways running, slapping, rising to a two-legged stance and probably many more.
Mountain Gorilla Numbers
Survey results released earlier this year have revealed that the number of mountain gorillas in the Virunga Massif have increased to 604 from an estimated 480 in 2010, including 41 social groups, along with 14 solitary males in the transboundary area. This brings the global wild population of mountain gorillas to an estimated 1,004 when combined with published figures from Bwindi Impenetrable National Park (where the rest of the sub-species is found) and makes it the only great ape in the world that is considered to be increasing in population.
The findings are the result of intensive surveying coordinated by the Greater Virunga Transboundary Collaboration and supported by the International Gorilla Conservation Programme. Despite this good news, the survey found that direct threats from wire or rope snares persist. During the surveys, the teams found and destroyed more than 380 snares, which were set for antelope but can also kill or harm gorillas. Poaching has always been an issue for the gorilla population as has habitat destruction.
There are also new threats looming large on the horizon, including climate change, infrastructure development and the ever-present spectre of disease, which has the potential to devastate the remaining populations.
Ongoing conflict and civil unrest in the region also present an ongoing risk, impacting people and wildlife.
What is the trekking like to see the gorillas?
These animals exist in extremely remote locations, in countries not known for their tourist infrastructure, which means the logistics of a gorilla visit is a challenge in itself.
To trek the gorillas you need a permit. Bearing in mind how precious the gorillas are, and how few there are, the trekking permits are quite costly.
The length and difficulty of the trek will depend on where your family of gorillas is hanging out. Some days they are found in 30 minutes and on other days, some groups may trek for many, many hours and return in the dark. However, every cloud has a silver lining as our gorilla treks also give you the opportunity to encounter Uganda’s birdlife, frogs, butterflies and sounds of the wilderness whilst hiking through the thick jungle with an experienced local tracker in search of these majestic creatures. Regardless of the time it takes, the first glimpses of mountain gorillas will be sure to capture hearts and render most speechless – a just reward for the challenging trek.
The trek itself often commences with a stroll through local farms before you reach the fringe of the forest. You will then head into the jungle for a steady climb into the lower part of the gorilla’s mountainous home. Some sections of the trek can be quite steep through very dense (seemingly impenetrable!) vegetation at quite high altitude. (The highest point in Bwindi is 2,607 metres). It can be also be quite wet and slippery underfoot and the vegetation thick.
The gorillas can move around as well so it can take a while to find them, and you may need to stay on the move with them. Porters are available at approx. $10-20 USD per person. The porters are all hired from local villages, providing employment and support to the local community. They can be a tremendous help if you are taking some gear with you. Typically you will head off with your lunch, a drink with you. You will want to wear strong walking shoes, and take a hat and sunscreen, as well as waterproofs and something warm. A walking stick is useful and of course everyone usually has a camera and/or phone to record the day.What happens during a gorilla trek?
Each trek starts early in the morning usually with a drive to the start point. Just 8 people in each trekking group head out plus the allocated rangers who will explain the rules and who are expert at locating the gorillas. Given the location of the parks be aware also there may be security personnel on your trek or in close vicinity.
Whilst there are never any guarantees you will see the gorillas, on 99.9 % of treks the gorillas are located, and usually they are found within a few hours. On average we take 30 clients to the gorillas a month, and over the past 30 years only a handful of clients have not seen the gorillas. You have a very, very good chance of seeing the gorillas.
Once found, you have an hour with the gorillas as they continue 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.
For more information on gorilla trekking please visit https://www.absoluteafrica.com/Gorilla-Essential-Information
The ethics of gorilla trekking
A lot of careful research and monitoring of the gorillas over many years has led to a solid body of understanding and knowledge of this special species. Informed decisions are then too also made in regard to how tourist interaction with the gorillas is conducted. In particular gorilla tourism is closely controlled via the permit system. To ensure the gorillas thrive this system is really important, and it is illegal to trek without a trekking permit.
There are fifteen habituated gorilla families in Uganda, and Rwanda’s Volcanoes National Park has ten habituated groups. Eight permits are available to see each habituated family group a day.
The permits allow the trekker to head out with the other 7 trekkers and trained guides to see one family of gorillas for an hour.
They are strict around this hour as the gorillas should not be exposed to humans for more than one hour a day to minimise distress and limit their exposure to diseases – even a common cold can prove serious for a gorilla, bearing in mind how close genetically the species is to human. These are wild animals too and all animal lovers would want them to stay free roaming as they always have in their Afromontane forest.
This system of small, tightly controlled numbers of visitors paying fees, part of which go back to conservation, is considered a great success on the world map of wildlife tourism. The improving number of mountain gorillas is encouraging and a testament to the positive rewards of gorilla tourism.
The fee for a permit may seem quite steep to be in the company of gorillas for just one hour, but protecting both the most endangered primates in the world and the communities that surround them is a costly endeavour. The need for continued attention and action by government agencies, protected area staff, tourism operators, tourists and communities alike, to ward off threats and keep mountain gorillas safe in the long term is essential.
The need for continued attention and action by government agencies, protected area staff, tourism operators, tourists and communities alike, to ward off these threats and keep mountain gorillas safe in the long term is essential.
Your team at Absolute Africa
If you have any further queries, concerns, questions about gorilla trekking, feel free to get in touch with the staff at Absolute Africa. They are only too happy to provide you with information, top tips and put your mind at ease with answering all your questions. Simply get contact them at firstname.lastname@example.org, call UK +44(0)208 742 0226 or check out the website at https://www.absoluteafrica.com/Gorilla-Trekking.