For most travellers the visit to the mountain gorillas is a lifetime dream and the highlight on every Uganda tour. The encounter with the gentle giants and the intense feelings it induces cannot be compared to anything else in life.
The mountain gorilla belongs to the primate species of the great apes. Of all gorillas it is the one who lives mostly on the ground and nourishes on leaves. Mountain gorillas only occupy two small areas in Eastern Africa. On the one hand they live in the area of the Virunga volcanoes in the border district of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Rwanda and Uganda and on ther other hand you will find them in Bwindi National Park, southwestern part of Uganda (Bwindi-Gorillas). Their habitat is the mountain forests from 2.200 up to 4.000 meters heights.
Mountain gorillas live in groups of 9 or 10 (sometimes up to 16) animals in one group. Generally those groups consist of one grown-up male, several females and their offspring. Yet, there are also groups with several males but only one who is dominant. The biggest known group (May 2011) is the one of silverback Pablo. It consists of 48 members with 13 grown-up males (6 of them are silverbacks).
Mountain gorillas live on the ground and only seldom climb up trees, except for the children and babies who use the trees as swings and for playing. On the ground they move like all African great apes in the knuckle-walking stance. Gorillas are diurnal and build a nest out of leaves at night. This action usually only takes less than five minutes and normally a nest is only used once.
The daily rambles which the animals takes for the foraging are very short with an average distance of 0.4 km. This is due to the abundant supply of leaves and also because the low nutritional value of this food means the animals need to compensate with long rest periods.
Mountain gorillas do not have a definite pairing season but reproduction can happen throughout the year. After about 257 days of the gestation period the female bears mostly only one pup. The pups suckle for 3 or 4 years and reach puberty within 6 to 8 years (females) or 10 years (males). Due to the social structure most animals only start to procreate a few years after reaching puberty. Usually the males as well as the females leave their birth group when they grow up.
Mountain gorillas and people
The increasing improvement of tourism in the two habitats in the area of the Virunga volcanoes and the Bwindi Impenetrable National Park (which is part of the UNESCO world natural heritage) ensures, combined with the work of the park rangers and vets, a reasonably good protection for the mountain gorillas. Yet the survival of the species is not secured.
Every habituated group can be observed by a maximum of 8 visitors per day. The tracking can take up to 7 hours and then people are tolerated for a maximum of 1 hour within spitting distance of the gorillas.
Since the 1950’s, the population was expected to be only a few hundred animals. In the end of the 1980’s about 620 animals were counted. Today the population has grown up to 800 animals - in 2008 there were 302 gorillas counted in Bwindi and 480 gorillas in Virunga in 2011. The IUCN does list them as endangered species due to the low numbers in population.
Mountain gorillas are not kept in zoos and therefore their preservation can only be warranted by the protection of the wild animals. However, there are four pups being looked after in a collection point for orphans of the Senkewekwe Centre in Virunga National Park as they were confiscated from poachers and smugglers. The centre houses the only mountain gorillas in the world who are looked after by human-beings. There is no provision made for their release back into the wilderness at the moment.
You will never forget this day in your life! Through dense jungle, bamboo coppice, passing small villages with laughing children you will venture through forests with your gorilla group. You will be accompanied by local, armed and high class trained rangers and villagers who will work as porters. The total time of the tracking can vary, from 30 minutes to up to 7 hours (if you prefer longer or shorter encounters please let us know when you book it and we will try our best to satisfy your wish but we cannot give a guarantee).
The sometimes exhausting walk will be compensated when the first gorilla appears in front of you! Then all struggle will be forgotten and you will be overwhelmed as soon as you are with the greatest animals in the world.
Please note the following rules:
- A maximum of 8 people are allowed to visit a gorilla group/family per day. This minimizes abnormal behavior of the gorillas and the risk of airborne diseases. The visit will take a maximum time of 1 hour.
- Wash your hands before you start the tracking.
- Do not leave anything behind but footprints.
- The minimum age for the tracking is 15 years.
- You will be brought to the place where the gorillas were seen for the last time by the rangers. From this point you will follow the tracks until you have found them. Keep an eye out for gorilla nests on the way!
- As soon as you have found gorillas the ranger will offer you to leave your backpack behind and just take your camera when you get closer to the gorillas
- Please do not talk loudly - only whisper. This will give you a better chance to see other animals and rare birds. However, this does not mean that you can’t ask questions at anytime.
- Please allow a minimum distance of 7 meters to the gorillas (to minimize the risk of disease transmission)
- Sometimes the gorilla will charge, which means that they approach you and sometimes additionally beats his breast with his hands. Follow the instructions of the ranger, coil up submissive and never (!) look into the eyes of the gorilla. Do not try to run away at any time! The behaviour of the gorillas serves as a kind of warning to show who the boss in the forest is. It can also happen that a gorilla comes and touches you. In this case please do not look into his eyes and do not make any sudden movements. Just enjoy the moment!
- Taking pictures with a flash is not allowed!
- Never touch the gorillas! They are wild animals.
- When you back out of the gorillas please do not talk until you are about 200m away from them (note: you will be speechless anyway)
- If you need to go to the toilet on the way please let the ranger know and he will dig a hole for you which you will need to refill afterwards please .
- You will definitely need your passport on location. Please do not forget it in your room as it needs to be shown together with your gorilla permit which your tour guide keeps for you.
- If you feel sick and uncomfortable please voluntarily stop with the tracking. We will try to arrange an alternative visit for you on the next day or the day after. Should that not be possible the tracking fee will be refunded.
For the tracking we recommend the following equipment:
- Mid-height, comfortable tracking footwear
- Weatherproof light clothing (for example: breathable cotton BUT with long sleeves - very important because you will walk through the dense rain forest and you can become sweaty during the tracking.)
- Light rain jacket
- Thin leather gloves (can be beneficial if you hold on to knobs etc)
- Anti-mosquito spray
- About 2 litres of water
- (These details also apply to the chimpanzee tracking)
- In Uganda and Rwanda you can “hire” a porter for about US$ 10 per day. We generally recommend giving a small tip of about US$ 5 to the ranger. You will support the communities with that as the ranger comes from one of the local villages. Often they are former poachers who were trained to be rangers to guarantee their subsistence and to show them that you can earn money in this honest way and also have fun getting to know people from all over the world.