The excitement attached to first setting eyes on a wild mountain or western lowland gorilla is difficult to describe. These are giant animals up to three times as bulky as the average man, their size overstated by a shaggily luxuriant coat.
Yet despite their wonderful appearance, gorillas are remarkably peaceable creatures and their unfathomable attitude to people differs greatly from that of any other wild animal I’ve encountered. Humanlike as it might sound, almost everybody who visits gorillas experiences an almost magical sense of recognition.
Gorilla Tracking Experience
Gorilla tracking should not present a serious physical challenge to any reasonably fit adult whatever their age, but the hike can be tough going. Exactly how tough varies greatly, and the main determining factor is essentially down to luck, precisely how close the gorillas are to the trailhead on the day you trek (1-2 hours is typical, anything from 15 minutes to 6 hours is possible).
The effects of altitude should not be underestimated. For instance, tracking in the Virunga Mountains usually takes place around 3,000m above sea level – appropriate to knock the breath out of anybody who just flew in from low altitude. For this reason, travelers might want to leave gorilla tracking until they’ve been in the region for a week and are reasonably familiarized.
Before you advance into the forest you will likely be given a short briefing about what to expect. Take advantage when the guides offer you a walking staff before the walk; this will be vital to help you keep your balance on steep hillsides.
Once on the trail, don’t hesitate to ask for a stop a few minutes whenever you feel tired, or to ask the guides to create a makeshift walking stick from a branch. The good news is that in 99% of cases, whatever exhaustion you might feel will vanish with the adrenalin charge that follows the first sighting of a gorilla!
Put on your most solid walking shoes for the trek, and wear thick trousers and long sleeves as protection against vicious nettles. The gorillas are familiar with people, and it makes no difference whether you wear bright or muted colors. Whatever clothes you wear are likely to get very dirty, so if we have pre-muddied clothes, use them!
In all reserves, ordinary trackers are permitted to spend no longer than 1 hour with the gorillas. Trackers should not approach the gorillas more closely than 7m. You should also turn your head away if you need to sneeze. Gorillas are vulnerable to many human diseases, and it has long been feared by researchers that one ill tourist might infect a gorilla, resulting in a possible death of the whole troop should no immunity exist.
As for photography, our advice, unless you’re a professional or serious amateur, is to run off a few quick snapshots (flash photography is forbidden), then put the camera away, enjoy the moment, and buy a postcard or coffee-table book later.
Above all, bear in mind that gorillas are still wild animals, despite the ‘gentle giant’ reputation. An adult gorilla is much stronger than a person and will act in accordance with its own social codes when provoked or surprised. Accidents are rare, but sill it is important to listen to your guide at all times regarding the correct protocol.
Concern about the fate of a few gorillas might seem excessive to some. But it is these self-same gorillas which have allowed several African nations to build, or rather rebuild, lucrative tourist industries. Mostly, it’s the gorillas that bring tourists to Rwanda, Uganda, Congo and the like, but once there they will usually spend money in other parts of the country, providing foreign revenue and creating employment.
There are those who query the wisdom of habituating gorillas for tourist visits. One area of concern is health, with humans and gorillas being sufficiently close genetically for there to be a real risk of passing a viral or bacterial infection to a habituated gorilla (something that has been exacerbated with Covid-19). Watch the video below to hear more about how gorillas (and the park rangers) have been impacted by the global pandemic.
Another concern is that habituating gorillas to humans increases their vulnerability to poachers. This theory is backed up by the fact that most mountain gorillas poached since the mid1990s belonged to habituated troops.
Given the above, a sensible response might be to query the wisdom of habituating gorillas in the first place. The problem facing conservationists is that gorillas cannot be conserved in a vacuum.
Put crudely, while tourism is probably integral to the survival of the mountain and western lowland gorilla, the survival of these gorillas is certainly integral to the growth of each country’s tourist industry. Ultimately, it’s a mutual situation that motivates a far greater number of people to take an active interest in the fate of the gorillas than would be the case if gorilla tourism were to be curtailed.
The global population of mountain gorillas stands at slightly more than 1,000, 45% of which can be found in Bwindi impenetrable national park. It is for this reason that Bwindi is, unsurprisingly, Uganda’s most important tourist hotspot. Operating out of four trailheads – Buhoma, Ruhija, Nkuringo and Rushaga, a total of 18 habituated gorilla groups can be tracked here.
Mgahinga Gorilla National Park tends to be overlooked as a gorilla-tracking venue. This is somewhat reasonable, given that it hosts just one habituated group by comparison with Bwindi’s tally of 18. However, this scenic park is notable for its four fraternal silverbacks that seem significantly heavier than their counterparts in Bwindi.
Widely considered to be the world’s premier gorilla-tracking destination, the Volcanoes National Park protects the Rwandan sector of the Virunga Mountains. This range of six extinct and three active volcanoes also straddles the Ugandan and Congolese borders and protects more than half the global population of the mountain gorilla.
The 12 habituated groups in the Volcanoes Park stay within tracking range on a more-or-less permanent basis. However, gorillas are not governed by international boundaries and it is always possible that groups that originated in Uganda or DR Congo might cross there again. The best time for gorilla tracking is the long dry season – from June to September.
While mountain gorillas do make their homes near the borders of Rwanda and Uganda, it is on the DR Congo side of the Virunga mountains that they reside in larger numbers. Usually, you will only need to hike for a few hours to find a mountain gorilla group. It is the region’s best-kept secret for this kind of trekking and your presence will help anti-poaching efforts in the country.
Additionally, Kahuzi-Biega National Park is not one to be missed. The majestic eastern lowland silverback gorillas (also known as Grauer’s gorilla) are only available here. Protection against poaching, in addition to UN patrols, has ensured that the world’s last remaining natural habitat for this subspecies is reasonably intact. Please do check the latest security situation before traveling to the Congo.