Africa is one of the best destinations for primate safaris having the rich population of mountain gorillas in the world. It’s only in Uganda where you can track mountain gorillas in two different national parks this really satisfies visitors interested in double gorilla trekking due to the fact that they actually do the trek in totally different environments. These mountain gorilla based parks include Bwindi National Park and Mgahinga gorilla National park. The remaining mountain gorilla population is found both Rwanda and Democratic republic of Congo in a conservation area called the Virunga region.
Gorilla trekking adventure has actually become a year-round activity since their habitat has been reduced so significantly, they could not roam far as they used to. However, gorilla trekking in the jungle is a little hard at times especially during the rainy season, the steep paths, mist and mud can make it almost impossible to go through. Very heavy rain also makes it more difficult to take good photos, and since you only have limited time with the gorillas, not more than an hour, it would be a shame not to get a good snapshot or two. The main rainy seasons in the region are from March to April and October to November that is in Uganda, Rwanda and the DRC.
The best primate safaris experience in Africa is obviously at Kibale Forest national Park in Uganda and Rwanda’s Nyungwe Forest with two main activities chimpanzee tracking and Chimpanzee habituation experience. Like gorilla trekking, Chimps tracking can take place all year-round but also the rainy season makes walking in the remote ancient rain forests a little tougher and the photographic opportunities aren’t as pleasing as during the dry season (July – October and December – February). However, the rainy season also means the chimpanzees don’t have to roam too far to find water and they are easier to locate (February-June, November-mid December).
Where in the world can you See Mountain Gorillas?
With nearly 900 total population of mountain gorillas left in the world, seeing them in the wild is a moment of a lifetime, only a few trekkers have the chance to experience the few of the remaining gentle giants and rarest species on earth. This section will tell you where you can see mountain gorillas, how much the permit costs, and help you choose the best tour company to go with.
About 480 mountain gorillas inhabit an extinct volcanic region called the Virunga Range along the borders of Rwanda, Uganda and the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) in East Africa. The other about 420 mountain gorillas inhabit a nearby area of Bwindi in Uganda, a thick rainforest.
The two parks in Uganda are; Mgahinga Gorilla National Park and Bwindi Impenetrable National Park where you are able to experience gorilla tracking activity.
Mgahinga is situated on the extreme southwest corner of Uganda on the slopes of the Virunga Mountains. It borders the DRC and Rwanda. The park only covers 28 square miles so it’s quite small, but besides gorillas you can also see leopard, buffalo, bushbuck and the interesting golden monkeys.
Bwindi impenetrable Forest National park is located in south-western Uganda and is home to about half of all worlds mountain gorillas. The park covers about 200 square miles of extremely dense rainforest and is a proclaimed World Heritage site. Part of the fun of tracking gorillas here is trying to follow them through the dense foliage. You can also get to see chimpanzees as well as 350 species of birds, most of which are endemic to Albertine rift.
Rwanda has one park in the North of the country encompassing its share of the mountain gorilla population: the Virunga National Park or Parc National des Volcans (PNV). The park covers an area of about 46 square miles and encompasses six volcanoes. Despite the terrible genocide in the early 1990’s the country is fairly stable and the park permit system is running smoothly. The PNV was where Dian Fossey set up her base and research center. Tracking gorillas in the PNV is slightly less strenuous than at Bwindi since the gorillas move around a little less. The more open terrain also allows more light for better photo opportunities than in Bwindi. Check out my gorilla tracking experience in Rwanda.
Democratic Republic of Congo
The DRC also has a section of the Virunga Mountains Park called the Parc National des Virunga. The DRC gorilla population suffered a major setback because several gorillas were brutally hacked to death in 2007. In 2012 a census showed the gorillas were doing better than expected despite the civil war raging around them in large part due to the amazing efforts of rangers putting their lives on the line at Virunga National Park. In 2014 the Director of the park was shot in an ambush, but survived and continues the effort to save the park from various rebel movements encroaching on their territory as well as oil-companies looking to gain drilling rights.
Tracking Mountain Gorillas
Mountain gorilla tracking activity is not easy, nor are you guaranteed to see them. The trek to where the gorilla groups is at that time can take you through very dense vegetation, up steep slopes and can last several hours of the day. The dense vegetation is filled with burning and stinging nettles, so wearing gloves is ideal. Red ants are also common, please wear long socks to tuck your trousers into, jungle boots are recommended as well as rain jacket. Gorillas move around so they aren’t all that easy to track. The gorillas groups you will be likely to meet are habituated to humans which is why you are able to get quite close to them.
Some of gorilla tracking basic rules include:
- You have to be over 15 years of age and above
- You do not have to be sick or have any infectious disease
- Only one hour is allowed with the gorillas and you have to keep a distance of at least 7 metres
- Maximum number of visitors per day is 6-12 people per group
- No flash photography is allowed
- Trekkers must be fit and well equipped, which includes warm clothing for the wet cool climate high in the mountains.
- No eating or drinking in the vicinity of the gorillas
- No touching the gorillas (although they may decide to touch you)
- No pointing at gorillas
For one to track gorillas, you need an official permit handled by each of the national parks to meet the gentle giants. more often than not you have to obtain it several months in advance. If you contacted a tour company, it will be arranged for you.
In Uganda gorilla permits cost US$700 per day per person in all seasons starting 2018. You can get the permits from Uganda Wildlife Authority (UWA) headquarters in Kampala (the capital of Uganda). It is possible to make an international booking for permits using email direct with UWA but they do not accept credit cards so it gets a bit complicated. See their web site for more details. To make it simple, you can just purchase your whole gorilla tour through a specialized company, like Gorilla hub tours ltd or Select Safaris Africa.
For the case of Rwanda you can get permits through the Rwanda Tourism Board offices (ORTPN) in Kigali or Ruhengeri (near the PNV). You can email at firstname.lastname@example.org. The permits cost USD 1,500 per person per day. Most people will get their permits through a tour operator that arranges gorilla trekking Safaris. It is difficult to obtain a permit without booking a tour at the same time. Note that you need to book your gorilla permit early enough at least 3 months in advance, especially if you plan to go between June – October to avoid the disappointment since trekking permits are on a high demand.
Democratic Republic of Congo, DRC its best to just arrange your permit (US$400) and tour through tour companies. They will also be up to date on current security in the park. You can combine your visit with chimpanzee trekking and an amazing volcano trek.