Mountain gorilla Tracking/Trekking in Rwanda & Uganda
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There can be few more moving experiences than meeting the brown-eyed gaze of the massively endangered mountain gorilla in its natural habitat in mountain forest jungles of East Africa. An activity that is commonly known as Gorilla Tracking or Gorilla Trekking to many African Safari travel enthusiasts.
The trek up the Virunga massive thick misty jungles, the anticipation of finding a group of these wild beasts anytime you enter the thick rain-forest, listening out for any sound that could identify the authoritative huge male silverback as it thumps its chest on noticing your presence – gorilla tracking is an action packed adventure that should’t miss your well planned bucket-list.
What is gorilla tracking?
Gorilla tracking, or gorilla trekking as many travellers would like to call it these days, is the trek in the jungles of Virunga forests shared by DR Congo, Rwanda and Uganda in search of a habituated mountain gorilla family with the help of an armed gorilla tracking guide. When found, spending an hour in their presence doing all you’re allowed to do to keep that memory alive when you leave.
The gorilla tracking activity could go on for 1-8 hours before you can find a habituated but wild gorilla family. The activity is managed and controlled by the national wildlife authority in any of the three countries.
Gorilla tracking in Uganda, Rwanda or Congo is one of many travellers’ top ‘bucket list’ experiences that demands you to be prepared to trek for up to 6-8 arduous hours for the reward of an encounter with a 220kg ‘silverback’. But the anticipation is matched only by the euphoria after the hour-long audience.
In the previous years, uncontrolled hunting and the accelerating human encroachment into the gorillas habitat meant that the mountain gorillas were on the brink of extinction. But due to the governments’ conservation efforts, numbers are once again slowly increasing to about 1000 mountain gorillas in thee forests today.
Roughly half of those live in Uganda’s Bwindi Impenetrable National Park and the remainder in the volcanic Virunga Mountains.
Gorilla families can roam freely in the Virungas, crossing borders between Rwanda, Uganda and the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC).
The Volcanoes National Park in Rwanda has been set up to protect both the Virungas mountains and its wildlife. Here a handful of family groups have become habituated to limited human contact.
In the Volcanoes National Park there are 7 habituated mountain gorilla groups which are highly protected. This is one of the best places for gorilla tracking in the world but of recent has become too expensive and budget travellers have turned to those in Uganda and Congo.
The number of gorilla tracking permits is strictly limited. Only eight people a day can visit each family and can stay for just one memorable hour. That means a maximum of 56 permits per day. The permits can be booked up to two years in advance and we recommend booking as early as you can.
The gorilla tracking permits are expensive (currently $1500 per person in Rwanda and $600 in Uganda). The money gives these poor countries an economic reason to conserve this highly endangered primates. Armed trackers guard each group of gorillas 24/7.
Common Questions about a Rwanda Gorilla Safari
How much trekking is involved – Each trekking group is assigned to a group of gorillas. This means your gorilla tracking experience will vary from 3 hours to up to 6 or 7 hours. (They consider fitness when assigning walkers to specific groups. The fitter walkers will head to the furthermost groups of gorillas but this is not an exact science as you can imagine!) So you need to be prepared to walk for some hours in what can be muddy wet conditions.
Can anyone go gorilla tracking?– this is uphill walking at altitude so a fair amount of fitness is required. But it is not a route march so the pace is not strenuous. However the terrain and altitude will make it a relatively arduous experience. Generally speaking the Volcanoes National Park in Rwanda offers a greater chance of seeing the gorillas without needing to trek for 6 hours. You should also note that only above 15 years of age are allowed to go gorilla tracking.
Chances of seeing the gorillas? – Nothing is guaranteed with any wildlife safari and gorilla tracking is no different. Having said that, they do try to maximize your chances by sending out trackers early in the morning. With radio contact to both locate and then stay with the gorillas so that hopefully your trekking guide will have a good sense of where he needs to get to when you set out. So nearly everyone sees the gorillas. If your budget allows, staying longer than one full day and purchasing two permits for gorilla trekking. This will increase your chances.
What is the terrain like? Gorillas preferred the habitat of bamboo forest and so getting to them usually involves a combination of steep muddy slopes, dense vegetation, slippery underfoot conditions after rain and high altitude.
Gorilla Tracking in Uganda or Rwanda?
Broadly speaking Gorilla tracking in Rwanda is easier than in Uganda. The Bwindi Impentrable Forest in Rwanda is further from Kampala (7 hours drive). The treks are on average a little longer and sometimes you start high and need to trek downwards to reach the gorillas. What goes down must come up which means you are often hiking uphill later on in the day. Given the distance, we recommend allowing 3 nights/2 full days for gorilla trekking but the permits considerably cost less in Uganda ($600)
The Volcanoes National Park in Rwanda lies only 2 hours from Kigali so it is easier to combine a short visit to Rwanda for gorilla tracking with a safari in Tanzania or Kenya for example. Generally speaking the trekking is a little easier as there are some groups which tend to stay relatively close to the park headquarters. However the permits are a truly darn expensive ( $1500). Allow 1 day/2 nights or more if you have the budget.
Uganda’s Baby Gorillas
Uganda’s natural habitat of Mountain gorillas on the southwestern part of the country has seen the birth of 3 baby gorillas this year, between the months of August and September 2016. Another baby gorilla has been born this November which is a fourth addition to the gorilla population. The birth of the baby gorillas calls for a round of applause to the conserving energies of Uganda Wildlife Authority, the managing body of Uganda’s National Parks. The conservation bodies that work to increase the population of Apes globally equally deserve to be congratulated.
The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) lists mountain gorillas as one of the critically endangered species. Moreover over half of the remaining mountain gorillas on the planet are found in southwestern Uganda’s tropical rain forest. Bwindi Impenetrable National Park and Mgahinga National Park are the only hosts of mountain gorillas in Uganda with a total population of about 480 individuals. This reveals why the birth of three baby gorillas is such an immerse addition and a great achievement for conservation.
Uganda presently has a total of 12 gorilla families for visitors to track with 1 family in Mgahinga National Park while 11 families are in Bwindi Impenetrable National Park. The baby gorillas cannot be celebrated without highlighting their families of birth: habinyanja, bushaho Bikyirigi and fourth addition which is from Rushegura family. The Bushaho and Bikyirigi family are still undergoing habituation hence are not yet available to visitors for tracking.
A brief insight about the reproduction of gorillas is useful to appreciate why baby gorillas are worth celebrating.A female gorilla first reproduces at about 10 years of age with a gestation period of about 8 and a half months. The spacing between gestation is about four years moreover almost 26% of baby gorillas do not make it to reproduction maturity. A Baby gorilla will most likely get killed if its mother joins a new family or her family is taken over by another silver back. This is besides other natural causes like diseases that cut the life of baby gorillas short.This means that gorilla populations grow slowly hence every recorded increase is valuable.