Data from Uganda Wildlife Authority say that, in the last few years, the world population of mountain gorillas is been growing, reaching today a thousands individuals. Uganda hosts about half of them, while the others live in the forests of Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of Congo.
Last month I was lucky enough to meet face to face, few meters from away, a dozen of these peaceful animals, among which a 4 months old baby and his mother!
Where do mountain gorillas live?
There are two groups of mountain gorillas in the world. One group lives in the Virunga range of volcanoes, on the border between Uganda, Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of Congo. The other one, slightly smaller in numbers, lives in the Bwindi Impenetrable National Park Bwindi, in the South of Uganda. The habitat here is a thick mountain forest with altitudes between 1100 and 2600 metres.
Permits and rules
To take part in a gorilla tracking, first of all, you need a permit. During high season, between June and July, I strongly advise to book long in advance. I’ve heard that the “last minute” permits are cheaper. I can’t say if this is just rumours or it’s actually a reality. Anyhow, for those ones that are really interested in seeing gorillas, I think it’s a risk not worth taking. Even though, I must admit, the price is really high! My day with the mountain gorillas has taken away a good chunk of the budget for my 40 days in Uganda!
The permits are expensive especially because their daily number issued is limited. The goal of this restriction is to avoid that gorillas get too used to the presence of humans and theirs unstoppable cameras. Every gorilla family is therefore visited for an hour per day by a group of maximum 8 people plus the guides.
The rules to keep when meeting gorillas are simple and they are repeated multiple times. I can sum them up: don’t be noisy nor chaotic, keep the security distance, don’t eat in front of the animal and don’t touch them.
Bwindi National Park and the surrounding valleys are probably the most beautiful thing I’ve seen in Uganda. The Nile River is nice, the Murchison Falls has a lot to offer, the “big cats” (as lions and leopards are called around here) are intriguing… But Bwindi stole my heart: the stunning nature, the plantations, the green everywhere, the adaptation of men in this environment… these are incredible landscapes!
Sadly, the camera, and myself behind the lens, can’t reproduce properly what my eyes have seen!
In Bwindi Impenetrable National Park live about 400 mountain gorillas divided in different families, 12 of which are daily visited by tourists and one is currently followed for research.
Families are made of 10-20 individuals. As it happens in many other species, there’s a dominant male in each group, usually the oldest one. You can recognize him by the white fur on his back, feature that gives him the name of “silverback”. He remains the head of the group until a another male challenge his authority. At that point the family splits and every other member decides which silverback to follow.
Mountain gorillas are smaller than other gorillas species; they are peaceful animals, mainly vegetarian and they talk to each other using a variety of sounds.
In Bwindi gorillas know that men are not predators. They are relaxed and, even when tourists come close, they keep eating and easily pose for a selfie with the human. In Uganda, official gorilla tourism started in 1993, when a first group of adventurous visitors spent some time with a bunch of mountain gorillas, the Mubare, back then not yet habituated.
Gorilla tracking in Uganda
There are 4 accesses to Bwindi Impenetrable that lead you to gorilla tracking starting points: Buhoma in the North, Ruhija on the east side, Rushaga is the Southern one and Nkuringo in the West, the closest to the Congo border. When you or your tour operator buy the permits, you’ll be told to which access point shop up. Close by all these places, there are plenty of lodges and hotels to spend a quiet night in the forest.
The morning of the tracking day starts at the head-quarter with a briefing about the hike and the rules. At this point, you can hire porters to help you during the tracking.
The participants are then placed in groups of maximum 8 persons and, with a couple of experienced guides, the adventure begins.
Meeting the gorillas is never guaranteed. To prevent frequent extreme disappointment, since the price of this activity is insanely high, professional trackers leave in the morning, way earlier than the tourist, to search for the family they are assigned to. They start looking from the last place they the family had been seen the day before. From there they follow clues like footprints, leftovers and signs of the presence of the animals in the woods. When they find the family, they communicate with radios the position to the guides, who are already walking towards the gorillas with the visitors.
The hike can be longer or shorter, easier or harder, depending on the position of the gorillas and the starting point. My group, looking for the Rushegura family, walked with a good pace (a bit too fast, for my taste!) for about two hours, one and a half of which steeply uphill. The last 30 minutes were in a sort of forest with grass as high as myself, mud everywhere and definitely not a real path to follow!
In case of doubts, follow the dude with the machete!!
Meeting the mountain gorillas
When we eventually met the trackers, they told us that the gorillas were very near. One of them took the lead of the group and, in few minutes, took us to the cutest of the family: a mother with her baby!
You can spend one hour with the gorillas. During this amount of time, we managed to see many members of the family. We met both male and females, a couple of “teenagers” and even the silverback, that seemed to not enjoy being at the centre of everybody’s attention and kept moving deeper and deeper into the forest.
The rules say you can’t get too close to the gorillas, but sometimes you suddenly see one of them sitting, and probably eating, just next you. And if they are coming closer, you might end up moving away from to give way.
When our time with the Rushegura was over, we had a short break and then we started walking back to the head-quarter. A last surprise awaited us on the way: two more gorillas from another family just off our path! So much hiking to find “ours” and these two were simply standing there!
Cost VS experience: is it worthy?
Let’s be honest, the permits in Uganda are cheaper than in Rwanda but, still, we’re talking about hundreds of dollars! Meeting the gorillas is expensive. Really expensive. It costs 3 times the price of the chimps tracking. It’s the most expensive single activity I’ve ever done in my life.
On the other hand, mountain gorillas are still considered a species at risk of extinction, also due to the fact that they don’t survive captivity. You can also only find them in this tiny area of the world between Uganda, Rwanda and the Republic of Congo.
The hike can be very hard but also incredibly beautiful (if you like this kind of walks, obviously!). And seeing these big peaceful animals from only few meters away is definitely very fascinating.
So, is it worthy? Well… what do you think? Let me know! 😉