They are some of our closest relatives, yet unlike humanity’s population, which has exploded to well over seven billion people, world gorilla numbers have been drastically declining.
Trekking through the mountainous jungles in search of wild gorillas in countries like Uganda and Rwanda is one of the most memorable travel experiences you can have; standing face to face with living creatures that resemble us in so many ways.
Though this opportunity, to seek out Mountain Gorillas in the wild, may not be possible in the very near future. The consequences of habitat destruction, poaching, human civil wars, and deadly viruses such as Ebola are wiping them out.
But, it’s not all doom and gloom!
Conservation efforts are under way to preserve this species, so in today’s post we plan to introduce you to the world of gorillas: where you can see them in the wild, and what’s being done to ensure these majestic creatures remain for future generations to come.
Read on for tips on what to expect on a gorilla trekking experience (Uganda, Congo and Rwanda tours), how to pack for the adventure, and ways to ensure your experience is a success: for both yourself, and the gorillas in the wild.
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Everything You Need to Know About Gorilla Trekking in Africa: Conservation, Packing & Best Countries
Different Types of Gorillas
Many of us dream of standing face to face with a wild gorilla, even if it’s only on a short 2 day gorilla trek in Uganda, but few often realize there different types of gorillas that live in Africa’s central forests.
Gorillas are split into two separate species, of which, each has two subspecies and possibly a third species which is yet to be officially recognized. Sadly, both species and their sub species are critically endangered.
We generally think of gorillas as living in tropical mountain forests of Central Africa, but lowland gorillas can be found as low as sea level. The two recognized gorilla species are the Eastern and Western gorilla.
The Cross River gorilla and Mountain gorilla subspecies are the ones that can be found in the densely forested hills and mountains, while the Western and Eastern lowland gorillas can be found at lower elevations.
Subspecies vary in appearance, but much like humans, males tend to be larger in size. Male gorillas can weigh over 400 pounds and are known for their characteristic silver back hair that becomes present in adulthood, leading to them being called silverbacks.
Gorillas normally live in family groups but their habits may vary depending on their subspecies and individual family characteristics.
Image: Henrik Sommerfeld (CC BY 2.0) via Flickr
A Critically Endangered Species
As stated above, all gorillas are critically endangered. Some reports state the harsh prospects of gorillas disappearing from areas of the Congo Basin as early as the next decade.
One of the difficulties in trying to increase gorilla population levels is the fact females only give birth to around three to four babies during their lifetimes, usually about five years apart.
Western lowland gorillas represent the highest population of gorillas, roughly around 100,000 to date, while the other subspecies’ numbers are drastically lower. Eastern lowland gorillas are believed to number less than 5,000 and mountain gorillas less than 1,000.
The reason for the gorillas’ decline has been the destruction of their habitat alongside poaching for their meat and body parts (for instance, their hands which are used for medicinal purposes). Add in civil wars and the recent Ebola outbreak, and gorilla numbers only began decline further.
Image: Hjalmar Gislason (CC BY 2.0) via Flickr
Numerous conservation efforts have been put in place, including the Great Apes Survival Project which was developed by UNESCO and the United Nations Environment Programme.
Recently, Rwanda’s Karisoke Mountain Gorilla Research Center celebrated their 50th anniversary. The Center was founded by Dian Fossey, one of the great leaders in the fight for gorilla conservation.
Dian ultimately paid with her life to save Rwanda’s mountain gorillas. Today, the research center has a team of around 150 staff that continues to study and protect the gorillas.
Understanding gorillas and their habits is crucial to developing effective conservation strategies. Of course, these strategies require large amounts of money, and one way you can give back is to experience a wild gorilla trekking safari for yourself.
Much of the costs for treks and park permits go back into gorilla conservation and providing the essential needs to the local human communities. Eco-tourism creates jobs within gorilla regions, which encourages local communities to conserve gorillas who might otherwise be lured into poaching.
Just 20% of gorillas are protected within parks and reserves, which is why funding conservation strategies is vital. Acquiring more protected land and securing the lands with anti-poaching units are just some of the ways we can help protect wild gorillas.
We must also learn to effectively control tourism to the region so it does not become destructive and must limit things like logging, mining, and clearing land for agriculture and livestock grazing.
Image: Jason Houston for USAID via Flickr
Where to See Gorillas in the Wild
Gorilla trekking isn’t restricted to just one country. The following three nations offer the best chances to see gorillas in the wild.
We’re going to start in Uganda, where not one, but two areas within the country are known for their populations of gorillas. These are the Bwindi Impenetrable National Park and Mgahinga Gorilla National Park.
Uganda Gorilla Trekking
Located in southwestern Uganda along the country’s border with the DR Congo, Bwindi Impenetrable National Park is home to roughly half the world’s remaining mountain gorillas.
Several gorilla groups within the park have been habituated to human visitors and a short 2 day gorilla trek in Uganda to Bwindi will see you to be awestruck by this rare and wonderful experience.
The park is known as “The Place of Darkness” due to its dense lush jungles, offering a rainforest that is one of Uganda’s oldest and most biologically diverse.
About 30 miles south of Bwindi is Mgahinga Gorilla National Park. This is Uganda’s smallest National Park, yet it contains three mighty volcanoes which include Mount Muhabura, Mount Gahinga, and Mount Sabyinyo.
It isn’t nearly as easy to spot gorillas in Mgahinga, but there is a single family that has been habituated to human presence. This group often migrates between Uganda and nearby Rwanda and DR Congo.
In addition to it gorillas, Mgahinga is also home to endangered golden monkeys as well as a host of birds that are endemic to Africa’s Albertine Rift. Trekking in Mgahinga also allows you to explore the culture of the indigenous Batwa people who now inhabit the fringes of the park after being forced out during the creation of the national park.
Uganda is also notable for offering one of the best locations to go chimpanzee trekking, especially in areas such as the Kibale Forest.
Rwanda Gorilla Trekking
Rwanda is where Dian Fossey spent nearly twenty years researching mountain gorillas. Her life of studying wild gorillas from the Karisoke Research Center is shared through here famous book Gorillas in the Mist.
The premier gorilla trekking location in Rwanda is the Volcanoes National Park. Rwanda tours offered through the park not only allow you to get up close with mountain gorillas, but you can also pay a visit to Dian Fossey’s grave.
After she was murdered in 1985, Dian was buried at the Karisoke Research Center next to the remains of her most beloved mountain gorilla whom she named Digit.
Along with gorillas, the park contains an abundance of birds species as well the chance to come across hyenas, African buffalo, several antelope species, and possibly even elephants on rare occasions.
Image: Jason Houston for USAID via Flickr
Democratic Republic of Congo
The DR Congo contains three out of the four subspecies of gorilla. Kahuzi-Biéga National Park is home to Eastern lowland gorillas while mountain gorilla trekking can be done in Virunga National Park, Africa’s oldest national park.
The park had been closed to tourists for nearly 8 months in 2018 due to a spate of violence, but gates reopened in February 2019 to allow visitors to enjoy gorilla trekking and hiking the rim of Nyiragongo, one of two active volcanoes in within the park.
While the DR Congo remains a place to exercise a high degree of caution when travelling, park officials undertook a rigorous assessment in regards to the parks safety before reopening certain areas of the park that were deemed to be safe.
Gorilla trekking permits are less expensive in the DR Congo, and Virunga NP is home to around 100 mountain gorillas. In addition to gorillas, the park is home to chimpanzees, baboons, and blue monkeys with their extremely long tails.
When to Visit Gorillas in Africa
One of the best things about gorilla trekking is that it is offered year-round.
While it may be more comfortable trekking during the two dry periods of the year, you may find discounts offered by tour companies and lodges in the rainy seasons. In addition, gorilla trekking permits, which are limited each day, are usually easier to get during the rainy months.
The rainy seasons are October-November and late March to early June. The bulk of the rain usually falls during the early morning and late afternoon periods of the day, leaving most of the day rain free.
The dry seasons make for much less muddy trekking and occur from January to February and June to September. The busiest month for tourism takes place in December, so if you are planning to book your trekking experience during this period it is advised you book tours and accommodation well in advance.
In addition to easier trekking, the dry season often makes it easier to spot other wildlife due to the fact animals are more concentrated around fewer bodies of water.
Whether you decide to come during the dry or wet season, the important thing to remember is that the gorillas never take a break. They can once again be seen year-round and even if you choose to travel during the rainy season, much of the day is often rain-free.
Image: Jason Houston for USAID via Flickr
Gorilla Trek Packing Tips
Making sure you make all the necessary equipment for your African gorilla trek is crucial since you are likely to have extreme difficulties in finding gear once in Rwanda, Uganda, or the DR Congo.
Here are my recommendation for what you shouldn’t travel without during your gorilla trek.
Clothing for a Gorilla Trek
Unlike the hot and arid savannahs of Tanzania and Kenya you’ll experience on African safaris, the jungles of Rwanda, Uganda, and the Congo are tropical and much milder.
Temperatures usually average around the mid 50s Fahrenheit at night and mid 70s Fahrenheit during the day. While you may not encounter mosquitoes in the higher elevations of Central Africa, it’s a good idea to pack long pants and shirts due to flies and biting ants.
There’s also an abundance of prickly and stinging plants to watch out for. Stick to fast drying materials, especially when trekking during the rainy seasons.
Avoid wearing light colors as you are sure to get muddy and the key is to blend in with the environment so as to be less noticeable to local wildlife. Pack long and thick socks to help avoid getting blisters since gorilla trekking involves long days on your feet.
Footwear for Gorilla Trekking
Comfortable waterproof hiking boots are vital for gorilla trekking and you may want to pack gumboots if traveling during the wet season. Gum boots are what most of the local guides, porters, and rangers wear.
You want your hiking boots to be durable yet lightweight so as to not get fatigued easily. Avoid hiking boots with steel toe caps that will add unnecessary weight.
Purchasing news boots for your trek may be a good idea to ensure you have plenty of unworn traction on your soles, but make sure to break in your boots with a few hikes before your trip to avoid getting blisters and for general comfort once you reach Africa.
Pack a simple pair of sandals for use while back at lodges and camps and for showering.
Wearing gaiters will help protect your hiking boots, lower legs, and pants. These are essentially a protective sleeve that goes over your shoes and up below your knee. Gaiters help to keep foliage and sticks from scratching your legs as well as debris and insects from getting in your socks and boots.
Since gorilla trekking can be quite muddy at times, wearing gaiters will also help keep your shoes and shoe laces from getting packed with mud. They will also extend the life of your pants before needing to wash them.
There is of course the added benefit of also keeping your feet and lower legs much drier.
As you will be trekking in the hills and mountains where there may be considerable elevations changes, many find it much easier to manage with the aid of hiking poles.
Trails can be quite slippery when searching for gorillas, and hiking poles can help give you that extra support and balance when you need it. Poles are especially helpful for those that have had previous surgery to their legs or knees or for those generally lacking much leg strength.
Today’s hiking poles are lightweight and fold down to a small size, making them rather easy to pack.
Cameras and Binoculars
You’ll want to capture your moments with wild gorillas, so invest in a quality camera that can stand up to nature’s elements and one that will deliver quality results.
A nice DSLR will allow you to adjust light, depth of field, and shutter speeds much easier. Be sure to pack extra camera batteries so you’ll never run out of power, and extra SD cards in case you take more pictures than you thought, or happen to lose or damage one.
If you carry a flash in your camera bag, remember to turn it off when taking photos of gorillas and don’t be one of the fools who tries to get a selfie with a silverback.
Don’t forget to pack a lightweight pair of binoculars to watch the gorillas’ behavior up close and for identifying the large number of birds you can expect to see along the way.
Snacks for Gorilla Trekking in Africa
If you have a favorite energy bar or snack, you may want to pack some since they may not be available in Central Africa.
Treks can range from being a hour long to half a day, so you want to make sure you keep your energy up. Just remember to pack all wrappers with you and to not eat while in the presence of the gorillas.
One thing you don’t need to pack, but should definitely take advantage of, are the local porters.
Gorilla trekking can be strenuous for some, especially if you’re not used to hiking for long periods of time. Hiring a porter is also a great way to give back to the local communities as it gives them much needed funds to live and go to school.
Having to carry less yourself allows you to focus more of your attention on searching for wildlife and taking in the breathtaking scenery along the journey.
Tips for a Successful Gorilla Trek
Image: Scott Chacon (CC BY 2.0) via Flickr
Gorilla trekking isn’t the most affordable experience, so you want to be sure to do your research and do all you can to make your experience the most enjoyable it can be.
For most people, coming face to face with wild gorillas will be a literal once in a lifetime experience. Follow these tips to make sure your gorilla trek is a successful one.
Arrange Your Permits
It’s important to remember that gorilla trekking permits have daily limits. You want to be sure to obtain your permits well in advance, especially when travelling during peak tourism seasons.
Luckily, a reputable tour company will likely be able to arrange the required permits for you. This is the easiest hassle-free way to get your permit. Some tour companies may even include the price of your permit in the cost of your overall gorilla trekking tour.
Permit costs aren’t cheap so it is important to research whether your permit is covered in the cost of your gorilla trekking experience. Currently, Rwanda charges the highest fee for gorilla trekking permits at $1,500
Safety When Gorilla Trekking
Gorilla trekking tourism is big business for the countries that offer it, and therefore the governments generally do everything in their power to make it safe for travelers.
Uganda and Rwanda are by far the safest countries to experience gorilla treks. DR Congo can be a bit more dangerous, but recently the country’s Virunga National Park has once again been reopened to visitors after a thorough evaluation deemed it safe after being closed for much of 2018.
You will be in the company of experienced guides and armed military escorts during your trek, and Uganda has in place a special Tourism Police unit. Trackers locate gorilla families in advance and make sure a clear path is available for you to reach them safely.
Image: Jason Houston for USAID via Flickr
Train Before Your Trip
People of all ages and fitness levels have a dream of seeing gorillas in the wild, and you’ll readily see trekking groups with member ranging in age from 18 to 80.
While anyone is welcomed to enjoy gorilla trekking, you should make an effort to make sure you are fit enough to endure the sometimes long days of trekking. Being in shape not only protects you from getting fatigued or injured, but it also doesn’t put pressure on the guides and porters to continually have to come to your assistance.
The old adage that your group is only as strong as its weakest link is definitely true and you don’t want the rest of your trekking group to suffer or waste time because you didn’t train before your trip. Remember that you may be hiking at high elevation and for long periods of time.
Practice hiking on hills or in mountains near your home well before your gorilla trekking adventure to boost your endurance, gradually increasing the length and difficulty of your hikes.
And of course, always remember to purchase travel insurance that can help you out financially in the rare event you get sick or injured during your gorilla trek and need medical treatment.
Respecting the Gorillas
Above all else, it’s absolutely essential to understand that a successful gorilla trekking experience isn’t simply measured by the enjoyment you have, but also about maintaining the contentment of the gorillas.
Trekking through regions like Uganda or Rwanda is not the same as visiting the zoo. These are wild animals whose space you must respect.
More important than the satisfaction of your experience is the conservation of these highly endangered gorillas. Remember to listen to your guides at all times; they are there to ensure the safety of both you and the gorillas.
You should take time to learn the etiquette that is expected of you when you’re in the presence of gorillas. Tour guides must adhere to strict guidelines so the presence of tourism has the least amount of impact on gorilla families.
You may not be able to get close to the gorillas if you happen to be noticeably ill, and there are set time limits you will be allowed to spend with the gorillas. The rules will be made clear to you by your guides and you are required to follow them at all times.
Gorilla trekking is a life changing, and truly incredible experience. And, supporting responsible tourism in regions like Uganda, Rwanda, and the DR Congo is one of the best ways YOU can help preserve this critically endangered species.
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