Travel responsibly and be part of the effort to conserve the last remaining gorillas on the planet
Gorillas share 98% or their DNA with us. Yes, you heard it well! 98%! Which is simply incredible! So getting to see them face to face is a truly special experience! However, unfortunatelly, they are dying out and now are considered an endagered species.
There are two species of gorillas on Earth, both of which are critically endangered. Each has two subspecies: The western gorilla is divided into western lowland and Cross River gorillas, while the eastern gorilla is split into eastern lowland and mountain gorillas.
More ABOUT GORILLAS here.
We are going to talk in this article about mountain gorillas tracking, whose number is unfortunately as low as 1063.
However, nowadays there are several organisations which are dealing with gorilla conservation and protection mostly in Rwanda and Uganda and their number is slowly starting to increase.
What is gorilla tracking?
Gorilla tracking is an organised activity during which a group of people meet gorillas in an responsible way, similar to a safari. In order to do this, you need to trek through the jungle, or the impenetrable forest, to the place where the gorillas are. This is ALWAYS done in the company of a guide and at least one ranger.
Is it safe?
Definitely! Despite their size, gorillas are not aggresive at all towards humans. The worst that it can happen is to turn their back and mind their own business.
Also, for protection purposes, there are always some guys from the organisation following them. Every single day, apart from the time when they are sleeping. So they are used to humans.
How do you find them?
As mentioned above, there is always somebody following them and this is how you know where they are.
The main reason why they are constantly observed is for protection from poachers and protection from diseases. The moment one of them feels sick, these people call the gorilla doctors and they are being treated.
The nice thing is that the gorillas are completely free in the forest, they are just being observed.
Actually this is how they managed to turn this species from critically endangered to only endangeres. Hopefully, other good news will follow.
Why is gorilla tracking important?
Firstly, it is a truly unique experience which is completely different from anything else and it is a form of education and connection to nature.
Secondly and the most important, it helps the organisations to keep protecting and conserving the gorillas. Most of the money collected from gorilla permits is used to fund activities related to protecting these majestic primates. In general, 15% of the money collected from gorilla permits goes to the government, 10% to the local communities and 75% to gorilla conservation.
So, it is like a donation, but you get an amazing experience out of it!
Where can you do mountain gorilla tracking?
Currently, there are only 3 COUNTRIES in the world where you can do gorilla tracking:
Uganda, Rwanda and Democratic Republic of Congo.
Because of the uncertain political and security situation in Congo, the protection programme works mainly in Uganda and Rwanda.
Out of these, Uganda is the cheapest option.
Uganda versus Rwanda
Rwanda and Uganda are the best countries for mountain gorilla trekking, both with great safari options. Rwanda limits permits to Volcanoes National Park for a conservation focused experience. Uganda’s Bwindi Impenetrable Forest has four habituated gorilla troops but can be a harder trekking option.
How much does it cost?
Currently, as of October 2022, the price starts from 600$ in Uganda, 700$ in Rwanda and 400$ in DRC. This is the price of the permit for 1 day excluding meals, accommodation or transport. Depending on how luxurious you want your accommodation to be, the price will vary from the daily rate mentioned above to few thousands euros per day.
How to do gorilla tracking?
In order to do gorilla tracking, you need to obtain a gorilla tracking permit. There is a limited number of permits that can be issued during a day in order to keep this activity as less intrusive as possible.
Usually these permits sell out pretty quickly and it`s better to book them in advance.
In high season you might even need to book them few months in advance, while in low season 1-2 weeks might be enough. We went there at the end of September and we booked them around 8-9 days in advance.
The trip itself can be organised by a tour operator or you can do it by yourself, however, in both cases, the moment you arrive at the national park gate, a member of Uganda Wildlife Agency will take over, will assign you to a group with a guide and will give you a briefing about the track.
You will never be allowed to go alone into the forest.
Even if you don`t purchase the tour operator expensive package, you will have a guide and a ranger ( or two ) assigned to you when you show up at the gate. This is included in the permit.
In the morning, before the briefing, you will be assigned a group of maximum 8 people which in turn will be assigned to a gorilla family.
During the briefing you will receive all the important information and in particular what to do and what not to do around the gorillas.
How to get the gorilla tracking permit?
All the tracking permits are issued by Uganda Wildlife Authority (UWA). At the moment, all the permits can be booked only through a tourism agency.
If you don`t want the whole package, you can contact an agency just to purchase the permits for you and they will do it for a fee. Alternatively, any car rental agency can purchase the permits, as well. We used our car rental company 4x4Uganda for this matter and they helped us for free. :)
How long does it take?
Depending how far the gorillas are, it can take up from 2 hrs to an entire day. The actual time spent with the gorillas is LIMITED TO 1 HOUR sharp, in order to be as less intrusive as possible.
Bwindi gorilla tracking sectors
There are 4 sectors of the forest where gorilla tracking can be done. These are: BUHOMA, RUHIJA, MGAHINGA, NKURINGO.
Each sector has several gorilla families.
Some families are just more friendly than others, same like humans.
Each sector has different types of accommodation. Sometimes you will need to chose the sector based on what accommodation you can find.
We chose Buhoma sector because it was easier to reach from the north, as we wanted to drive through Queen Elizabeth National Park. Apparently Nkuringo sector has the most friendly gorilla family.
More details on www.bwindinationalparkuganda.com .
What to wear
First of all: FACE MASK! Because we share so much of our DNA with gorillas, they are susceptible to our diseases including Covid 19.
Definitely long and loose sleeves and trousers. Preferably to have long socks covering your trousers as there are some specific ants which can go up under the trousers and bite you.
Ideally hiking shoes with anti-skidding sole, as it might be extremely slippery after the rain.
Also, pack a lunch with you, they always do a lunch break.
Before your trip: be gorilla friendly
Try to plan as early as possible in order to get your gorilla permits and a nice accommodation ( they usually sell out fast )
If you are a bit late, like we were, don`t panic, sometimes you can still find some last minute offers
Do your research about which Bwindi sector you want to visit
Try to check where can you find the most friendly gorilla family; you will thank us later!
Last but not least, try to have your agency or your host speak with UWA at the gate in order to get a nice and friendly gorilla family and the desired level of trek ( some families are closer than others) ; what usually happens is that when they assign the groups and the gorilla families, there is a silent fight of who gets what and usually the tour agencies have priority over the friendliest families; if you are on your own, like we were, nobody is really going to stand up for you
Our budget experience
After some unaffordable prices given by some your agencies, we decided to plan the gorilla tracking ourselves, as it was the cheapest way to do it.
We wanted to visit Queen Elizabeth National Park before so the closest sector to reach from the national park was Buhoma sector.
We spoke with our car rental agengy 4x4Uganda to book our gorilla permits for us and they had our permits delivered with the car. We paid 600$ each.
We booked a mid range accommodation, which costed about 220$ for 2 people for 2 nights, including breakfast. Our accommodation was called Bwindi Forest Lodge, and the manager was really nice and friendly and he offered to come with us during the trek morning in order to try to get us a nice gorilla family.
We visited the Katwe gorilla family:
The family had 8 members, including a Silver Back male.
Honestly, we can say that it was not the best, not the worst. Compared to what we heard from other people, this family was not the most friendly, the baby gorilla didn`t come to play with us and they didn`t interact with us. However, they were not completety unfriendly either.
It took us about 2-3 hours to reach the family and the trek was through dense forest and mud ocasionally.
The difficulty of the trek was fairly easy, most of the people can do that.