Mountain gorillas in Rwanda

Saving our endangered cousins

Back from the brink

At the time of the last census (2015) there were approximately 880 mountain gorillas living in the mountain ranges of Rwanda, Uganda and the DRC (Democratic Republic of Congo).

Pioneer zoologist Dian Fossey and naturalist-broadcaster Sir David Attenborough first brought the plight of the great apes to the world’s attention in the 1980s when the world’s mountain gorilla population had plummeted to just a few hundred individuals, perilously close to extinction.

Thanks to the efforts of international conservation organisations and the protection of regional national parks their number has gradually increased. A new census is currently underway, and hopes are high that the population will approach 1,000 individuals. But the species is still designated as critically endangered and its fate continues to hang in the balance.

While poaching for the exotic pet trade has been almost eradicated and human activity in the forest has been curtailed, their fragile ecosystem remains threatened by human encroachment, climate change and war. The battle for survival continues.

In this context, tourism may be the saviour of the mountain gorilla. These beguiling creatures have put their home countries on the world tourism map, creating a valuable premium for their conservation and the protection of their habitat.

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Conservation through tourism

Despite considerable hurdles, the conservation through tourism model has been largely successful and revenues from the sale of gorilla tracking permits has made a huge impact on their long-term outlook.

Gorilla tracking has become the number one tourism activity in Rwanda and the industry is highly developed and professionally organised. In choosing to visit the mountain gorillas you can contribute directly to the species’ survival, provided that you’re a responsible traveller and play by the rules.

There is a good range of accommodation to suit most budgets and the ranger guides are friendly, well trained and brimming with information. They know the gorilla families intimately and are passionate about their protection.

Most gorilla tourism goes to Rwanda and Uganda, two politically stable countries with excellent tourist infrastructure. The eastern DRC is now stable enough for public gorilla tracking, but options are more limited and demand remains low. The hope is that tourism and conservation in Rwanda and Uganda offers a positive example that can influence stability and therefore economic development in the DRC.

Our mountain-dwelling relatives

Mountain gorillas share an incredible 98% of their genetic material with humans. They live up to 50 years, and the oldest known living mountain gorilla is Guhonda who is over 40 years old.

As male gorillas mature the hair on their backs turns silver, giving them the name silverback. In contrast, a young male gorilla is known as a blackback.

A male mountain gorilla may weigh between 160 and 230 kg and reach a standing height of nearly two metres.

Mountain gorillas use a range of sounds to communicate and researchers have documented as many as 25 different sounds, including grunts, roars and shouts. They are entirely vegetarian and consume up to 35 kg of food per day — flowers, bamboo, fruit, leaves, shoots and roots.

Although they may be ten times more powerful than the strongest human, mountain gorillas are known for their gentleness. Even so, this naturally peaceful creature should be treated with the utmost respect for if a gorilla feels threatened s/he may lash out. Sick gorillas and females nursing infants may feel particularly vulnerable. Visitors who get too close to the gorillas or who scare them with loud noises or flashing cameras may be surprised by the occasional charging or even a slap!

Mountain gorillas do not survive in captivity and most gorillas seen in zoos are the lowland gorilla of West Africa. To meet our mountain-dwelling relatives in the flesh means travelling to visit them in their home. You won’t regret it.

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Mountain gorilla habitat

The majority of the mountain gorilla population can be found in just a handful of locations: Uganda’s Bwindi Impenetrable National Park and Mgahinga Gorilla National Park, and Rwanda’s Volcanoes National Park.

Rwanda

Volcanoes National Park (VNP) — formerly known as Le Parc National des Volcans before Rwanda swapped French for English as its official language — is home to Rwanda’s mountain gorillas.

VNP occupies 160 km² and is situated in northwestern Rwanda where it borders the DRC’s Virunga National Park and Uganda’s Mgahinga Gorilla National Park. Together, these three parks form the Virunga conservation area.

Volcanoes National Park is distinguished by five of the eight volcanoes of the Virunga Mountains that sit along the park boundary: Karisimbi, Bisoke, Gahinga, Sabyinyo and Muhabura. The park is bordered by farmland, with the local community cultivating land right up to its boundaries.

Gorilla tracking in Rwanda is quite different from gorilla tracking in the dense jungle of Uganda’s Bwindi Impenetrable Forest. Whereas gorilla tracking in Bwindi takes you straight into the dense, dark forest, in Rwanda the trek starts with a gentle ascent for thirty minutes through open farmland with breathtaking views (on clear days) of the Virunga volcanoes.

Here the forest is predominantly bamboo, which means less canopy to block the daylight. The bamboo canes sway several metres overhead, cracking and groaning under the weight of the gorillas shifting around in search of tender shoots. Elsewhere, the gorillas may be found out in the open, lazily munching vegetation.

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Gorilla families

Gorilla families vary in size from fewer than 10 members to 65, with bigger families usually splitting into smaller groups. Mountain gorillas are social animals. A family typically consists of one silverback, several adult females and their offspring, but it’s also common for families to include closely related adult males. When a family leader dies, a subordinate either takes over or the remaining individuals join another family.

There are more females than males in a gorilla family so a small number of male loners roam the forests by themselves, occasionally banding together into all-male groups.

Female mountain gorillas start giving birth at around 10 years old and give birth once every four years or so. Roughly a quarter of their offspring die in their first year. If a mother and baby move to a different family, it’s common for the baby to be killed by the new silverback.

Just like humans, every gorilla has a unique character and each family has their own traits and personalities. The ranger guides know each individual and are happy to share tales about their characters, interactions and squabbles.

In the dense rainforest, sound is a more useful method of communication than sight. Baby gorillas vocalise through crying, whimpering and screaming. Adults, particularly males, communicate through grunts, barks, cries and chest drumming. Facial expressions are also incredibly important.

Rwanda

Rwanda has 11 habituated gorilla families (10 of which can be visited): Agashya, Amahoro, Bwenge, Hirwa, Karisimbi, Kwitonda, Sabyinyo, Susa, Titus, Ugenda and Umubano. All 11 live in Volcanoes National Park.

As in Uganda, the location of each family determines the length and difficulty of the hike required to reach them. The Karisimbi, Amahoro, Kwitonda and Ugenda families are more challenging to track, while Sabyinyo is the nearest and easiest group to reach.

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Threats and conservation

In a 1981 census, just 254 mountain gorillas were recorded in the wild. These were bleak days for the species, with untrammelled poaching for bushmeat and the exotic pet trade pushing mountain gorillas to the brink of extinction.

Their plight was brought to the world’s attention thanks to the efforts of zoologists like Dian Fossey and broadcaster David Attenborough.

Fossey dedicated her life to studying the mountain gorilla, spending decades living among the critically endangered apes in Rwanda and the DRC.

During those dark days of the 1970s and 80s Fossey explained the scale of the challenge: “Active conservation [of the gorillas] involves simply going out into the forest, on foot, day after day after day, attempting to capture poachers, killing — regretfully — their dogs, which spread rabies within the park, and cutting down traps.”

In the days before properly organised and regulated gorilla tracking, Fossey was an outspoken critic of tourists visiting the animals, due to the gorillas’ lack of immunity to common human illnesses.

Fossey’s pioneering studies helped dispel the belief, commonly held at the time, that gorillas were ferocious, dangerous beasts. Her efforts to publicise their plight eventually broke into the mainstream: the 1988 film Gorillas in the Mist, starring Sigourney Weaver, is a dramatised version of Fossey’s autobiography.

Fossey was murdered in 1985, aged 53. Her death remains unexplained, with suggested motives ranging from petty grievance to opposition from vested interests in the poaching trade.

But Fossey’s legacy has endured. In September 1967, she established the Karisoke Research Centre and became the spokesperson for an international effort to protect the species and their habitat. Today the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund International continues her work in research, conservation and public education.

30 years on, although populations have gradually recovered, the species is still classified as critically endangered.

Encroachment of land for farming, disease transmission from humans, poaching and illegal logging are daily dangers. Oil exploration threatens massive habitat loss. Political instability and conflict remains a serious risk for mountain gorillas in the DRC.

The difference today is that the mountain gorilla has become a huge conservation priority in both Rwanda and Uganda — in part thanks to the lucrative gorilla tourism industry.

Conservation efforts include improved policing of protected areas, harsher penalties for poachers and wildlife traffickers, better veterinary care, community education, the development of alternatives to firewood for fuel, and investments in alternative means of livelihood.

Kwita Izina gorilla naming ceremony

In Rwandan culture the naming ceremony for a newborn child is a community event and every September the country celebrates Kwita Izina, a national naming ceremony for newborn gorillas. Initially a one-day event, Kwita Izina is now a week-long affair that celebrates Rwanda’s progress in gorilla conservation while highlighting the challenges that the species continues to face.

Communities, conservation and tourism

One of the key factors for effective conservation is an awareness of the people who also depend on the land for their own survival. Much of the gorilla habitat borders and overlaps with remote and poor communities. People lived in these areas long before national parks and protected areas were created, and hunters and farmers have always used the forest as an essential source of fuel and food. Now they find the entrance to their historical lands is strictly controlled and regulated.

To mitigate the human impact, a percentage of every gorilla permit fee (10% in Rwanda, 20% in Uganda) is invested in the surrounding communities to support infrastructure, schools and alternative livelihoods.

Conservation organisations also provide schemes for fuel-efficient stoves and solar panels to reduce the use of charcoal and wood, and to encourage community farming as an alternative to hunting.

The victims of conservation

Conservation isn’t always inclusive. In the 1990s the mountain gorilla seemed to face certain extinction and international pressure for action mounted. Bwindi and Mgahinga National Parks were established but with little consideration for the Batwa, an indigenous tribespeople who had lived in the forest alongside the mountain gorillas for millennia.

Suddenly this tiny community of a few thousand found their entire way of life outlawed; they were branded as common poachers and evicted from their ancestral lands. The displaced Batwa were left landless and destitute, dependent on charity and government support for their survival. Support for the Batwa is now more readily available, but sadly the damage to this ancient forest tribe has already been done.

How to see mountain gorillas in Rwanda

Everything you need to plan a mountain gorilla trek

Gorilla tracking In Rwanda vs Uganda

Gorilla tracking in Rwanda and Uganda are both wonderful experiences. That said there are some logistical and practical differences between the two countries to be aware of when planning your trip.

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Gorilla tracking in Rwanda

For those with limited time, Rwanda is a good bet. From Kigali International Airport to the gorilla tracking region is just a two-hour drive on good roads.

You need to be fairly fit to track gorillas but the terrain in Rwanda is generally easier going than in Uganda.

Another factor to consider: the Rwandan forest has lots of bamboo compared to Uganda’s more densely-covered canopy. This allows significantly more light through to the forest floor, making your photos much clearer.

Rwanda is the more expensive location and the authorities are making a concerted effort to focus the destination towards the high-end, luxury travel market. The government recently doubled the permit price to $1,500, presumably to further promote the high-end market.

Uganda

Rwanda

Permit price

$600 per permit.

$1,500 per permit.

How to buy permits

Choose your location/accommodation before purchasing your permit.

Very simple. No need to specify a gorilla family or accommodation.

Where to stay

The location of your accommodation is very important. Gorilla tracking starts from numerous points and you’ll want to book accommodation near to your specific entrance point.

All gorilla tracking starts at the park headquarters in Kinigi. Most accommodation is within easy driving distance (10 minutes to 1.5 hours).

Time needed

Owing to the remote location, you’ll need a minimum two-night stay in the gorilla tracking area.

Two-night stay is recommended. One night (and even same day) options are available but not recommended.

Difficulty

Terrain is often steep, slippery and sometimes muddy. Tracking through the jungle can be tricky and require trackers to hack a path with machetes.

Generally easier terrain to climb, except on the longer tracks.

Other things to do in the area

Uganda has a huge range of primate, birding, safari and adventure options across the country. The capital Kampala is a buzzing and popular city.

Rwanda has a limited (but decent) range of wildlife and safari activities, including Akagera National Park (a “big five” destination) and Nyungwe Forest National Park (for chimp tracking).

Ease of transport access

Eight to 10-hour drive from Entebbe International Airport. Fly-in options to airstrips within 30 minutes’ drive from gorilla tracking areas are available.

A two-hour drive from Kigali International Airport. Fly-in options to local airstrips, including helicopter transfers, are available.

Language(s) spoken by guides

English. Guides for non-English speakers are available through tour operators.

English and French.

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What to expect

The day will start early, with breakfast around 6 or 7 am, depending on where you are tracking.

Your lodge will provide a packed lunch and plenty of drinking water (double check this is provided the day before). Pack your rain gear even if the weather looks fine. The higher you get the more it rains!

After breakfast you’ll get a briefing and reminder of the rules and regulations.

In Rwanda

If you’re tracking in Rwanda, you’ll drive to Kinigi park headquarters where your group will be assigned to a gorilla family based on your fitness, ability and preferred hike length. To find the gorillas, you can opt for a short hike (30 minutes to an hour), a medium hike (one to three hours) or a longer trek which may take the whole day.

You’ll drive to the start point from the park headquarters.

Making contact

Setting off from the start point, you’ll generally hike for at least an hour before you find your gorilla family. In some cases it may be three hours or more. The scenery is stunningly beautiful, the hike is all part of the experience. Be sure to keep your own pace and drink plenty of water. It’s easier than you think to get dehydrated, especially at altitude.

Your rangers will be in radio contact with each other, passing information from the previous day’s sightings and helping guide you to the right place.

As you come within range, the rangers will ask you to leave your bags so you can approach the gorillas more closely.

Once you make contact you’ll spend an hour with the gorillas. They may be munching on bamboo, hanging from the trees, grooming each other, suckling their babies, playing, sleeping, farting or mating. Every experience is unique. Take time to enjoy their presence. Remember to come out from behind the camera lens.

If the gorillas are on the move you’ll be able to move with them -- keeping the required minimum distance of seven metres at all times. They may show some interest and approach your group. This is normal and nothing to be concerned about. If they approach you, the rangers will ask you to remain calm and step back slowly.

Remember you’re allowed just one hour of contact time. Many visitors find the gorillas more interesting when they’re resting, family clustered together, snoozing, grooming and playing. When you approach, ask your guide if they are on the move and, if they are, if you can wait for them to stop before making contact.

The route back to your vehicle (or the park headquarters) is usually shorter than the initial hike although it may involve an uphill climb in places.

Back at base, you will be rewarded with your gorilla tracking certificate!

The ranger guides are immensely knowledgeable and will take good care of you in the forest, helping with your pack and getting you up and down the slopes. Be sure to ask them about the gorillas and other wildlife. They know each gorilla family intimately and can tell you the names and personalities of each individual.

Tips for the rangers and porter are discretionary but will be appreciated (see FAQs.

Managing expectations

Part of the excitement of tracking the gorillas is not knowing exactly where you will find them. The altitude, the dark forest, the rain and mud can make it tiring, but it’s well worth the effort.

You will find the gorillas in very different settings depending on your location. You may find them in an open clearing, with clear views and plenty of sunlight or they may be in a denser part of the forest under a thick canopy. Keep this in mind when planning your photos -- flash photography is strictly prohibited.

Sightings are not guaranteed but there is a 95% chance or more that you will find your gorilla family.

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Gorilla tracking permits

In both Uganda and Rwanda the gorilla tracking permits are highly regulated systems, enabling the authorities to control human-gorilla interaction and generate much-needed revenue.

The availability of permits is limited by the number of habituated gorilla families and the number of visitors allowed per family. The authorities allow a maximum one-hour interaction with the gorillas per day.

With 15 habituated gorilla families in Uganda and a maximum of eight visitors per group, there are a total of 120 permits available per day.

In Rwanda, there are 10 habituated gorilla families and a maximum of eight visitors per group, making a total of 80 permits available per day.

What is a gorilla tracking permit?

A permit allows entry into the national park and one hour with the mountain gorillas, accompanied by a ranger guide.

Back at base, you will be rewarded with bragging rights in the form of a gorilla tracking certificate.

How much does a gorilla tracking permit cost?

A permit in Rwanda costs US $1,500 per person.

A permit in Uganda costs US $600 per person.

Each permit is printed with a unique serial number and the traveller’s personal details. They are non-transferable and non-refundable.

How to buy a gorilla tracking permit

Gorilla tracking permits must be paid for in full and purchased in advance.

If you plan to travel during peak season or if you are in a large group, you should book six months or more in advance. Peak seasons are June to October and Christmas and the New Year. The earlier you book the more choice you have on where you track and where you stay. Last minute bookings may be possible during low season or with smaller groups.

Gorilla tracking permits can be purchased up to two years in advance through the Uganda Wildlife Authority (UWA) or the Rwanda Tourism Board (RTB) or via a registered tour company.

Booking with a tour operator

A good tour operator offers in-depth and local knowledge. They will have visited the lodges personally and will be familiar with the proximity of each gorilla family. This knowledge can prove invaluable when planning your trip.

A good tour operator will employ reliable ground staff, including good drivers who know the terrain well and can negotiate the steep dirt tracks.

If you plan to extend your trip after you have seen the gorillas, a tour operator can provide a well-planned itinerary and organise your other activities, accommodation and transfers.

If booking your trip with a tour operator, be sure to check the gorilla tracking permit is included in the price.

Travelling independently

Some people choose to make their own arrangements: purchasing their own permits, booking accommodation and visiting independently. Counterintuitively this can work out more expensive than booking with an operator. If you plan to travel independently, leave plenty of time to allow for any hiccups. Remember that permits are non-refundable and non-transferable, so if you run into transport problems you may miss your slot to see the gorillas.

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Gorilla tracking regulations

Tourists are only allowed to visit and interact with habituated gorilla families. Habituation is a gradual process through which the gorillas get used to the presence of humans. This allows people to visit them without affecting their daily lives or natural behaviour.

Although the gorillas are habituated, the Rwanda Development Board and the Uganda Wildlife Authority enforce rules governing how tourists can interact with the animals. The following are for the safety and wellbeing of the gorillas and tourists and are considered non-negotiable:

  • The maximum group size for tracking the gorillas is eight people (plus rangers and porters).

  • Your group is allowed a maximum of one hour with the gorillas.

  • Visitors to the gorillas must be over the age of 15.

  • Tracking in thick forest at an altitude of over 2,000 metres (6,560 ft) can be tough. It is often wet. Gorilla trackers must be fit and in good health.

  • You should not go gorilla tracking if you have diarrhoea, flu or a cold. Gorillas have no immunity to most human diseases and even mild human infections can be lethal to a gorilla. You are obliged to inform the authorities if you are sick and they will decide if you are well enough to visit the gorillas. Remember that the lives of the critically endangered gorillas are more important than your holiday.

  • If you need to sneeze or cough, cover your nose and mouth to reduce the chance of spreading infection.

  • Don't spit or leave litter in the forest. Gorillas can catch diseases from human rubbish.

  • Always leave a distance of seven metres between you and the gorillas. If the gorillas start moving towards you, the rangers may advise you to move away from them.

  • Gorillas can be quite curious. Do not touch the gorillas, even if they come close to you

  • Do not make any sudden movements.

  • If a gorilla charges, do not run away. Avoid direct eye contact until the gorilla has moved away. Stay calm and slowly crouch down.

  • Stay in your group. Do not crowd or surround the gorillas.

  • If you need to go to the toilet in the forest, tell your guide and he will dig a hole for you. Cover the hole afterwards to prevent spreading disease to the gorillas.

  • Flash photography is strictly forbidden.

Follow these simple, common-sense rules and your visit will be a positive one -- for the gorillas as well as yourself.

Gorilla trekking resources

Everything you need to plan your trip

Is gorilla trekking difficult?

Gorilla tracking is physically demanding and you should be well prepared, physically and mentally. Having the right equipment will make a big difference to your enjoyment of the experience. Hiring a porter is highly recommended and you will be grateful for the support.

At a minimum, be prepared to be on your feet for five hours. If you are fit and are assigned to a remote gorilla family you may be hiking the entire day.

The day starts early and you may have been travelling the day before. Remember that you will be at altitude and will tire more easily.

If you suffer from any kind of breathing difficulty, consult your doctor before booking your trip and remember to bring your medication.

Age should not be a deterrent and it’s common for people in their 70s and above to enjoy gorilla tracking. The rangers and porters have many years' experience helping visitors move through the forest. In Uganda, enterprising locals offer sedan-type chairs for carrying elderly or disabled visitors through the forest. This comes at a steep price, so consider this for emergencies only.

With common sense and a reasonable level of fitness your day will be memorable for all the right reasons.

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Photography Tips

Your hour with the gorillas will fly by and you’ll certainly want some good photos as a memento.

If you get lucky you’ll find your gorilla family on a sunny day out in the open in perfect conditions. But depending on your location and season it is likely to be fairly dark and gloomy under low-lying mist and dense forest canopy.

As the name suggests, Uganda’s Bwindi Impenetrable Forest can be dense and dark. In Rwanda, the less dense bamboo vegetation usually makes for better photographs.

You may be on the move with the gorillas, so it’s best to get organised and think about your photos in advance. Once you meet the gorillas, get your photos out of the way so you can spend plenty of time out from behind the camera lens.

Flash photography is strictly prohibited. You’ll need to disable the automatic flash and any focusing lights.

Make sure your batteries are charged the night before and that you’ve got plenty of space on your memory card — or bring spares. (Remote lodges may not have reliable power.)

If you have a film camera, take fast film (400-1600 ASA). Experienced photographers recommend shooting at ISO 1250 or above in the forest.

Serious photographers will probably bring more than one camera body as changing lenses while the gorillas (and you) are moving around can be difficult. Take a zoom lens, wide angle lens and a fixed focal length lens.

Professional filmmakers will need to apply for filming permits in advance from the Uganda Wildlife Authority or the Rwanda Development Board.

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