Gorilla tracking in Uganda

If Rwanda is best for limited time, Uganda is best for limited budgets. For those on a budget, Uganda is without doubt the best place to track the gorillas (even despite the recent removal of off-peak discounts).

Demand is consequently much higher in Uganda, which means you’ll need to purchase your permits even further in advance.

A solution that takes advantage of Rwanda's good infrastructure and Uganda's competitive pricing is for visitors to fly to Kigali and drive three hours across the border to track the gorillas of Mgahinga. This gives a boost to a forgotten corner of south-west Uganda. However, it should be noted that there is only one habituated gorilla family there, so permit numbers are limited.

Uganda habitat

Uganda has the largest mountain gorilla population, with around 400 gorillas living in two national parks in the country’s south west: Bwindi Impenetrable Forest and Mgahinga Gorilla National Park.

Bwindi Impenetrable Forest is a whopping 331 km² and supports almost half the world’s population of mountain gorillas. It is one of Africa’s richest rainforests, and is a UNESCO World Heritage site. Bwindi is over 25,000 years old and ranges in altitude from 1,160m to 2,607m above sea level.

The forest’s age and altitude give Bwindi an abundant biodiversity. More than 320 tree species have been recorded here, which are home to 310 butterfly, 88 moth, 51 reptile and 120 mammal species, including a further nine primates, such as chimpanzees, olive baboons, black and white colobus monkeys, grey-cheeked mangabey and blue, red-tailed and L'Hoest monkeys.

In comparison to Bwindi, Mgahinga Gorilla National Park is a relatively puny 33.7 km² and is Uganda's smallest national park. But Mgahinga is just one part of a larger Virunga conservation area which covers 434 km² of volcanic mountains linking Rwanda, Uganda and the DRC.

Bwindi is a dense jungle of trees, shrubs and creepers. The terrain is mountainous, with access via steep dirt roads. Trees -- some reaching 50 metres in height -- create a dense canopy. Even the ferns tower at twice human height. The forest is alive with birdsong (Bwindi Impenetrable Forest has been named as one of Africa’s top 10 birding destinations by the African Birding Club.)

The forests of Mgahinga are less dense than in Bwindi, but the climb to see the gorillas can be steep. Mgahinga has arguably the best views of any of East Africa's gorilla tracking locations, since just a few minutes inside the park gate, you can look down over the valley floor across to Lake Mutanda and into the DRC.

The drive to Mgahinga has a dramatic backdrop of three volcanoes that guide you towards the park entrance. The foothills are gently sloping wide-open spaces and here -- unlike elsewhere in Uganda -- the earth is almost black. Gahinga rocks, a type of volcanic debris, litter the fields.

Uganda gorilla families

Uganda has 15 habituated gorilla families that can be visited by tourists: fourteen in Bwindi Impenetrable Forest National Park and one in Mgahinga Gorilla National Park.

The Mubare, Habinyanja and Rushegura families can be tracked from Buhoma in the northern sector of Bwindi Impenetrable Forest. If you’ve seen videos of human encounters with gorillas in the grounds of a lodge, it was most likely in Buhoma. Buhoma is a popular place for visitors to stay as it has a good range of accommodation and fantastic views of the rainforest. Tracking here is generally easier than it can be from Rushaga or Nkuringo to the south of the forest. Buhoma is also a good base for visits to local communities and exploring the forest on day hikes.

The Nshongi, Kahungje, Mishaya, Busingye and Bweza families live in Rushaga, southern Bwindi and the Oruzogo and Bitukura families live in the Ruhija sector of southern Bwindi. There are fewer lodging options in Rushaga and Ruhija so the early morning drive (through splendid scenery) to the start of the tracking can be longer.

The Nkuringo and Bushaho families are found in Nkuringo to the south-west of Bwindi. Tracking the steep terrain of Nkuringo can be more challenging; however, it is served by excellent lodges and, in addition to views of Bwindi Impenetrable Forest, has views of the dramatic Virunga volcanoes. The Bushaho is a newly habituated family and tracking times can be long.

Mgahinga Gorilla National Park is home to more than 80 mountain gorillas but has just one habituated gorilla group, the Nyakagezi family, with 10 members.

Registration and briefing take place at the Uganda Wildlife Authority park offices from 7:45am and tracking starts at 8:30am. As with Rwanda, you’ll be allocated to a particular gorilla family according to your hike preferences and ability. After the briefing, you’ll either walk or drive to the start point.

Gorilla permits in Uganda

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. 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.

Am I guaranteed to see the gorillas?

Although buying a gorilla tracking permit does not guarantee a sighting, the rangers know what they’re doing and there is a 95% success rate. The gorillas are well monitored and their general whereabouts are always known. On the rare occasions that visitors track the entire day and do not encounter the gorillas, a percentage of the permit fee is refunded: 75% in Uganda and 50% in Rwanda.

Can I exchange or sell my gorilla tracking permits?

Permits are non-transferable. They are non-refundable except for medical reasons, in which case a medical certificate will be required.

What happens if I am sick on the day of my gorilla tracking?

According to the tracking rules, visitors showing signs of illness are not allowed to track the gorillas. Visitors should present themselves at park headquarters where the situation can be assessed by the warden in charge. 50% of the tracking fee may be refunded at the warden’s discretion.

How many days should I allow for my gorilla tracking trip?

Most visitors stay for two nights.

If you have little time it is, in theory, possible to see the gorillas in Rwanda in just one day. But you are strongly recommended to spend at least two or three days. The altitude and exertion of the climb can be unpleasant when rushed. There is also a wealth of things to see and do aside from tracking the gorillas. Take some time to explore the country, its culture and its people.

Will I need a porter?

Hiring a porter to help with your gear not only makes the climb more pleasant, it also supports the local community and therefore the habitat and the gorillas themselves.

Your porter will carry all your camera equipment and rain gear, as well as your snacks and water. The porters and rangers provide invaluable assistance every step of the way.

It costs just $10-15 (plus a discretionary tip of $5) to hire a porter for the day.

How much should I tip the gorilla tracking rangers and porters?

Allow a tip of $15-20 per tracker/ranger.

Tips should be in small US dollar bills (dated post-2006) or local currency (Rwanda francs or Uganda shillings).

It’s a good idea to have your tip for the porters ready as you descend the mountain as you might part company before you get back to the park headquarters.

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