Many people have difficulty in describing their first encounter with the mountain gorilla. Emotional, magical, extraordinary – these are just some of the words used by those few who are not speechless. When you see these animals for yourself, you can be sure that you will feel the same.
But what are mountain gorillas?
There are three types of gorilla – the mountain gorilla, and the eastern and western lowland gorilla. They are huge creatures, weighing up to 200 kilos. Predictably, they are incredibly strong, yet surprisingly gentle and peaceful. There are between 50,000 and 100,000 gorillas, all living in central Africa. The vast majority of them are the western lowland gorillas. There are only 700 mountain gorillas left on the planet, making them a critically endangered species at risk of extinction. This is due mainly to a history of extensive and unregulated poaching and the progressive deforestation of their natural habit, for agricultural purposes . Even now, the fate of the gorillas is closely linked to the political and economical situation of the region.
However, there is no need to panic just yet; thanks to tourism, international support and extensive awareness campaigns, the number of mountain gorillas is steadily growing. Although they are not out of danger yet, their future looks much more secure than just a few years ago.
It is interesting that mountain gorillas were unknown to Europeans until the beginning of last century. They were first discovered in 1902, but it was only George Schaller’s methodical behavioural study in the 1950s and through the work of Dian Fossey in the 1960s and 1970s that they finally gained notoriety. Probably the best known book on gorillas is “Gorillas in the Mist”, the diary of Dian Fossey, which was turned into a film of the same name in the 1980s.
Mountain gorillas live in a very small area on the borders between Uganda, Rwanda and Congo. They can be easily recognized from the other two types of gorilla, as they have longer, thicker coats. Generally they live in groups of between 7 and 20 individuals, although groups of up to 50 are common. Their diet is mainly vegetarian with the exception of some insects like ants, which are an essential source of protein.
Troops are generally formed around one dominant silverback – a sexually mature male, so called because their back turns silver at around the age of 15 – and can include one or two subordinate silverbacks, three or four females and youngsters. The females move easily from one troop to another, although they normally stay loyal to one male when they give birth with him. They are very sedentary animals and only walk an average 1km per day. However, they never stay in the same place for more than two nights. This is to preserve the habitat and avoid attracting predators like leopards that might attack their young.
It should be said, however, that gorillas don’t have natural enemies except for humans, who have hunted them for food, and for souvenirs like heads or hands. Because of this, when gorilla trekking, only habituated troops can be approached. There are around 15 troops of mountain gorillas are habituated to humans. Tracking them is a relatively easy activity and anyone who is reasonably fit should be able to do it. You stand an excellent chance of seeing them, even though this can take anything from 30 minutes to six hours. Generally one or two hours is enough to locate them.
Trekking generally starts around 8am, when the rangers brief the party and explain a few very important rules. These include never getting closer than 8 meters to the gorillas, never sneeze facing them and never eat or drink in their presence. The rules are primarily for the protection of the gorillas, as they might be vulnerable to human diseases; there has been no reported case of a tourist being injured by a habituated gorilla.
Gorillas are currently a fundamental component of the tourist industry in Uganda. 10% of the fee collected with the permits is distributed to local communities, but more importantly gorilla trekking creates the need for hotels and other infrastructure that are a big source of capital. So, far from being an exploitative commercial attraction like a zoo, trekking gorillas is the major factor contributing to their survival and at the same time is helping local communities to progress and improve their conditions.
There are currently four places where you can trek gorillas:
- Bwindi National Park
- Mgahinga National Park
- Virunga National Park on the Rwandan side
- Virunga National Park on the Congolese side.
The first step to go trekking is to get a permit. Gorilla permits certainly are not very cheap at around $500, but it is worth every penny – after seeing the gorillas, no one ever complains that it was too expensive. It can also be tricky to get permits however.
In Bwindi it is generally very difficult to get one as the UWA (Ugandan Wildlife Authority) sells permits up to 3 years in advance and in many cases it is impossible to get them less than three or four months in advance.
Mgahinga, on the border with Congo, unfortunately does not have a permanently resident population, as the gorillas tend to cross the border during the year and trekking is not allowed when they are in Congo.
Getting permits in Virunga on the Rwandan side generally is a good solution, however permits will need to be booked via Rwanda, making it sometimes tricky.
Finally, a very new option is to book them for the Congolese part of the Virunga National Park. This is the most easily accessible park as it is only 16 kilometres from Kisoro in Uganda. It is also the cheapest and, most importantly, the easiest place to get a permit, as it only opened in 2004 and the demand for permits here is still very low.
Mountain gorillas are really interested in humans – they get very curious, and watch everything that you do, perhaps thinking how strange we are. When I went to trek them in Mgahinga there was a female gorilla who looked me straight in the eye for several minutes. I wondered many times what she was thinking, and I had a very strong feeling that she was thinking exactly the same of me: “What is he thinking and why did he come here to look at me?” It was one of the best and most emotional days of my life.
In conclusion, trekking gorillas is an excellent example of successful sustainable tourism, as well as being one of the most amazing experiences on Earth.