With only around 880 mountain gorillas left in the world, seeing them in the wild is something only a few people will ever have the chance to experience. This section will tell you where you can see mountain gorillas, where to stay, how much it costs, and help you choose the best safari company to go with. (See page 3 for lowland gorilla safari information).
Where Can You See Mountain Gorillas?About 480 mountain gorillas inhabit an extinct volcanic region called the Virunga Range along the borders of Rwanda, Uganda and the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) in East Africa. The other 400 or so mountain gorillas inhabit a nearby area of Bwindi in Uganda, a thick rainforest.
There are two parks in Uganda, the Mgahinga Gorilla National Park and Bwindi Impenetrable National Park where you are able to go gorilla tracking. Click here to see a map of where the parks are located.
Mgahinga is situated on the extreme southwest corner of Uganda on the slopes of the Virunga Mountains. It borders the DRC and Rwanda. The park only covers 28 square miles so it's quite small, but besides gorillas you can also see leopard, buffalo, bushbuck and golden monkeys.
Bwindi is in south-western Uganda and is home to about half of all mountain gorillas. The park covers about 200 square miles of extremely dense rainforest and is a proclaimed World Heritage site. Part of the fun of tracking gorillas here is trying to follow them through the dense foliage. You can also get to see chimpanzees as well as some spectacular bird life.
Rwanda has one park in the North of the country encompassing its share of the mountain gorilla population: the Virunga National Park or Parc National des Volcans (PNV). The park covers an area of about 46 square miles and encompasses six volcanoes. Despite the terrible genocide in the early 1990's the country is fairly stable and the park permit system is running smoothly. The PNV was where Dian Fossey set up her base and research center. Tracking gorillas in the PNV is slightly less strenuous than at Bwindi since the gorillas move around a little less. The more open terrain also allows more light for better photo opportunities than in Bwindi. Check out my gorilla tracking experience in Rwanda.
Democratic Republic of Congo
The DRC also has a section of the Virunga Mountains park called the Parc National des Virunga. The DRC gorilla population suffered a major setback because several gorillas were brutally hacked to death in 2007. To find out how the game rangers are handling the situation and the difficulties they face, read their blogs. In 2012 a census showed the gorillas were doing better than expected despite the civil war raging around them in large part due to the amazing efforts of rangers putting their lives on the line at Virunga National Park.
Gorillas move around the Virunga National Park. In March 2005 it was reported that the gorilla group that is usually resident on the Ugandan side of the park had moved to Rwanda (tastier bamboo shoots perhaps). By mid - 2009 they had returned. Safari companies operating in the area keep track of all gorilla movements and will know where the habituated groups are.
Tracking Mountain GorillasGetting to see gorillas is not easy, nor are you guaranteed to see them. The trek to where the gorilla groups live takes you through very dense vegetation, up steep slopes and can last several hours. The dense vegetation is filled with burning and stinging nettles, so wearing gloves is a good idea. Red ants are also common, so wear long socks to tuck your trousers into. Gorillas move around so they aren't all that easy to track. The gorillas you'll be meeting are habituated to humans which is why you are able to get quite close to them. Some basic rules of tracking gorillas include:
- You have to be over 15 years of age
- You can not be sick or have any infectious disease
- Only one hour is allowed with the gorillas and you have to keep a distance of at least 5 metres
- Maximum number of visitors per day is 6-12 people per group
- No flash photography is allowed
- Trekkers must be fit and well equipped, which includes warm clothing for the wet cool climate high in the mountains.
- No eating or drinking in the vicinity of the gorillas
- No touching the gorillas (although they may decide to touch you)
- No pointing at gorillas
Gorilla PermitsYou need an official permit handled by each of the national parks to see the gorillas. Usually you have to obtain these several months in advance. If you are going with a tour it will be arranged for you.
In Uganda it costs USD 600 per day per person for a gorilla permit in high season. In low season a permit costs $350 to track gorillas during the months March - May and October - November. You can get the permits in Kampala (the capital of Uganda) at the Uganda Wildlife Authority (UWA) headquarters. It is possible to make an international booking for permits using email direct with UWA but they do not accept credit cards so it gets a bit complicated. See their web site for more details. To make it simple, you can just purchase your whole gorilla tour through a specialized company, like Gorilla Trekking or Volcanoes Safaris.
In Rwanda you can get permits through the Rwanda Tourism Board offices (ORTPN) in Kigali or Ruhengeri (near the PNV). You can call (250) 576514 or 573396 or email at email@example.com. The permits cost USD 750 per person per day. Most people will get their permits through a tour operator that specializes in trekking. It is difficult to obtain a permit without booking a tour at the same time. When I went Gorilla tracking in Rwanda, permits were sold out for 4 months in advance, so book early especially if you plan to go between June - October.
In the DRC its best to just arrange your permit (USD 400) and tour through Amohoro Tours
Gorilla Safari GuidePage Two: When to go, how to get to the parks, where to stay and sample gorilla safari tours.
Page Three: A guide to lowland gorillas in DRC, Gabon and Cameroon.