SOME PEOPLE ARE HAPPY TO VISIT A ZOO
Others, like those intrepid wildlife enthusiasts out there, will not think twice about hiking up to 10 hours through Central Africa’s misty rainforest, with its dense undergrowth and vines, just to spend one hour observing the endangered mountain gorillas in their natural habitat.
Tracking mountain gorillas (Gorilla berengei berengei) is only possible in two locations in the world. The first is in the Virunga range of extinct volcanic mountains on the borders of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Rwanda and Uganda.
Here gorillas live at altitudes ranging from 2,300 – 4,500m and are mostly found within the southern part of the Virunga National Park (DRC), the Volcanoes National Park (northern Rwanda), and a few in the Mgahinga National Park (southwestern Uganda).
EACH HUMAN GROUP IS ASSIGNED A HABITUATED GORILLA FAMILY
The second location is in the Bwindi Impenetrable National Park in Uganda, where the gorillas live at elevation of 1,500 – 2,300 metres.
With hikes lasting anywhere between half an hour to 10 hours, individuals’ fitness levels need to be considered before placing them in groups of eight. Tracking at heights of up to 3,000 m and traversing steep-sided mountains and ravines can be tough, arduous and wet. At your meeting point in the morning, each human group is assigned a habituated gorilla family which ranges in size from less than 10 individuals to over 30. In general, a family consists of a single dominant silverback male (which can weigh over 200 kilograms), three adult females and 4 to 5 offspring. Your guide will be in contact with trackers already in the park who have a good understanding of each gorilla group’s whereabouts.
Your good health is also a critical factor, as the more tourists that visit the areas, the more these mountain gorillas are increasingly exposed to a variety of human ailments – they have been known to die from the common cold. For the sake of conservation, each gorilla group is exposed to a maximum of tourists for only one hour each day, and this is the reason why less than 100 people get permits each day.
The mountain gorilla population previously saw a dramatic decline in number due to uncontrolled hunting, war, disease, destruction of its forest habitat, and capture for the illegal pet trade. But their status from critically endangered to endangered was announced in November 2018 – IUCN. Money earned from Gorilla permits ($1,500 per individual in Rwanda and $600 in Uganda) and gorilla tourism contributes significantly to their conservation including creating jobs and bringing other benefits to local communities living near the gorillas. An example is hiring a porter to take your bag. Even if you are capable of doing this yourself, consider that most porter are ex-poachers who are now able to make an honest living and contribute to gorilla conservation.
Gorilla tracking is possible in Rwanda year-round, however the best time to go is in the long, dry season from June to September, as well as the short, dry season from mid-December to mid-March. During the rainy season, hiking is more challenging when the paths are muddy and wet, but this is also the time when gorilla permits are easier (and cheaper) to obtain. In Uganda, the best time would be between January and February, as well as from June to Sepember.
Dress appropriately for your excursion especially when it comes to protecting yourself from the cold, thorn pricks, nettles or insect bites. Wear long trousers, long-sleeved tops and long, thick socks over your trousers (or knee-high hiking gaters) as protection against fire ants. Also, highly recommended, are a pair of strong gardening gloves to protect against nettles, a wide-brimmed hat, a raincoat / poncho, comfortable and sturdy hiking boots (preferably waterproof) and insect repellent.
During your hour in their presence, respect that this is their world and follow your guide’s instruction on how best to behave around them. And as much as taking as many photographs as possible to capture the moment, we recommend that you really allow yourself to just sit and watch them. Because after all, this is a privilege few people will ever have.
Sit back and consider the facts: These enormous gorillas are vegans spending most of their time grazing on leaves, flowers, shoots and stems, of which the silverback needs around 34 kg daily. The female gorillas will generally bear between two and six offspring in a lifetime with an eight-and-a-half month gestation period. Mountain Gorillas share over 98& of their DNA with humans, each gorilla with its own distinct pattern on its nose – like we have unique fingerprints. And this is your chance to see them for yourself.
This is a whole other perception of happy.