‘The matriarch of the ten-strong Orozugo gorilla family in Volcanoes National Park, Rwanda, makes a deliberate beeline for me as the only female in our group of eight. This, I sense, is no coincidence. I’m little prepared for the intensity of her gaze, one mother to another, or how deeply I feel our connection (and why wouldn’t I when we share 98 per cent of the same DNA?).
‘She glances at my seventeen-year-old son, Freddie, and then back to me. I’m sure she’s noted the family resemblance. Then, like mothers of boys are so prone to be, we both become distracted by the arrival of her son – a cheeky, one-year-old, which, after attempting a clumsy beat of his chest, climbs on to her back to peer shyly over her head at us all. Only then do I take a sharp intake of air and tell myself to breathe. This encounter has been literally breath-taking.’
Of all the various wildlife excursions I’ve taken over my twenty years of travel writing, a gorilla encounter in the wild was easily the most thrilling, but a little careful planning was required to get it right. When speaking of these great apes, it’s important to remember that there are two species – the Eastern and the Western, and, to complicate things further, they both contain two subspecies.
The Eastern has the Eastern Lowland (or Grauer’s gorilla) and Upland within its group (the latter most often referred to as the mountain gorilla), and the Western consists of the Cross River gorilla (the most recently designated sub species in the year 2000) and the Western Lowland. All live in equatorial Africa.
So how easy is it to see these great apes in the wild? On paper (even with numbers dwindling) not out of the question. In reality, it’s a little trickier.
Eastern Lowland gorillas are found in the national parks of Rwanda, Uganda, and the Democratic Republic of Congo, but as the latter has ongoing civil unrest, tourists are not advised to currently venture there. Cross River Gorillas are the most threatened of all species (with an estimated 350 left in the wild) and inhabit the forested region between Cameroon and Nigeria. Gorilla tourism does not currently operate here, and the unhabituated (unaccustomed to meeting people) great apes here are aggressive towards humans.
Western gorillas live in the lowland forests of central and western Africa and are the most abundant species, often seen in the national parks of Gabon and Equatorial Guinea. The bad news is that gorilla tourism here remains, for the most part, unregulated.
And now for the good news… thanks to wildlife conservation projects, government intervention, and responsible, strictly regulated tourism, the Eastern Upland mountain gorilla population in Rwanda and Uganda is on the increase (moved from Critically Endangered to Endangered in 2018). Money generated from this tourism goes a long way towards their continued protection. Choose to go trekking with a reputable organisation here, which promotes best practises, and you’re doing your bit to ensure that no gorilla is ever again put at risk.
So, here is my round up of the best places to enjoy the most magical of wildlife encounters while safe in the knowledge that you are in responsible hands…
Eastern Upland (Mountain) Gorilla
According to a 2019 census, there are around 1063 Eastern Upland mountain gorilla left in the wild, with 604 residing within Volcanoes National Park (a string of dormant volcanoes that make up the Virunga Massif) shared by Rwanda, Uganda, and the Democratic Republic of Congo. In Rwanda and Uganda all tracking groups are limited to eight people and lead by National Park rangers and guards, plus two expert trackers.
Permits must be pre-booked, costing USD$1500 in Rwanda, and USD$700 in Uganda, and much of that fee goes towards conservation, research, payment of National Park staff, and supporting local communities. Here’s where to head to for the experience of a lifetime…
National Volcanoes National Park, Rwanda
Arguably the best place to encounter the gorilla (because the most live here) is from the Rwanda side of the National Volcanoes Park, where ten habituated groups (accustomed to people) reside. Responsible tourism is slick here and treks are though forests of bamboo and giant nettles and range from easy to arduous (as there’s no way of knowing exactly where they will be). Be prepared for up to six hours of tracking to find them (although often it’s a shorter time) and of climbing to heights of up to 2,500 feet. Good fitness is required.
Mgahinga National Park, Uganda
This is perhaps the easiest spotting place, as Mgahinga National Park covers a smaller region and has just one habituated group within the park that tends to stay within a limited area (although, be warned, there’s nothing stopping them from straying further afield should they wish to). Just two groups of up to six people are permitted to spend time with this group each day so booking ahead is essential. The terrain is a little kinder, climbing gently though secondary bamboo forest, and another big bonus is the chance to spot the endangered Golden monkey on route. Moderate fitness required.
Bwindi Impenetrable Forest, Uganda
Home to a staggering eighteen habituated groups, 459 mountain gorillas live in Bwindi Impenetrable Forest in the southwest of Uganda and the region offers gorilla tracking to suit most levels of fitness over a varied terrain. The hardest of treks are arguably the most beautiful climbing through steep, steep forest rimmed by tea plantations in the Ruhija sector of the forest. This is also an exceptional area for bird life.
Western Lowland Gorilla
Loango National Park, Gabon
Consider this a trip for the truly adventurous. Although Western Lowland gorillas are found widely in the rainforest across Gabon, there is just one habituated group in the entire country. To visit them you’ll need to head to Loango National Park, on the Atlantic Coast, which is only recommended as part of a wider safari holiday with a reputable company. The group here are monitored by a team of researchers from the well-respected Max Planck Institute that also has a research project in Bwindi. Expect conditions to be hot, humid, and swamp-like. Good fitness is required. Anyone over 65 wishing to visit, must produce a medical certificate to prove good health. Elsewhere, tourism for thees great apes remains unregulated.
On World Gorilla Day, here’s what you can do to make a difference:
Donate to their conservation through the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund. www.gorillafund.org
Book a trip with a responsible tour company such as Volcanoes Safaris, a model for sustainable, responsible gorilla tourism in Rwanda and Uganda. The company supports several conservation initiatives, such as the Mountain Gorilla Veterinary Project, which provides medical care to those in the wild. www.volcanoessafaris.com
Kate’s travel memoir Shape of a Boy, My family & Other Adventures is available at all at Amazon and all good bookshops