Gorilla tours are without doubt, the most selling type of tours in Uganda, Rwanda and Congo. Thousands of tourists visit these three countries for gorilla trekking but most of the tours take place in Uganda and Rwanda. Through this article, you will learn about mountain gorillas, understand gorilla tracking and get a comparison of this activity in each of the three countries.
Briefly, Mountain gorillas (Gorilla Berengei Berengei) are the most endangered animals in the world; this is because of their habitat loss, poaching and war in the areas they live in. They are very fascinating and rare primates that cannot be easily found anywhere in the world. However, you can only find and see them in Africa, in countries of Uganda, Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of Congo.
Their conservation status has put them in the lime light and every traveler to Africa has developed a feeling of having a glance at them before their extinction. Despite their endangered status of poaching, habitat loss and war where they live, recently conservation efforts have found success when conservation measures reversed the decline and started them on a road to recovery. This increased their population from 620 in 1989 to 880 today.
Where to find Mountain Gorillas
Countries of Uganda, Rwanda and Democratic Republic of Congo as the only places to find and see the mountain gorillas, have also given tourists a one life time opportunity to encounter these unique creatures in their national parks of Bwindi Impenetrable National Park and Mgahinga Gorilla National Park in Uganda, Volcanoes National Park of Rwanda and Virunga National Park respectively.
The three national parks of Mgahinga National Park, Volcanoes National Park and Virunga National Park are found in the Virunga Massif. Another population lives in the Bwindi Impenetrable Forest in the south western Uganda on the edge of the rift valley.
For adventurous tourists, Uganda gives you the highest advantage in doing a gorilla trekking activity compared to the neighboring Volcanoes National park in Rwanda and finally Virunga National park in Congo.
Comparing Uganda, Rwanda and Congo Gorilla Trekking
One of the reasons of trekking Uganda mountain gorillas is that, Uganda is recognized as the safest and more secure gorilla trekking destination in East Africa where you can view the gorilla in a Serene surrounding compared to Congo. Trekking gorillas in Congo is not recommended because there are political and military instabilities and bush meat poaching infiltration of the park and official corruption especially in the Eastern part of Congo in both en route to the park and within the park itself. This has caused the frequently poached gorillas to move to the Uganda or Rwanda sides of national parks in the Virunga Mountains giving Uganda an upper hand for trekking. I would say a 3 days Uganda gorilla safari beats the rest in terms of numbers.
Gorilla trekking in Uganda takes place in Bwindi Impenetrable national park and Mgahinga national park. In Mgahinga national park, the gorillas are mainly found in the mid vegetation on the Virunga Volcanoes of Mount Muhavura especially in the open areas of the bamboo zone. Trekking gorillas in this park was difficult since the gorillas used to go back and forth to Rwanda making it inconsistent for the activity yet there is only one gorilla family called the Nyakagezi group. However currently, trekking gorillas in Mgahinga is carried out and it is rewarding as you will go through the volcanic hills which offer the impressive views of the lakes below Kisoro sub region, Kigezi highlands and the impenetrable forest of Bwindi. So tourists are rest assured of finding them if they choose to trek the Mgahinga gorilla group.
Bwindi Impenetrable national park has higher levels of trekking the mountain gorillas compared to Virunga mountains national parks. This is because of the difference in the nature of their landscapes.
Bwindi impenetrable national park is a rain forest with thick and dense undergrowth and varying landscapes which make it an impenetrable forest.
The terrain is very challenging as it is hilly with steep slopes and narrow valleys, with beautiful birds singing all over the forest, keeping in mind that Bwindi is one of the birding destinations in Africa according to Africa bird club. You will have experience of both uphill and downhill on your hike before you locate the gorillas.
Uganda has half of the remaining gorillas in the world. The current population puts the total number of mountain gorillas at 880 individuals and 412 of them live in Uganda’s Bwindi and Mgahinga national parks while the remaining 468 individuals are shared by Rwanda and Congo. Democratic Republic of Congo has the least number of mountain gorillas due to political instability and massive poaching practices in Virunga national park.
However Congo has over 100,000 lowland gorillas and to see them, you will have to go Odzala-kokoua national park in the Northern part of Congo near the border with Gabon. This makes Uganda a better option for trekking in Bwindi and Mgahinga since it will be easy to locate the gorillas due to their high population.
Uganda currently has 12 gorilla families available for trekking compared to neighboring Congo with 5 gorilla families. Mgahinga has 1 gorilla family called the Nyakagezi group while the remaining 11 are found in different regions of Bwindi. Bwindi impenetrable national park has 4 different regions each with several habituated mountain gorillas groups. In the Eastern part of the park, lies Ruhija region with 2 habituated gorilla families. These include the Oruzogo and Bitukura gorilla groups.
In the North, there lies Buhoma region with 3 habituated mountain gorillas families, these include the Rushegura, Mubare also known as M Group and Habinyanja also called H Group. In the South, there lies Nkuringo region with 1 habituated mountain gorilla family called Nkuringo gorilla group. In Rushaga region, there are 5 gorilla groups, these include Nshogi, Mishaya, kahungye, Busingye and Bweza gorilla groups. Mubare group in Buhoma was the very first group to be habituated for trekking by tourists, habituation started in 1991 and started receiving visitors in 1993.
Nsongi gorilla group in Rushaga region is the largest with 25 individuals. However, 10 individuals left to form Mishaya gorilla group. So if you are one of those tourists who would like to trek several times, Uganda will give you an opportunity to do so. This is because the regions are quite different from each other. Uganda Wildlife Authority requires a group of 6-8 people to visit a given gorilla group per day.
If you are an adventurous tourist and you want to see more of the country and go somewhere a bit off the beaten path, you are recommended to go to Uganda. To visit the mountain gorillas in Bwindi for example is 526kms that is about 8 to 10 hours whole day drive by road from Entebbe and 2 hours by charter flights from Entebbe. The drive is however so rewarding since it involves scenic encounters en route along the Western part of the countryside. The western part of Uganda is the most scenic and dramatic region with spectacular features providing adventurous experience. The landscape is surrounded by many crater lakes and covered by plantations like tea plantation, savannah vegetation, tropical rainforests, farmlands and views of hills and mountains. The Uganda Equator stop at kayabwe along masaka road enables you to justify the geographical division between the northern and southern hemisphere. Ankole lands in Mbarara is also rewarding where you will find the beautiful long horned cows grazing along the road giving you an impression of what it has to offer, earning it a dub as the land of milk and honey.
A stopover at Igongo cultural center for a traditional lunch gives you an opportunity to explore Ugandan dishes and visiting the Ankole museum enables you to know the cultural background of that region. The western region has 8 of the 10 national parks in the country, each national park with its own unique flora and fauna attractions. En route to Bwindi for gorilla trekking will give you a wide opportunity for more adventure in other national parks.
For example, enjoy and experience a boat cruise and game viewing including the climbing lions as a unique feature in Queen Elizabeth, the big five and the great Murchison falls in Murchison falls, game viewing and horseback safaris in Lake Mburo national parks, Chimpanzee tracking in Kibale national park, hot springs and birdwatching in Semuliki national park, Golden monkeys in Mgahinga national park and hiking and mounting at Rwenzori mountains national park.
Trekking the mountain gorillas in Uganda comes with seasonal offers. These include high and low seasons. A gorilla permit to trek the mountain gorillas in Bwindi or Mgahinga national parks cost USD 600 per person per day for high seasons despite the inconsistency of gorillas in Mgahinga national park. During low seasons in the months of April, May and November, Uganda Wildlife Authority offers discounted rate permits for gorilla trekking at USD 450 per person. Trekking in both seasons not only rewarding but also gives one full value for their money since the experience is the same compared to neighboring Congo.
While other societies consider gorilla habituation as unethical because it exposes gorillas to human presence interfering with nature and increasing risks of contagious disease infection to mountain gorillas. In addition making them venerable to poaching. Uganda has an option of gorilla habituation experience allowing a maximum of four people to visit. This visit is done after strict briefing about the dos and don’ts when trekking the mountain gorillas.
A knowledgeable guide is allocated to ensure that tourist not only enjoy the experience by also follow the rules and regulations during the activity. The gorilla habituation experience permit is USD 1500 per person. This activity is best for tourists who wish to spend a lot of time with the endangered mountain gorillas in the wild, this gives you a chance to widely study and learn their behavior since the activity is a full day experience.
About Mountain Gorillas
The endangered mountain gorilla is one of the subspecies of the gorilla. The other subspecies is the lowland gorillas, it is a specie most often found in zoos. Note that there are no mountain gorillas in captivity, making them the most sought animals in the world. The names of the subspecies reflect their habitat: lowland gorillas live in montane forests while mountain gorillas live at high elevations of up to 10,000 feet on the slopes of volcanoes. The lowland gorillas can be found on lowland forests and prefer living in thick rain forests of Central Africa in countries of Cameroon, Equatorial Guinea, Angola, Gabon, Central African Republic and in the Democratic Republic of Congo in Odzal-kokoau National Park (one of the oldest national park in Africa covered by 1,360million hectares of pristine rainforest).
In description, the male mountain gorillas are usually twice the size of the female, they can be 6 foot tall and weigh 350-500 pounds. They are simply strong with muscular long arms. The males are called silverback because their hair on the back gets a silver color as they mature. The males’ strength is 10 times stronger and its arms stretch out long. The mountain gorillas have longer and darker hair since they live in colder climate at much higher altitude compared the lowland gorillas that tend to be smaller and have brownish-grey coats and a pronounced brown ridge. The mountain gorillas have a life span of 40 to 50 years of age.
Mountain gorillas are herbivores, feeding on plants like wild celery, thistle, and nettles about 150 various plants. Special trees are bamboo and bracket fungus. Their food plants grow profusely in the cool, moist mountain climate of their range in Rwanda, Congo and Uganda During the rainy season because the bamboos are tender and green, the bamboo shoots contain 84% of water with an extra of trocatea, flowers, stems, roots, soft bamboo leaves as well as the dry season black berries that act as a delicacy for the mountain gorillas.
There is more movement if there is scarcity of food, it may be hard to easily spot the gorillas. Again during the rainy season, the mountain gorillas are dormant with less activity to do. The gorillas move from one place to another looking for food, sometimes plants and trees change with the weather. Adult mountain gorillas feed on about 60 pounds of vegetation daily.
While it is true that they are large, powerful and very strong creatures, mountain gorillas are also affectionate, gentle, shy and easygoing creatures that live a peaceful and playful life. They live in groups that can vary in 2 to 30 to 40 but most are in groups of around 10. There is no mating season and babies are born all year long. Males start breeding at about 15years and females give birth from 10 to 12 years old. They give birth every 2 to 3 years giving 4 to 6 off springs during lifespan.
Large males patiently allow young gorillas to climb all over them without a murmur of protest, about 11yeras of age, the males leave their group. They communicate by sounds such as grunts, shouts and roars, 25 sounds have been recognized by researchers. Since the gorillas share a lot with humans, you will be surprised by the way the mother gorillas look after its younger one, their relationship and close bond created usually lasts for about 4 years. After the four years, the female can conceive again.
A mother gorilla is acknowledged to have close to six babies with a time frame of four years. When the gorillas get to their sexual maturity, they want to move out of the group and form a new one as they mate with others. Mountain gorillas are habituated that is they are accustomed to people a process that takes about 2 years. They are not aggressive towards humans unless they are threatened.
How to book a gorilla tour in Uganda, Rwanda and Congo
Several companies provide permit bookings for gorilla trekking and gorilla habituation experience in Bwindi and Mgahinga national parks. To take part in this one life time fascinating and memorable activity, we always advise at least 5 months booking in advance before your actual visit. While booking a gorilla tour, always pay your gorilla permit fee in advance to enable companies acquire it for you. Gorilla trekking is only guaranteed when you acquire a permit. Gorilla permits in Uganda are highly competitive and scarce especially during the high/peak seasons of June, July, August, September, December and February hence to be on a safer side, you have to acquire your permits in advance.
The best time to go gorilla trekking is during the dry months of the year because mountain gorillas tend to be rare to spot during the wet months. Looking for where to stay? You can visit sites like TripAdvisor to choose out the best places to stay in whilst on your safari. Mountain gorillas live in families hence, you will be allocated a gorilla family to track when you finish booking your permit.