What do you imagine when you hear the word Gorilla? Is it King Kong that springs to mind? Well, that image is very misleading - Mountain Gorillas are generally shy and calm animals. This fact may surprise those whose only encounter with Gorillas is through the movies, most of which portray them as out-size ferocious monsters. In fact, looking into the calm, wise eyes of a Mountain Gorilla is one of the most serene and enriching wildlife experiences you could imagine, and totally unforgettable! Trekking Mountain Gorillas is a sensational safari activity and all primate-lovers owe it to themselves to make the pilgrimage at least once!
Gorillas are the largest and most charismatic of the great apes. After Chimpanzees, they are our closest biological kin and share up to 98% of our genes. They bear an unmistakable resemblance to humans by way of intelligence, physiological structure and behaviour patterns (although we may not always be too happy to acknowledge that they are our closest relatives)!
The average mature male weighs 160 kg and towers up to 6 ft, while females are much smaller but still weigh a substantial 98 kg on average. The gorillas communicate easily using gestures, postures and body language as well as barks, screams, chatters, roars and odours. They can express every emotion in the book in their own special ways, and are known to cry in sadness and laugh when happy. They are very intelligent creatures and have demonstrated the ability to understand human spoken language and sign language.
Gorillas are highly sociable and live in groups of up to 35 individuals, consisting of adult males and females, juveniles and infants, sharing a very strong bond, and frequently staying together for life. Each group will have a dominant silverback male who rules the roost and is responsible for protecting his family group.
The gorillas' life revolves around a basic routine, which consists of foraging for food, dozing and grooming! At daybreak, the silverback leads the group to a good spot where they can forage. Feeding continues till mid morning when they take some rest before the afternoon forage session. While resting, they groom each other, the little ones play under their mothers' watchful eye, while others just snooze off. After the afternoon meal session, another rest period follows till dusk when they disappear into the thicket of the forest to prepare their night nests.
Similar to humans, the females have a 28 day reproductive cycle and an 8.5 month gestation. Most Gorilla babies weigh around 2kg at birth and are totally reliant on their mothers until they are weaned at around 3 years of age. The females only give birth to a single baby about once every 4 to 5 years and infant mortality is quite high, both of which factors contribute to their endangered status.
The life expectancy of a mountain gorilla is relatively short by comparison to humans - they only live to only 40-50 years of age and are susceptible to many diseases, including some strains of human diseases and even minor infections could be fatal. This is one of the reasons that you will not be able to approach them too closely when you go Gorilla trekking – that slight cold you have could infect a susceptible Gorilla and lead to pneumonia. You will usually wear a face mask during your encounter, and please do not come to meet the Gorillas if you think you may be coming down with something!
Gorillas are divided into three very similar sub-species but this article will only deal with the Mountain Gorilla, which is the most endangered of all and is verging on extinction. The few remaining animals survive in the mountainous regions of Rwanda, Uganda and the DRC, where their last refuge is in the Bwindi Impenetrable National Park of southwest Uganda, the Virunga Mountains of northeast-Central Africa, and the Volcanoes National Park in Rwanda.
The Virunga sanctuaries, situated along a chain of eight volcanoes which run along the borders of Uganda, DRC and Rwanda, host half the worlds' entire population of Mountain Gorillas. The part of the Virunga's bordering the DRC is the most vulnerable as the country has long been ensconced in a Civil War and law enforcement is sporadic at best!
Regrettably, man is firmly to blame for their critically endangered status for a number of reasons. Loss of habitat is the most serious factor; Gorillas need a large area or range if they are to find enough food to sustain themselves. As human populations expand, more and more of their forest habitat is being plundered and removed to make way for agriculture. While this is understandable, there are some far more sinister threats to the gentle Mountain Gorilla; the market in bush-meat may be illegal, but it continues un-abated, and defenceless Gorillas are easy targets for hunters. As if this were not bad enough, some African tribes greatly value a Gorilla skull as a trophy!
Mountain Gorilla numbers are believed to have dropped to around 780. The good news is that although they are still critically endangered, their lot is considered to be improving; dedicated conservation has resulted in a small increase in numbers since 1989, when there were just 624 recorded animals. Working under very challenging conditions, organizations such as the African Wildlife Fund, Fauna & Flora International and the World Wide Fund for Nature have teamed up with the respective governments under the International Gorilla Conservation Programme.
Rwanda was the first African country to demonstrate a commitment to conserving the mountain Gorilla. For over 30 years, the country has practised Gorilla eco-tourism, whereby it ensures that only a specific number of guided tourists visit the sanctuary at any given time so as not to disrupt the animal's daily routine. The conservation authorities are very keen to sensitise local communities of the importance of endangered primates, so education is vitally important, and part of your expensive permit costs will contribute to conservation initiatives.
Although it was an extremely challenging period, Gorillas largely survived the 1994 Rwanda war and genocide, in which over one million people perished. In a symbolic gesture Rwanda's president led a national ceremony in July 2005, to name 30 baby gorillas born since the restoration of political stability.
Uganda boasts half the entire surviving Mountain Gorilla population and is the most popular destination for Gorilla trekking. Although Gorilla eco-tourism in Uganda is quite recent, conservation practices are strict. The country's two centres of Mountain Gorilla conservation - Mgahinga and Bwindi, were both gazetted as Gorilla sanctuaries by the Uganda government in 1991.
As its name suggests, the Bwindi Impenetrable National Park (331 sq km) really is impenetrable. With its dense under-growth, Bwindi is the perfect home for Mountain Gorillas, but also hosts up to 90 mammal species, including 11 primates, and offers exceptionally good bird-watching, which makes it an excellent choice for trekking. From Mgahinga, the active visitor can also embark on hiking, volcano climbing and cave exploration!
Limited groups of six or eight tourists are allowed to track one Gorilla group per day. There are several family groups that have been habituated to humans and your guide has a rough idea of where to find them, although sightings can never be guaranteed, as the animals have no set routes. One group may come upon “their” Gorilla family within 30mins, while another group may have to hike half the day, so you do need to be reasonably fit – there are no roads or vehicles up here in the mountains! Once you come upon your group of animals you will be able to spend about an hour observing them as they go about their daily routine – what a privilege! You will be briefed by your guide about how to act in their company so that you do not to anything to startle them and cause them to move away.
To be successful you need some luck, but above all you need a skilled tracker. If your budget allows, try to spend two days at your base camp in case you are unlucky on the first day. Permits are extremely sought-after (and expensive!) and you should book well in advance (at least 3 - 6 months!) if you plan to go trekking during the peak seasons. Here are a few sample itineraries to get you inspired:
To handle the bureaucracy, it is best to use a reputable agent to secure a permit. In general, it is recommended you take an organised Gorilla tracking tour package, which includes the permits, accommodation and transport logistics – trying to do it on your own with a local guide is usually fraught with complications and disappointment.
At Bwindi there is accommodation in two luxury-tented camps, a lodge and camping site. At Mgahinga, there is a campsite at Park Gate, and good lodge accommodation at Kisoro Town -14 km from Park Gate.
As it could rain at any time of year, you would be well-advised to carry some rain gear on your trekking expedition. To trail these rainforest tracks, you need to bring along a good, comfy pair of waterproof boots. Also wear long trousers and sleeved jerseys to beat the bugs and the mountain cold. Binoculars will be a big help in locating the gorillas. Also bring along some drinking water, sunscreen and photographic equipment, including a spare battery! But remember that using flash when taking photos is not allowed, as it is likely to startle the animals.
Although you can track Gorillas all year round, the rainy season is more challenging. December to February and June to September are the driest months for trekking, but also the busiest and most expensive. Read more about the best time to visit and see what other Parks you can combine with your Gorilla trekking: http://www.africapoint.com/when-and-where-to-go-in-africa.html
Bwindi and Mgahinga can be reached in 6 – 8 hours by road from Kampala, or you can charter a flight to one of the near-by airstrips. To reach the Volcanoes National Park in Rwanda you can fly into Kigale (served by a few domestic flights per day) from Entebbe or Kampala. From Kigale it is a 2 hour drive to the park.