Gorilla Trekking in Africa

Gorilla Trekking Uganda- Africa Gorilla Trekking Guide

Gorilla trekking is becoming over and over again a house gold name on every ones what do list when in Africa and particularly to the East African region. Gorillas are gentle and special specie of primates that share aver 98% of human DNA.These splendid and highly endangered great apes still live only in Uganda, Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of Congo. In Uganda these endangered mountain gorillas are tracked in two national parks that’s Bwindi impenetrable national park and Mgahinga gorilla forest national park both located in the south western part of Uganda in a distance of about 8-10 hours’ drive from the Kampala the capital city. In Rwanda these species are found in the Volcanoes national park located in the northwestern part of Rwanda in Ruhengeri Musanze district just about 2-3 hours’ drive from Rwanda’s capital city of Kigali and in DR Congo these giant apes are tracked in the Virunga National park.

Mountain gorilla tracking experience is the same in all countries however when it comes to gorilla tracking fees; charges totally differ depending on tourism boards of each country. Mountain gorilla tracking is most expensive to see in Rwanda as a permit here costs a whooping USD 750 per person per tracking, in Uganda a permit costs USD 600 per person while in the Democratic republic of Congo a permit costs $400 USD inclusive of park entry fee and ranger guides.

Uganda offers the most permits with up to 12 gorilla families 2 groups are for research purpose(at most, 96 permits would be given out each day) followed by Rwanda which has 10 gorilla families and two gorilla families are research purpose, Democratic Republic of Congo has only 5 gorilla family with only three groups that are most tracked by travelers (The number of families accessible to travelers changes each year depending on how governments balance the need for tourist income and the need for research.). However, to avoid distressing the shy animals, only eight members are allowed to visit in each group per day to hike in search of each gorilla family habituated to human observers sharing almost 95% of human genes. In DRC, sometimes six people only allowed to track inn each group each day in order to reduce the chance of gorillas catching human diseases.

In all countries having a gorilla permits is a guarantee for tracking, however sighting is not a guarantee, but since gorillas are followed on a daily basis, sighting in all locations is up to 98% and above. Tracking in both locations may be sometimes herd as the path to meet these giants may involve passing through muddy, steep mountain slopes for several hours so a reasonable degree of fitness is needed as tracking, may go from a half to full day and don’t forget tracking gears like sturdy pair of walking shoes, long sleeved shirts or blouses, walking sticks, this is provided at the park headquarters, bottled water and sometimes packed lunch. But if lucky you may find these giant apes feeding on the lower slopes or even raid farmers fields outside park boundaries, you may encounter them within 45-1 hour of the trailhead. Once they are met of course you will forget all the troubles you’ve gone through during the process of searching them and utilize the one hour you are allowed to stay with them while observing and taking photography and you reminded to keep a distance of 23 feet (7metres) from each animal.

In terms of sighting Rwanda offers the best clear photography because the upper slopes of volcanoes national park have open fields and stands of bamboo forest where leafy vegetation is not so thick. Since bwindi is an impenetrable forest clear views are not always possible, mothers and baby gorillas can be high up a tree feeding or playing and huge silverback always like to take nap inside dense thickets, but of course on each day you have find gorillas in their habitat and photography can be possible and whatever the case may be gorilla tracking experience remains the same.

In terms of distance to the gorilla parks Rwanda’s park is the most closest when you compare it to Bwindi and Mgahinga Uganda national park and Virungas national park in DRC. Its two hours by car and on good roads from Kigali Rwanda’s capital and largest city to volcanoes national park and also it is the closest to an international airport Kanombe, this means that a one day gorilla safari to Rwanda is possible, if you sleep in Kigali and you want to track gorillas, you have to drive very early in the morning and report to the park headquarters ( kiningi) before its 7:00 then join other trackers to receive short briefing before you head into the jungle for the activity. To reach Bwindi national park is ten hours by road from Entebbe, or a two-hour charter flight from Entebbe to Kihihi airfield , The Virungas National Park can be reached by a half-day road drive from Kigali, but you might encounter delays at the border securing a DRC tourist visa.

When it comes to accommodation option, each country offers good places to stay from up market to budget accommodation. To mention some of the accommodation facilities in Bwindi include Clouds Mountain Gorilla Lodge, Chameleon Hill lodge, Silverback Lodge, Buhoma Lodge, Lake Mutanda Lodge, Gorilla safari Lodge(Luxury), Gorilla Mist, Ruhija Gorilla Friend camp (mid -range), Wagtail (budge). Rwanda has Sabyinya Silverback Lodge, Gorilla Nest Lodge (luxury), Le Bombou Lodge (mid-range), Kinigi Guest House (budget). In the DRC you can sleep at Coco Lodge (Luxury)/Orchid safari Lodge (Mid-Range)/Hotel Horizon (Budget).

To avoid harassing the shy animals and disturbing them in their habitat, just eight travelers per day are permitted to hike in search of each gorilla family habituated to human observers. Rwanda offers the most permits, with up to ten gorilla families allotted for tourism (at most, 80 permits would be given out each day); Uganda, up to eight families; the DRC, five families. The number of families accessible to travelers changes each year depending on how governments balance the need for tourist income and the need for research. To reduce the chance of gorillas catching human diseases, the DRC sometimes limits the size of trekking groups to six people.

Because gorillas are followed on a daily basis, a sighting in all the locations is virtually guaranteed. You need to be fit because your path may take you up to muddy, steep mountain slopes for several hours. Sometimes gorillas feed on lower slopes or even raid farmer’s fields outside park boundaries. Once gorillas are located, travelers are limited to one hour of observation and photography, and they must try to keep at least 23 feet from each animal.

Because foliage can be dense, clear views are not always possible. Gorilla mothers and babies might be high up a tree feeding or playing. Like human dads trying to escape the kids and grab some shut eye, the huge, charismatic silverbacks that everyone wants to photograph inconveniently like to nap inside dense thickets. Although it’s a crapshoot in what kind of vegetation and in what lighting conditions you will find gorillas on a given day, Rwanda offers the best prospects for unobstructed photographs because the upper slopes of Volcanoes Park have open meadows and stands of bamboo forest where leafy vegetation is not so thick.

When it comes to hospitality, Uganda is a force to reckon with. Ugandans are very hospitable and they welcome whoever comes into their country with widely open hands. The other 2 countries welcome visitors but not to the extent of Ugandans. The other attribute with Uganda is that they widely speak English which aids so much communication between them and any visitor unlike Rwanda and Congo which mostly use their local dialects and French. So this gives Uganda an upper hand over those countries due to the fact that the greatest numbers of visitors speak English more than French.

Gorillas are special primates with over 98% of its DNA human. Gorillas are of two species i.e mountain gorillas and lowland gorillas. The mountain gorilla is one of the two subspecies of gorillas. Gorillas are ground-dwelling, predominantly herbivorous apes that inhabit the forests of East Africa. There are two populations. One is found in the Virunga volcanic mountains of East Africa within three National Parks: Mgahinga, in south-west Uganda, Volcanoes in north-west Rwanda and Virunga in the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). The other is found in Uganda’s Bwindi Impenetrable National Park. Some primatologists consider the Bwindi population in Uganda as may be a separate subspecies though no description has been concluded to ascertain this.

Few animals have sparked the imagination of man as much as the gorilla, the largest of the living primates and the last member of the ape family known to science. Most gorillas live in inaccessible regions in various dense forests in tropical Africa, and only in the last 30 years have scientists learned details of their life in the wild.

A chain of eight volcanoes known as the Virunga Volcanoes runs through a western section of the Rift Valley, forming part of the border between Uganda, Democratic Republic of Congo and Rwanda. These spectacular mountains and the nearby Bwindi Impenetrable National Park in Uganda are the last refuges of the most endangered of the gorilla subspecies, the mountain gorilla.

Mountain gorillas are as shy as they are strong. But when threatened, they can be aggressive. They beat their chests and let out angry grunts and roars. Group leaders will charge at the threat. Mothers will fight to the death to protect their young.

Mountain gorillas live in groups of up to 30. The group or family is led by a silverback. These males are called silverbacks because of the silver stripe they develop on their backs when they mature. The oldest males of the group are at least 12 years old. These troops also include several younger males, adult and juvenile females, and infants.

In addition to providing protection to group members, silverbacks maintain order and decide all activities within their troop. They schedule feeding trips, resting time, and travel. They also father the majority of the young in the group.

Female mountain gorillas can produce young ones beginning at age 10. They carry one or two babies at a time and give birth after 8.5-month gestation period. In general, they will bear between two and six offspring in a lifetime.

The gorilla is massive, with a short, thick trunk and broad chest and shoulders. Its eyes and ears are dwarfed by its large head and hairless, shiny black muzzle. Older males develop a crown of muscle and hair that makes the head look even longer. The arms are longer than the stubby legs. The fully adult male mountain gorilla is twice as large as the female.

The most serious threat to gorillas is habitat loss. The rich volcanic soil of the Virunga is as highly valued as farming land. In Rwanda, Uganda and Congo, a regional conservation program stressing the importance of maintaining the virgin forest watershed and the need to habituate some groups of gorillas for tourist visits has helped ease encroachment.

The gorilla is shy and retiring rather than ferocious and treacherous. It usually seeks no trouble unless harassed but will valiantly defend its family group if threatened. Family groups are close-knit and may have up to 30 members, but even if smaller, the group usually consists of at least one older male, one or more females and a few juveniles. Because gorillas are nomadic, they build new nests each day at dusk, constructing them of bent branches in a tree or of grasses on the ground.

A group’s hierarchy, ritualized behavior and bluff charges between males prevent conflict among and between groups. Gorillas scream, grab foliage and stuff it in their mouths, stand erect on their hind legs, tear up and throw plants, drum on the chest with hands or fists, stamp their feet, strike the ground with the palms of their hands and gallop in a mock attack on all fours.

Animals of this size need a lot of food, and the vegetarian gorilla is no exception. Although they eat a variety of plants, favorites include wild celery, bamboo, thistles, stinging nettles, bedstraw and certain fruit. These plants seem to provide sufficient moisture so that gorillas do not need water.

Mountain gorillas have a slow rate of reproduction. Females give birth for the first time at about age 10 and will have more offspring every three or four years. A male begins to breed between 12 and 15 years, when he is in charge of his own group. Able to conceive for only about three days each month, the female produces a single young.

Newborn gorillas are weak and tiny, weighing in at about 4 pounds. Their movements are as awkward as those of human infants, but their development is roughly twice as fast. At 3 or 4 months, the gorilla infant can sit upright and can stand with support soon after. It suckles regularly for about a year and is gradually weaned at about 31/2 years, when it becomes more independent.

The gorilla’s only known enemies are leopards and humans. Crocodiles are potentially dangerous to lowland gorillas. In western Africa, gorillas are commonly hunted for meat or in retaliation for crop raiding, but in eastern Africa they have been the victims of snares and traps set for antelope and other animals. Poachers have also destroyed entire family groups in their attempts to capture infant gorillas for zoos, while others are killed to sell their heads and hands as trophies.

Uganda is really an endowed country with almost everything that you would love to see on your successful vacation. Uganda boasts of over 10 national parks however, of these only 2 of them inhabit these mountain gorillas;

Bwindi impenetrable national park

Bwindi national park is a true rain forest found in the western side of Uganda. Tourism in this forest        is based on gorilla tracking; slightly half of the mountain gorillas reside here. An estimation of 280-320 individuals living in 15 troops. Given the focus on gorillas, it came as a surprise that Bwindi harbors at least 92 mammal species.

The list consists of small mammals such as rodents, bats. But it does include eleven types of primates including a healthy chimpanzee population and five varieties of monkeys most visible is the blue monkey, black and white colobus. Of so called big five, only elephants are present a herd of 30 animals in the south eastern part of the park which is of no more than academic interest to tourists.

The park is also blessed with 345 confirmed and five unconfirmed species of birds, a high figure when compared to other national parks. Of the particular interest to birders are the 23 species endemics to the Albertine Rift and at least 14 species recorded now where elsewhere, among them the African green broadbill, white tailed blue fly catcher, brown-necked parrot and others. Among the most interesting and colorful birds that are likely to be seen by casual visitors are the harrier hawk, mountain buzzard, olive pigeon, white-headed wood hoopoe and any number of confusingly similar and greenbuls.

Bwindi impenetrable national park can be accessed by either a flight or by road. When one uses chartered flight, you board an Aero link chartered plane from Entebbe in Kajjansi and then locate to an air strip in either Kasese or Kihihi from where a vehicle picks you and drives you to your hotel .Yet by road, it is a distance of 414 km from Kampala to Kabale on bitumen surface and takes 6-7 hours. An additional 120km from Kabale to Buhoma Park Headquarters via Kanungu and Kanyantoroogo on murram surface takes 3-4 hours and many require a 4WD vehicle. Kabale-Ruhija-Buhoma is 95 kilometers and takes 3-4 hours. This road is not frequently used by the public. A 4WD is recommended.

Bwindi national park has over 11 gorilla families and one of these called Kyaguriro family in Ruhija is gazetted for study purposes and research and then the remaining 10 are habituated for trekking. Mountain gorilla habituations takes between 2-3 years and below are the gorilla families habituated in Bwindi impenetrable forest national park;

Nkuringo

This family derives its name from the hill where this group was first spotted, Nkuringo hill. Nkuringo actually means “round hill” in the local language. Nkuringo is different from other hills in the neighborhood by having a rounded crest and no peak. The Family has 19 members including 2 silverbacks.

Habinyanja

This family boasts of 15 members including two silverbacks and was first seen near a swamp (“Nyanja” in the local language) in Bwindi impenetrable forest. This group has two mature males that are always seen fighting for supremacy within the family and the leading female “Kisho”heads the females.

Nshonji

This group was first sighted near river Nshonji and is the largest in Bwindi Impenetrable Park with 36 members including five silverbacks. It was named after river Nshonji which is close to where this group was first spotted. Although most gorilla families consist of 25 members with one or two silver backs, with this family it is another story since it surpasses that number. Another remarkable feature with this family is that it is led by Nshongi who is not even the oldest silverback in the group.

Mubare

This is presently the smallest family with only 7 members including 1 silver back. It’s is also the oldest family, spotted in the park in early 1990s, and was first seen in the middle of the park on Mubare hills. It was led by the late Ruhondeza who died in 2013 after a serious battle with a black back who has raided and expanded the family to 9 members currently.

Bitukula

This group was named after River Bitukula where the family members were first spotted, Bitukula family boasts of 12 members including 4 sliver backs. Habituation of this group began in 2007 and the group was opened in for tourism in 2008.This was relatively easy group to habituate compared to other groups that take a long time to be habituated.

Rushegula

This group located in the Buhoma part of Bwindi impenetrable park and has 19 members including one silverback. The trekking of this group starts at Buhoma Park head offices. Accommodations are also convenient in Buhoma that provides both Luxury and Budget accommodation. The trekking point is Buhoma in the North-West of the Park.

Mishaya

This family has 10 members including 1 silverback. It originally broke off from Nshongi group and is one of the newest in the park. In 2010, silver back Mishaya decided to leave the Nshongi gorilla group with some females and started his own group. He is a typical fighter and was able to gather more females from other non-habituated groups in the area reaching a total size of 10 members.

Oruzogo

This is one of the recently opened groups for visitor access in Bwindi impenetrable national park This family is situated between Ruhija area and is led by a dominant Silverback “Tibirikwata”. It’s the latest habituated gorilla family and was opened for tourism on in 2011. This increased the great opportunity for more visitors to track the gorillas in Bwindi national park. It’s one of the most popular families with tourists not just because of the size but the playful and energetic juveniles and toddlers in the group.

Kahungye

The size of this group is 13 members with 3 silverbacks which are the only ones named. The dominant Silverback is called Rumansi followed by the other two old male gorillas named Rwigi and Ruhamuka. The group was opened for visitors and gorilla tracking in 2011 but in less than a year the group split, creating the new Busingye Gorilla Family. Before the separation, the family consisted of 27 individuals including 3 silverbacks. Busingye is one of the newest groups in the park found in the Rushaga sector close to the Nshongi and Mishaya gorilla groups.

Kyaguriro

This is another habituated Gorilla Group that is not visited by tourists and has been reserved for research and other studies. Keeping contact with this group, helps conservationists to learn more about the mountain gorillas of Bwindi, including some remarkable differences with the mountain gorillas that live in the Virunga Volcanoes. This group is found near Bitukura and Oruzogo in Ruhija sector on the North-East side of the park.

Mgahinga national park.

Another Ugandan national park where gorilla trekking takes place is Mgahinga national park. Mgahinga national park protects the Ugandan part of the Virunga Mountains and it is the smallest among the Uganda’s national parks. It is a wonderfully scenic national park with panoramic views stretching northwards as far as Bwindi hills and a southern skyline dominated by steep volcanic cones of Virungas, one of the most memorable sights in East Africa.

It is best known by tourists for gorilla tracking. Oddly enough, no gorillas live permanently with in the park, but a fair move freely between Uganda and the neighboring parc des vocans in Rwanda and one habituated troop frequently spend months at a stretch with in Mgahinga. Possibly due to un certainty surrounding the presence of gorillas, mgahinga offers a far broader range of activities than any other of the mountain reserves. Caving, forest walks, and hikes to three volcanic peaks that lie partly with in Uganda

The national parks office in Kisoro always has current information regarding Mgahinga as well as sometimes stocking maps and pamphlets. So anybody who enjoys challenging day hikes or has an interest in natural history could happily spend a week based at mgahinga without ever going gorilla tracking. This coupled with the experienced gorilla expeditions; you can live to remember this safari.

Just like Bwindi impenetrable national park, Mgahinga national park can be accessed either by road or by air. By Road from Kampala to Kisoro it’s about 520kms drive about 8-9 hours. By Air: You can get a charter plane from Entebbe or Kajansi to Kisoro Airstrip from where you can connect to Mgahinga national park. You can also access this park from Rwanda and Congo.

The Park has only one Gorilla Family named Nyakagezi Group. The group is open for tourism but as per now, it is currently not bookable at Uganda Wildlife Authorities as it has a very large range and keeps on crossing from Uganda to Rwanda and Democratic Republic of Congo. It is composed of 9 members with 3 Silverbacks.

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