Sue Watt
United Kingdom UK
Feb 13, 2018 February 13, 2018

Sue is an award-winning writer who specializes in African travel and conservation. She writes for national newspapers, magazines, Rough Guides and Lonely Planet.

Categories: African Wildlife, Conservation, Sue Watt's Responsible Travels

Book a gorilla tracking safari in Bwindi National Park in Uganda and meet gorillas up close. Coming face to face with a mountain gorilla is the ultimate wildlife encounter. Some 880 gorillas roam the rainforests of Uganda, Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of Congo, and they’re found nowhere else on earth.

Around half of the entire population live in Uganda’s Bwindi Impenetrable National Park. Today, it’s easy to plan a trip to see them with the help of tour operators specializing in mountain gorilla tracking safaris. But not so long ago, these precious primates were teetering on the edge of extinction. Tourism has played a major part in protecting them: play your part too by taking a gorilla tracking safari to Uganda.

Twenty five years of conservation success

One of Bwindi’s young gorillas: Photo Credit – Will Whitford One of Bwindi’s young gorillas: Photo Credit – Will Whitford

 

In the mid-1980s, only around 250 mountain gorillas survived in Africa. Through habitat loss and poaching, the species was disappearing fast. Over the years, conservationists have worked tirelessly to protect them and their rainforest habitat. They formed national parks, tightened security against poachers while closely monitoring the primates and developing ‘gorilla tourism.’ Money raised from gorilla tracking permits and fees goes directly towards their conservation and to the local communities, who also benefit through employment in the tourism sector.

Mubare gorilla group in Uganda

In Uganda, the Mubare gorilla group was the first to be habituated to humans back in 1993 when Bwindi Impenetrable National Park was founded. “Today, Bwindi is home to 36 gorilla families, with 12 of them available for tracking by visitors,” says Pontius Ezuma, Conservation Area Manager for the Uganda Wildlife Authority (UWA). And their numbers are going from strength to strength: in the past two years a Bwindi baby boom has been taking place with the birth of 29 little gorillas.

In 2018, Bwindi celebrates 25 years of mountain gorilla tracking, with an official census due to report on their population by the end of the year.

“Tourism has been a key factor in the conservation of mountain gorillas over the past 25 years, allowing visitors to see these incredible animals for themselves and to directly contribute to their survival,” says Adele Cutler from Uganda Tourism UK. “We’re very excited about the census results due in 2018, which is expected to show yet another rise in Uganda’s gorilla population.”

One of Bwindi National Park’s recent babies: Photo Credit - Will Whitford One of Bwindi National Park’s recent babies: Photo Credit - Will Whitford

What is a Bwindi mountain gorilla tracking safari like?

Bwindi is called the Impenetrable Forest for good reason. Dense jungle, dangling vines and tangled undergrowth combine with steep, muddy hillsides to make for a potentially tough hike. Depending on which group you track on your gorilla tracking in Bwindi, it can take anything from one to five hours to reach the mountain gorillas. Permits cost US$600 and it’s well worth hiring a porter from the trailhead for an additional fee of around US$15. They’ll carry your bag and help you negotiate the tricky terrain along the way. In return you’ll be providing work and helping the local economy too.

Tracking Bwindi’s mountain gorillas: Photo Credit – Will Whitford Tracking Bwindi’s mountain gorillas: Photo Credit – Will Whitford

Trackers will already have found your group early in the morning and your guide will take you to them as quickly as possible.

Nothing surpasses that first moment when you suddenly spot the silverback. His immense size and power might initially seem unnerving. But those soulful, gentle eyes soon ease your fears as you find yourself enthralled by the beauty of gorilla family life being played out all around you.

Mountain gorilla tracking safari: Rules and regulations

Close encounter with a mountain gorilla: Photo Credit - Will Whitford Close encounter with a mountain gorilla: Photo Credit - Will Whitford

Mountain gorillas share 98% of human DNA making them very susceptible to our diseases, but they have none of our defence mechanisms to fight them: a common cold could be fatal. Their potential exposure to human illnesses is the downside to gorilla tourism and strict rules are in place to help protect the primates.

These include:

  1. No more than eight tourists can visit each group for one precious hour a day.
  2. Visitors have to keep a distance of at least seven metres from the gorillas.
  3. If they come closer, move away slowly and never reach out to touch them. Always heed your guide’s instructions if they approach you.
  4. Turn away if you need to cough or sneeze.
  5. Don’t eat or drink nor go to the toilet near the gorillas.
  6. Most importantly, don’t track the gorillas at all if you have an infectious illness such as diarrhoea or a cold.

 

Uganda’s new Gorilla Habituation Experience

Collecting samples and data on the Gorilla Habituation Experience: Photo Credit – Will Whitford Collecting samples and data on the Gorilla Habituation Experience: Photo Credit – Will Whitford

Recently, a new Gorilla Habituation Experience has been made available for visitors to Bwindi National Park.
It normally takes around three years to fully habituate a family of gorillas, slowly getting them used to human presence so that they’re eventually ready to see different visitors every day. But this new encounter allows guests to track two semi-habituated groups which, although used to their trackers and rangers, aren’t yet totally used to strangers. The method of habituation is to stay in constant sight of the gorillas and gradually move closer towards that permitted seven metre distance. It helps to be fit: they can move around quickly and so must you.

Four hour trek

Limited to only four visitors, it’s a broader experience, lasting four hours from the time you and the tracker team find their nests. Pontius Ezuma from UWA explains the thinking behind it:
“On a regular gorilla tracking safari, visitors go straight to the gorillas, have their hour with them then leave. We realised that they were missing out on aspects such as gorilla behaviour, how we collect samples and data, what their nests look like and how we find their trail. The Gorilla Habituation Experience shows them all of this.” Costing US$1500 per permit, this encounter is exciting and sometimes edgy. It can be both exhausting and exhilarating, and it offers a deeper, more immersive insight into gorilla behaviour and their crucial conservation.

Mountain gorillas are classed as critically endangered: Photo Credit – Will Whitford Mountain gorillas are classed as critically endangered: Photo Credit – Will Whitford

Want to experience a Bwindi gorilla tracking safari yourself?

For your once-in-a-lifetime gorilla-tracking experience, check out these fascinating Bwindi tours on Safaribookings.com.