Gorilla tracking in Uganda

Gorilla tracking in Uganda


THE GREATEST APE

Of all of Sir David Attenborough’s encounters with wild animals, it is his meeting with the mountain gorillas that made the biggest impression on his fans – and seemingly on Attenborough, too. Gorillas are one of our closest relatives, sharing almost all of our DNA, and their social structures, behaviours and even small gestures are so similar to our own, that spending time in their presence is an uncanny experience.
While lowland gorillas have, sadly, been kept in zoos and wildlife parks, mountain gorillas do not survive in captivity, so heading to the thickly forested – and yes, often misty – mountains along the Uganda-Congo-Rwanda border is the only way to view these animals. Throughout the 20th century their numbers dropped alarmingly due to habit loss and hunting, but thanks to impressive conservation measures including the gazetting of national parks and tightly regulated tourism, it is estimated that there are now around 880 mountain gorillas in the wild* – with close to half of these inhabiting Uganda’s Bwindi Impenetrable National Park, and the rest in the nearby Virunga Mountain range.

*Source: WWF

How to see gorillas


In Uganda, all gorilla permits are issued by the Uganda Wildlife Authority (UWA), which manages the national parks. There are 11 habituated gorilla families in Bwindi (out of around 36 families), and a maximum of eight permits are issued to track each habituated family per day. Another habituated gorilla family lives in Mgahinga Gorilla National Park, in the far southwest, but they often migrate over the border into neighbouring DR Congo; when this happens they cannot be tracked.
When booking a Uganda holiday, your tour company will secure the permits for you; some travellers like to book two permits on consecutive days to make the most of the experience. Do be sure to book your holiday well in advance, especially during the peak summer months, to ensure that there are still permits available. With just 88 issued per day, they sell out fast!

The habituated families vary in size from seven to 36 members, with typically around 12-18 members per group. Most groups also include at least one huge silverback.

What does gorilla tracking involve?


Tracking gorillas in Uganda takes you deep into Bwindi Impenetrable National Park, along the densely forested mountain slopes. You’ll likely be walking through the slippery terrain, up and downhill, for around 2-6 hours in total. When you encounter the gorillas you’ll spend up to an hour in their presence – watching them interact, play, forage, relax – and quite possibly gaze at the strange group of humans who has walked all this way to find them.
You’ll need to stay at least 7m away from the gorillas to avoid disease transmission; even a common cold can be dangerous for a gorilla. For this reason, it is not permitted to track gorillas if you are ill, nor is eating or drinking allowed.

Of course, there will be fantastic opportunities for taking photos of the gorillas – but do remember that this is, probably, a once in a lifetime experience – so put the camera down and ensure you spend time enjoying the incredible feeling of being close to mountain gorillas, in their home.

Read more tips in our guide to responsible gorilla tracking.
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What should I bring?


Jackson Araali, from our supplier Primate World Safaris: "This is a natural forest and there are so many bugs and crawling insects – so you should always wear long pants and shirts. Bring very comfortable walking shoes because this is a tropical forest so most of the time the floor is wet and slippery. Walking shoes should be comfortable and not very heavy because you will be climbing up and down the mountain.”
Paul Callcutt at our leading supplier of gorilla trekking holidays, Natural World Safaris: “Boots with a high ankle support are important, as this can be the difference between a rolled ankle or not, as this is a trekking experience. I have seen socks and sandals on a trek. I don’t get that really. And SLR cameras are the best for these trips although a lot of people don’t want to carry it. I wouldn’t obsess with long zoom lenses because you are going to be so close to them. Some people turn up with a 200-300 mm zoom on an SLR and then find out that they can’t get far enough away to take photographs. If I had to choose between a mid-zoom, a 24-70 or a 70-300, I would take the 24-70.”
Photo credits: [Top box with quote: Pia Waugh] [How to see gorillas - Mgahinga: Ludovic Hirlimann] [What does gorilla tracking involve: Martijn.Munneke] [Jackson Araali quote: Jocelyn Saurini]
Written by Vicki Brown
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