A Guide’s Advice on Tracking Mountain Gorillas

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Since the mountain gorilla subspecies was discovered in 1902, these animals have lost habitat to an encroaching human population, and they have suffered from local wars, poaching and disease. About half of all mountain gorillas live in Africa’s Virunga Mountains, which border the Democratic Republic of Congo, Rwanda and Uganda, and the rest live in the Bwindi Impenetrable National Park in Uganda. By 1989, strife in Africa reduced the mountain gorilla population to about 620 animals.

However, conservation efforts in recent years have increased the population to about 786 mountain gorillas. These days, high-quality tour operators such as Journeys International lead gorilla-tracking trips that endeavor to limit the impact on the animals and preserve their habitat.

We asked Journeys International guide Paul Tamwenya to share insider tips for people who are interested in gorilla tracking. Before you book your trip or pack your bag, be sure to check out Paul’s words of wisdom.

Is there a best time of year to view the gorillas?

Gorillas can be visited year round. However, the more favorable times are late August to early November, December to early March and June through July.DSC_0248

How far do you trek to see mountain gorillas, and how far do you walk each day?

Mountain gorillas live in groups at different altitudes. Trekking to see them at times takes 40 minutes and at times a whole day. Come prepared. It all depends on the luck of the day.

What type of temperatures are you hiking in?

The temperatures where gorillas live range between 7 and 18 degrees Celsius (44 and 64 degrees Fahrenheit).

How challenging is the terrain, and how tough is the hiking?

The toughness depends on the gorilla family you are tracking. Some live at the edges of the forest, others in the interior and some at the top. Tracking takes place at altitudes of 2,600 meters (8,530 feet) or more in Uganda—this means that moderate to average physical fitness is necessary and not athletic fitness. Trekking and tracking are conducted at a moderate pace with plenty of stops for resting, fielding questions, etc. Competitive hiking is discouraged as the aim of the guides, porters and rangers is for all the group members to make it to the gorillas and back to the base. Believe it or not, the slowest hiker will determine the pace of the trek.

Do most people hire a porter, or do porters primarily serve people with physical challenges or limited mobility?gorilla GUIDE

We always advise our clients to hire porters as it is among the ways of supporting the local communities. Even if you are able, at times the going can be tough, and the porters will give a push and pull.

What are some important pieces of gear and clothing to bring on a gorilla trek?

  • Gloves
  • A warm jacket
  • Thick trousers and a long-sleeved top
  • Rain coat
  • A pair of binoculars if you are a keen bird watcher
  • If you prefer wearing a hat, a baseball cap is recommended

What type of footwear should people wear during a trek?

Hiking boots—ankle-level boots are OK, but make sure they’re hardy.

What are some keys to getting good pictures of mountain gorillas?

Do not use flash photography, and carry a waterproof container for the camera. Also, video filming is allowed in the park, though not outside the park.DSC_0286

If a person wants to do an additional activity or visit another nearby area before or after their trek, what would you recommend?

We have different activities in different tracking areas like visiting the pygmies, doing a waterfall hike, afternoon birding, community walks, cultural visits to the communities around the park and so on which can be tailor-made with your guide.

What is the best way for a traveler to support efforts to protect the mountain gorillas and their habitat?

Buying the gorilla permits itself is a big support to the conservation efforts. That is why it costs $600 in Uganda and $750 in Rwanda, and part of that goes directly to conservation. However, if you want to do it directly, we have NGOs like the International Gorilla Conservation Programme and Gorilla Doctors, which render a big hand in conserving these gentle giants.

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Are there any other insider tips you can share that will improve a person’s experience during a gorilla trek?

When you encounter gorillas:

  • Always remember to be submissive.
  • Do not look at them straight in the face, but rather give a sideways glance.
  • Do not stand over them. Instead, crouch and stay in a tight group.
  • Speak in whispers.

Remember that gorillas are wild…

Most visitors might be tempted to think that the gorillas are tame. On the contrary, gorillas are wild and they should not be provoked in any way. The ORTPN, or the Uganda wildlife authority, does not take any responsibility for any injury sustained by wild animals in their habitats. So, keep your distance about 7 meters (23 feet) from them, and bear in mind that gorillas have freedom of way.

  • Do not feed the gorillas.
  • Do not entice them to get into contact with you in any way.
  • Do not eat in the vicinity of the gorillas.

Have questions about gorilla tracking? Click here to read an FAQ on the Journeys International website, or call 800-255-8735, or send an email to [email protected]

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