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Destination Spotlight: An Inside Look at Mountain Gorilla Trekking

"All I remember was being breathless. It was so magical,” recalls Pelin Karaca, Holbrook’s Vice President of Product Development, about her first encounter with the mountain gorillas. “I was together with a group of eight of us. All of a sudden, I hear this rustle from the trees and bushes around me, and there comes the silverback. Before I knew it, I came face-to-face. Unlike a lot of trips where memories get faded, I can very vividly remember exactly what was happening and relive that moment in my mind.”

For anyone who’s seen mountain gorillas in the wild, it is one of life’s most mesmerizing and memorable experiences. But how do you plan for this trip of a lifetime? Sometimes, information online can be inaccurate or biased toward the perspective of one host country or another. To learn more, we consulted a gorilla expert, Dr. Mike Cranfield of Gorilla Doctors, and Holbrook’s VP of Product Development, Pelin Karaca. For a travel planner or group leader considering a trip, it’s important to understand the background on gorillas, the trekking experience, and the benefits of different locations.

Gorilla-by-Pelin-Karaca

Where to see mountain gorillas in the wild

The endangered mountain gorilla only lives in a chain of volcanoes stretching 174 square miles across Rwanda, Uganda, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). To view them, you must have a special permit and must visit one of the parks that straddle the three countries: Volcanoes National Park in Rwanda, Bwindi Impenetrable Forest or Mgahinga National Park in Uganda, or Virungas National Park in the DRC. Each country offers a different experience, so it’s important to know about each (see comparison below).

About our closest relatives

As you would expect, mountain gorillas live high in mountain forests, at elevations of 8,000 to 13,000 feet. Their fur is thick to allow them to survive in a habitat where temperatures regularly fall below freezing. Although they walk on all fours and are double the size of humans, they share about 98% of our DNA. Consequently, one of the biggest threats they face, besides poaching, is their susceptibility to human disease.

“There is something about them, perhaps because we are so closely related, that when you are with them, there is this recognition, this curiosity in their eyes and in their behaviors,” recalls Karaca. “They are extremely aware of you being there together with them. They allow you that moment. They pose for you. Their babies are extremely curious.”

Full-grown silverback males weigh on average 300 to 400 pounds. Surprisingly, they primarily eat leaves, stems, and other plant material. Due to this diet, they spend half of their time foraging for food in the lush, green forests found in the mountains.

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How safe is it?

Visiting gorillas in the wild is extremely safe due to a rigid process of habituating them to humans. Before outsiders can visit, wildlife authorities require an extensive period of gradual encounters, first with trained trackers, then medical professionals, starting from a distance and gradually moving closer. By the time visitors are allowed to visit, the gorillas are completely comfortable being around humans. Plus, rules require only one visit per day for one hour, with a maximum group size of 10. Every group is led by experienced trackers.

“There is a seven-foot rule that you are not supposed to get closer, but they are extremely curious and they like to come close to you. That’s one reason why you are required to leave your backpack when you arrive to their setting and only bring a camera so not to distract them,” Karaca says.

“The silverback, the alpha of the troop, is certainly keeping an eye on you, because regardless of how habituated they are, they are very aware of what goes on. You are not only observing, you are interacting.”

A conservation success story

Mountain gorillas were once expected to be extinct by now. Several decades ago, the outlook was bleak, but that has turned around due to conservation efforts. Despite poaching and infringing human developments, mountain gorillas have increased in numbers. Today the number of mountain gorillas in the wild exceeds 1,000.

“We are extremely encouraged by the recent growth rates,” says Dr. Mike Cranfield of Gorilla Doctors. This can be attributed to the fact that habituated gorillas benefited from “extreme conservation” practices such as veterinary care. In fact, the work of Gorilla Doctors may be responsible for up to 40% of the difference between the growth rates of the two subpopulations. Mountain gorillas have a fighting chance for survival if we continue to work to address conservation challenges.

Gorilla Doctors has been working with inbound travel organizations that can help with raising both funds and awareness, plus it is a reciprocal experience. Says Cranfield: “Our field doctors provide informative talks and can accompany a group into the field. This can enhance the experience because they know all the personalities of the troop and administer a seven-step health assessment.”

Cranfield adds: “I’ve never known anyone to be disappointed from visiting the gorillas and most have a life-changing experience.”

Trekking gorillas in Rwanda

Gorillas in Rwanda are the easiest to see, as they live in Volcanoes National Park, only a three-hour drive from the capital of Kigali in the northwest of the country. Rwanda is where famed primatologist Dian Fossey’s work continued after the civil war in the DRC forced her to move. As a result, the oldest habituated gorillas live here in 12 troops.  

Rwanda recently doubled the cost of gorilla trekking permits, which are now twice the cost of Uganda’s and almost four times the cost in the DRC. Rwanda therefore has more high-end resorts, meaning a gorilla safari in Rwanda can be one of the most expensive experiences. The actual trekking is also easier, with several entrances to the park and less hiking required. Rwanda is safe and clean, ranking low on indices of bribery and corruption. The prices are higher, but they come with higher overall standards and a better infrastructure.

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Chimpanzee in Uganda

Trekking gorillas in Uganda

Gorilla trekking in Uganda takes place mostly in Bwindi Impenetrable Forest. Bwindi has 400 mountain gorillas with 10 social groups habituated to humans. Mgahinga National Park only has one habituated gorilla family, so the preferred location is Bwindi. Gorilla trekking permits in Uganda are $600 each, far less than in Rwanda ($1,500 per permit). However, the gorillas are farther and harder to reach in Uganda than in Rwanda.

“One of the reasons I love Uganda is that Uganda is not only for gorillas,” says Karaca. “Uganda has so many more things to do. It lives up to the name ‘Pearl of Africa.’ The country is so rich with natural resources. You can do a full safari and see the Big Five, plus the scenery is amazing. And you can add a chimpanzee trek. Uganda is a more complete experience.”

Trekking gorillas in the DRC

Due to recent kidnappings and other safety concerns, the DRC is not a viable option at the moment.

Comparing countries

Comparing gorilla trekking, one of the main factors for many is the cost of the permit. Plus it is advisable to get two permits to increase your chances of seeing the gorillas. For a line-by-line comparison, the following chart summarizes.

  Rwanda Uganda DRC
Gorilla trekking permit cost $1,500 $600 $400
Closest international airport to access gorillas Kigali Entebbe Kigali
Parks to see the gorillas Volcanoes National Park Bwindi Impenetrable Forest, Mgahinga National Park Virungas National Park
Park distance from international airport 3 hours Domestic flight required to the south of the country 3 hour drive to Goma then cross into the DRC
Number of habituated gorilla families 12 11 6
Other experiences besides gorilla trekking Limited Numerous, including safaris Limited
Level and range of accommodations High Medium-High Low
Safety High Medium-High; Uganda's national parks are very safe Low and unstable; ranger killings and tourist kidnappings

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Conclusion

If you are on another safari and have limited time (i.e. only a few days), Rwanda is likely the most feasible option. The cost of permits is over twice as high, but flight connections to Kigali are better, the park is closer, and it is all on paved roads, so it is easier to get to. But for someone who has more time and wants a more diverse experience, Uganda is the best choice.

Although anyone who can hike a reasonable distance can do a trek, you should be in fairly good shape and should start preparing a year in advance with lots of walking, including on inclines or stairs. For those who need it, we have a porter to carry your belongings and give you a hand. For those who have the means and ability, it can be a profound experience.

“I had tears in my eyes. I wasn’t the only one. I just remember the jubilation that we felt in the group afterwards. We felt part of a club, and when we came back we would call each other and relive that moment,” recalls Karaca.