After bonobos and chimpanzees, gorillas are our closest living relatives. While these majestic creatures are endangered to critically endangered species, it’s possible to travel to see gorillas in the wild. By going on gorilla safaris and gorilla trekking experiences, you’re supporting conservation efforts and choosing responsible and sustainable tourism. I’m going to show you exactly how to see mountain gorillas in the wild and why it’s important to embark on a gorilla safari in Africa.
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Facts About Mountain Gorillas
There are two species of gorillas: Western gorillas and Eastern gorillas, both living in equatorial Africa. Both species have an upland and lowland subspecies. The two species of Western gorillas are the Cross River gorilla and the Western lowland gorilla. The two species of Eastern gorillas are the Eastern lowland gorilla and the Mountain gorilla. We’re going to focus on the how to see mountain gorillas in the wild in this article.
Mountain gorillas live in mountain forests at a high elevation, between 8,000 and 13,000 feet. While they have thicker fur to survive in harsh climates, habitat destruction and human encroachment have moved the gorillas into more dangerous living conditions. While mountain gorillas are an endangered species, their numbers are slowly growing due to conservation efforts by governments and organizations.
Here are a few interesting facts about gorillas:
- Gorillas share 98.4% of their DNA with humans
- Similar to human fingerprints, gorillas have unique nose prints
- Their average lifespan in the wild is 35 years
- Mountain gorillas stand 4 to 6 feet tall and weigh 300 to 485 pounds
- There are strict sanitation protocols when seeing gorillas in the wild because they can catch illnesses from humans
- Mountain gorilla infants develop twice as quickly as humans
- Gorillas are primarily herbivores, eating up to 40lbs of vegetation a day
Why are Mountain Gorillas Endangered?
There are a number of reasons why mountain gorillas are an endangered species. While their numbers are on the rise, we need to be diligent to ensure that this trend continues. Mountain gorillas are susceptible to numerous threats in the wild.
While gorillas aren’t usually directly targeted by poachers, they can be caught in snares or traps indirectly. Similar to my volunteer trip to help animals in Kenya, poachers will lay down hundreds of wire snares in the hopes of catching any animals for bush meat. We spent lots of time scouring the property to remove wire snares in Kenya. In some situations, infant gorillas are abducted for the zoos or the illegal pet trade, and adult gorillas are killed in the process. Armed guards patrol the regions where mountain gorillas live in the wild to ensure the safety of the animals.
Expanding human settlements are moving into the lands where gorillas live, and mountain gorillas are becoming displaced. Land is also cleared for agriculture and livestock. Even protected lands are at risk; in 2004, illegal settlers cleared 3,700 acres of land in Virunga National Park. We need to expand and protect areas of national parks to ensure the survival of mountain gorillas.
Mountain gorillas can contract human diseases, but it is more severe to the gorilla. They can even die from a human’s common cold. Gorillas that come into contact with domesticated animals and livestock contribute to the transmission of disease. With that said, the gorillas in the wild that are regularly spotted by researchers and tourists have a better chance of survival because they are monitored more frequently. Sick and injured gorillas can receive veterinary care.
War and Unrest
War and civil unrest in Rwanda and the DRC have sent refugees fleeing to the Virunga Mountains. This has led to the further habitat destruction and poaching. Gorillas have also been killed by landmines in parts of the forests. Thankfully, a non-governmental organization called the International Gorilla Conservation Programme (IGCP) works tirelessly to increase the populations of gorillas in Africa. It’s a coalition between international conservation organizations (African Wildlife Foundation, Fauna & Flora International, and the World Wide Fund ) and national/local partners (Rwanda Development Board, the Uganda Wildlife Authority and the Institut Congolais pour la Conservation de la Nature) to ensure the survival of gorillas in the wild.
Best Place to See Mountain Gorillas
There are three countries in the world where you can see mountain gorillas in the wild: Rwanda, Uganda and the Democratic Republic of Congo.
See Gorillas in Rwanda
Rwanda is one of the most popular choices for seeing mountain gorillas in the wild. In fact, Volcanoes National Park is a top choice for gorilla trekking with some of the best viewing opportunities in the world. It’s possible to spot gorillas just a short distance from the boundary of the park. The chance to see gorillas in Rwanda is high, and the surrounding scenery is also pretty spectacular.
Gorilla Trekking in Uganda
Another country with equally as successful sightings for gorillas is Uganda. If you’re looking for where to see gorillas in Africa, you’ll certainly want to consider choosing from several Uganda safaris. Bwindi Impenetrable Forest National Park is one of the best locations for gorilla trekking in Uganda. It’s a bio-diverse region at a lower altitude. You might even spot some of the Bwindi gorillas, considered by some as a separate subspecies of eastern gorilla. Mgahinga National Park is also a fantastic area for mountain gorilla sightings, part of the Virunga Conservation Area.
Gorillas in Democratic Republic of Congo
It’s possible to see three out of the four subspecies of gorillas in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Some of the best sightings of mountain gorillas are at Virunga National Park, although the area is still unsettled for tourism. It might be easier to visit the DRC on a day trip from Uganda. Be sure to check with your tour operator for advice on this changing situation.
Planning for a Gorilla Safari
When you travel to Uganda, Rwanda, or DRC for a gorilla safari, your knowledgeable tour operators will help you plan your trip. There are a few things to know before you embark on your gorilla trekking adventure.
Is it Safe to go Gorilla Trekking?
When you travel with trained guides on a gorilla safari tour, you will not need to worry about your safety around the gorillas. Be sure to follow the rules and guidelines that your guides establish with you. Mountain gorillas are gentle giants, and many gorilla families that are tracked are used to seeing humans.
You must stay at a distance of at least seven meters when you spot gorillas in the wild. Don’t look directly into the eyes of the gorilla, and it’s a good idea to speak only in hushed tones around them. Don’t use a flash when taking pictures of them. And please don’t consume any food or drink around gorillas. And lastly, if a gorilla approaches you, don’t run away. Stay seated or crouched in a non-threatening position.
Human guerrillas are far more threatening than gorillas. In Uganda, both Bwindi National Park and Mgahinga National Park are free of guerrillas. Similarly, Volcanoes National Park in Rwanda is very safe to visit. There aren’t any incidents against tourists in these national parks as these countries have made safety a high priority for visitors. You’ll also travel with armed ranger guards in the front and back of your group. In Uganda, there are tourism police units to patrol the parks by day and night to ensure the safety of travelers. They even camp deep in the jungle to make sure there aren’t any criminals lurking around.
Unfortunately, it isn’t quite as safe to travel to the Democratic Republic of Congo. While Virunga National Park is a well managed park, it was closed in 2018 due to incidents where tourists were kidnapped and park rangers were killed. While it is a high risk zone, Virunga National Park has reopened in 2019. It is possible to visit with a recommended tour operator.
What to Pack for Gorilla Trekking
I’ve written a thorough packing list for an African safari, although there are a few key differences in gorilla trekking. First, this experience is far more active than a game drive oriented trip. Rather than sitting all day in a jeep, you’ll be venturing through the forest on foot.
When seeing mountain gorillas in the wild, your choice of footwear is more important than a typical safari trip. You’ll want to choose the best pair of waterproof hiking boots to withstand the changing weather conditions of the jungle. Dressing in natural shades of tan, brown, gray, and green is even more important to blend in with your surroundings. However, don’t wear camouflage as it’s illegal to do so in many countries. Wear long-sleeved shirts and long pants to protect yourself from bugs and plants.
There are a few key items that you’ll want to bring along for the trek:
- Trekking poles to help with balance and stability through a variety of terrain
- Water bottle to stay hydrated on your journey
- Snacks like granola bars, trail mix, and energy bars
- A waterproof rain jacket with a hood
- Hiking gaiters to keep dust, pebbles, and sand out of your boots
- Garden gloves to protect your hands during the trek
- High quality binoculars to observe the gorillas from afar
- DSLR camera with a long lens to take amazing photos of the gorillas in the wild
When to Go on a Gorilla Safari
You can go gorilla trekking in Rwanda, Uganda, and DR Congo all year long. It is more popular to view mountain gorillas in the wild during the dry season. But, there are some advantages to going in the rainy season. There will be fewer tourists, and it will be easier to get permits.
You’ll have the best weather during the dry seasons: mid-December to early February and June to September. June, July, and August are great times to go gorilla trekking because you can also combine this trip with a safari in Tanzania to see the wildebeest migration. September and October are popular choices to combine a gorilla safari trip with climbing Mount Kilimanjaro in Tanzania.
March, April, May, and November are rainy months, although the price of permits may be lowered in Uganda and the Democratic Republic of Congo. While it will be easier to get permits and there will be less tourists around, the conditions might be more difficult to manage in the rain. Even though it will rain daily, it won’t rain all day long. There will also be moments of sunshine. Gorilla trekking in Rwanda, Uganda, and DRC is rarely canceled due to poor weather conditions.
The Importance of Seeing Gorillas in the Wild
By choosing to see mountain gorillas in the wild, you’re putting tourism dollars back into conservation efforts to save the species. The money you contribute towards permits and gorilla trekking experiences goes back into the local economy, the preservation of habitats, and research projects. Supporting ecotourism means that locals are employed and won’t need to resort to poaching in order to survive. Additional funds means securing protected land that the gorillas can call home. It also means that local organizations can fund conservation programs in schools to teach children and secondary school students about the importance of helping save gorillas in the wild.