We seek profound experiences when we travel, and this in part determines the destinations we choose to visit. Unique wildlife encounters in Africa puts this vast and varied continent firmly at the top of many travellers’ bucket lists, and a life changing encounter with the mountain gorillas sits right up there with a classic African safari or any other iconic wildlife tour experience offered around the world.
Found in only two locations, the mountain gorillas draw travellers to the Bwindi Impenetrable National Park in Uganda and the Virunga mountains, straddling Rwanda, Uganda and the Democratic Republic of Congo. Resident mountain gorilla family groups have, over time, become accustomed to human presence, and tour operators offer travellers the chance to relish this incredible once in a lifetime experience on small groups tours of Uganda and Rwanda.
Great care is taken to respect the space of the mountain gorillas, with visitor numbers capped to just eight per trek and viewing time limited (kept to under an hour per visit). Expert tracking guides and rangers lead you to find the resident families and share tips on the proper behaviours for your encounter.
The duration and difficulty of your trek will depend on where the gorilla families decide to hang out on any given day but come prepared for some bush bashing with a good pair of walking shoes and a reasonable level of fitness. The forest is dense, and your guides will sometimes have to clear a path by machete. You’ll often be parting trees, scrambling over branches, and catching yourself on the slippery forest floor. It is worth donning a pair of gloves to protect your hands as well as wearing long pants and a long sleeved shirt.
You can often hire a local porter to help you over the more challenging terrain and also to carry your daypack – which should be equipped with plenty of water, snacks, a lightweight waterproof jacket, your camera and perhaps a pair of binoculars to spot other wildlife in this stunning ecosystem. Whether you decide to hire a porter or not, you’ll sweat, you’ll huff and puff, but you’ll be duly rewarded.
As you come upon the mountain gorillas in their natural habitat, there is a sense of apprehension and an electric anticipation. People are often surprised by just how close they get – close enough to make out the wrinkles on the leathery skin framing emotive eyes, and to see strong muscles gliding effortlessly beneath a layer of thick fur. Your guide will let you know the right distance to keep.
Sharing roughly 98% of human DNA, there is a familiarity in the way they move, interact, and care for one another. Mothers preen, young ones play, and travellers are mesmerised. A mutual curiosity and respect fills the humid air beneath the forest canopy as the gorillas share their home with you.
The respect and awareness gleaned by tourism plays a part in the extensive conservation efforts here. Dian Fossey first introduced the plight of the mountain gorillas into mainstream awareness in the 1960s, and as more people learn to understand and appreciate the predicament of these critically endangered species, more is being done to protect them.
Travellers are required to purchase a permit to visit the mountain gorillas, all of which is arranged by your tour operator. The cost of these permits contributes to the efforts of the National Parks to provide protection through anti-poaching units and education for local communities around rainforest preservation, among other things.
These efforts go hand in hand with many other conservation endeavours that have cumulatively contributed to the steady increase in the mountain gorilla population. The number of mountain gorillas in the wild is on the rise and has now surpassed 1,000. While this still classifies these incredible creatures as critically endangered, it is certainly a step in the right direction.
The efforts to protect and strengthen the population is ongoing, and along with visiting the mountain gorillas there are also tours that visit the Karisoke Research Center which was founded by Dr. Dian Fossey in 1967. Here visitors will get the chance to meet a resident researcher and learn about their continued endeavours to protect the mountain gorillas, affording future generations (of both species) to share the same incredible experience you have.