What is a mountain gorilla?
A mountain gorilla is one of the two subspecies of the eastern gorilla- gorilla beringei. Mountain gorillas are listed among the endangered species with an estimated 1004 individuals in two populations as of 2018 census. One population lives in Uganda’s Bwindi impenetrable national park and the other in the Virunga mountains- in three adjacent national parks- Mgahinga gorilla national park, Rwanda’s volcanoes national park and Virunga national park in Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC).
Mountain gorillas display uncanny human characteristics. The close-knit family groups are headed by a mature male Silverback- who selects places for groups to eat and sleep, and has many privileges including the right to feed first.
Mountain gorillas are gentle species, highly intelligent, and communicate using a variety of vocal sounds. They live, walk, feed and do their daily activities in groups.
Did you know these facts about mountain gorillas?
Scientific name: Gorilla beringei
Weight: 135 to 220 kg
Size: 1-2 meters tall (4- 6 feet)
Life span: Generally unknown but data shows up to 40- 50 years
Diet: Generally Herbivorous
Gestation: About 8.5 months
Habitat: Dense forest, rain forest, bamboo forest
Predators: Predominately humans, occasionally leopards
How do mountain gorillas look like or behave?
Mountain gorillas have muscular arms, a massive chest and broad hands and feet.
The gorillas have longer hair and shorter arms that their low land cousins. Their thick black hair helps insulate them from cold weather.
Behaviorally, they are highly social, live in relatively stable cohesive groups and hold together by long-term bonds between adult males and females.
Do you know why mountain gorillas form groups?
For the longest time, gorillas have been seen to move, live and form groups. Another name for a gorilla group is a ‘troop’ which averagely consists of 10-15 members or more. Each gorilla group/ family is headed by a silverback- a mature male gorilla whose role is to defend the troop at any cost. Among many reasons, gorillas form groups/ families for pro-creation purposes. This can be explained by the great ratio of females to males in a troop.
For the longest time, the mature silverback has been responsible for the protection of the other gorillas in a family. The need to protect the weak ones could also account for gorillas moving in groups.
Living in groups helps youth male gorillas to learn skills needed to be successful leaders after the death of the mature silverback. This is through observing the leadership of the silverback.
How do mountain gorillas sleep?
Gorillas sleep for an average of about 12 hours each night. Gorillas like humans sleep during the night in what is called a ‘nest’ every day. A nest is like a ‘sleeping bag’ though fashioned from herbs, trees, and twigs that are bent to form a cushion of vegetation. During nesting, gorillas use different such as leaves, parts of bushes and branches to form layers of bedding into a circular nest. Nesting (the process of making nests) takes around 5 minutes.
Mountain gorillas make their nests either on the ground or in trees. The young gorillas nest with their mothers and do not construct nests until they are three years old, in close proximity to their mothers. However, it is important to remember that most tree nests are designed to accommodate light gorilla weight thus are common for young gorillas and females because of their relative light weight.
Nests are important to gorillas for day and night use. Day nests are usually made by infants who are close to the age of having their own nests. Day nests serve as resting places for gorillas during while night nests are used as a shelter during the night. Similarly, gorilla nesting helps researchers to determine the size of a gorilla group and overall population of gorillas in the national park. It should also be noted that Gorillas construct new nests every evening and at a close range of the old ones. This helps the rangers, trekkers and researchers to detect their daily location for the smooth running of gorilla safaris in Africa.
Where do you find mountain gorillas in Uganda?
Uganda’s mountain gorillas are found in Bwindi impenetrable national park and Mgahinga national park. Bwindi lies in south western Uganda and is part of Bwindi impenetrable forest. The park contains over 500 mountain gorillas roughly half of the world’s total population with 18 habituated mountain gorilla groups/ families available for gorilla trekking experience in Uganda. Habituated groups are those which have been adapted to human presence and have been declared ready for trekking. Below is the list of habituated groups in Bwindi impenetrable national park.
Gorilla Groups in Bwindi Impenetrable National Park
Bwindi’s habituated groups are named after places the gorillas have first sighted or the silver back that might have led to the breakaway of the initial gorilla group. These include;
- Mubare gorilla family
- Habinyanja gorilla group
- Rushegura gorilla family
- Bitukura gorilla group
- Oruzogo gorilla group
- Nkuringo gorilla family
- Mishaya gorilla group
- Kahungye gorilla group
- Bweza gorilla family
- Busingye gorilla family
- Nsongi gorilla group
- Bikyingi gorilla group
- Rwigi gorilla group
- Katwe gorilla family
- Mucunguzi gorilla group
- Bushaho gorilla family
- Mukiza gorilla family
- Kyaguriro gorilla family for research
There are four main trailheads (sectors) a visitor can use to track the above gorilla families.
Gorilla trekking sectors in Bwindi National Park
Bwindi impenetrable national park is credited for its four main tracking areas where treks always start in the park. Each sector is different altitude, accessibility and hiking experience. Gorilla trekking sectors come with distinct terrains and hence varying experiences. Here are the four major gorilla sectors in Bwindi impenetrable national park;
- Buhoma sector
This is situated in the northern side of Bwindi impenetrable national park. It is one of the most famous trailheads in Uganda with mainly three habituated groups. These include Mubare- the oldest and most famous of all groups in the Buhoma area, Habinyanja and Rushengura gorilla family.
- Ruhija sector
Located in the eastern side of Bwindi impenetrable national park, Ruhija has three main gorilla families. These include Bitukura, Oruzogo, Katwe and Kyaguriro which is mainly for research.
- Rushaga sector
This is the largest and most famous found in the southern part of Bwindi impenetrable national park. The sector features a number of habituated families and the only one in the region where gorilla habituation is conducted in Bushaho and Bikingi families. Other gorilla groups include Nshongi, Mishaya, Kahungye, Busingye, Bweza and Rwigi Gorilla families.
- Nkuringo sector
This area lies in the southern side of Bwindi impenetrable national park. The region has one habituated group Nkuringo and rewards trekkers with magical gorilla tracking adventures.
Mgahinga gorilla national park is another place in Uganda where you can find mountain gorillas. The national park is located along the border region of Uganda, Rwanda and Democratic Republic of Congo. Mgahinga gorilla national park is home to about 80 mountain gorillas with one habituated group- Nyakagezi which can be trekked. Its also alleged that one or Rwanda’ Gorilla group Hirwa from Volcanoes National park visited Mgahinga National Park and still on the visit there.
What is required of you to track mountain gorillas in Uganda?
All visitors interested in trekking gorillas are expected to purchase gorilla permits from Uganda Wildlife Authority or Get in touch with a tour operator to help you process one. Gorilla permit allowing you to track one gorilla group costs $600 currently and is a pre-requisite. The price will raise starting from 1st July 2020 to US$700 per Uganda Gorilla trekking permit. These work hand in hand with following the rules and regulations of gorilla trekking.
What regulations govern mountain gorilla trekking in Uganda?
Before you trek the mountain gorillas
Rule: Trekkers must be 15 years and above if they are to be allowed to track gorillas.
Reason: This is to prevent the spread of diseases especially chicken pox and mumps from gorillas to humans and vice versa.
Rule: Visitors are allowed to spend one hour with a gorilla group except during gorilla habituation which may last for three hours.
Reason: This reduces the risks of disease transmission between humans and gorillas or vice versa.
Rule: Trackers should not exceed a maximum of eight members per gorilla group.
Reason: This minimizes behaviour disturbances with the gorillas are they move freely in their habitat.
Rule: Wash your hands before you go for gorilla tracking.
Reason: This is to reduce the spread of infections and diseases to the gorillas.
Rule: Do not visit gorillas if you have a cold or any infectious illness.
Reason: Gorillas can easily acquire colds and any other related human diseases.
Rule: In cases where you need to have a long call, human waste should be buried 30cm deep.
Reason: This is to reduce the risk of spread of germs and diseases that come along with poor disposal of human waste.
Rule: Trackers are advised to carry a lot of water on this safari.
Reason: Gorillas like other wild animals move from place to place hence tracking them requires trekkers to be fresh and clear of mind. Drinking water refreshes trekkers as they move on the adventure to trek mountain gorillas.
When you are with the mountain gorillas?
Rule: Maintain a 7m (21ft) distance from the gorillas.
Reason: Gorillas are wild animals and may charge at any time, thus your safety is important.
Rule: Avoid unnecessary movements when near gorillas. In other words, stay tight together as a group.
Reason: Unnecessary movements make the gorillas feel less free, uneasy and insecure to do their activities.
Rule: Flash light photography is strictly not allowed.
Reason: This may threaten the gorillas or make them unruly and aggressive which may put your life at risk of being attacked by the gorillas.
Rule: Do not look directly into the eyes of the mountain gorillas.
Reason: looking directly into the eyes of the gorillas shows that you are ready for a challenge hence may cause them to charge and fight you.
Rule: When gorillas charge or beat their chests, do not attempt to run. Follow the instructions of the guide.
Reason: Running might increase the risk of the gorilla getting aggressive, thus it’s advisable to follow the instructions of the guide.
Rule: Always keep your voice as quite as possible. Do not scream or run when attacked by an insect.
Reason: Keeping your voice low prevents behavioural changes of the gorillas.
Rule: Cover your face or turn away from the gorillas if you must sneeze or cough.
Reason: This is done to prevent easy transmission of diseases since gorillas share almost 95% DNA with human beings.
Rule: Smoking, eating, and drinking are not permitted on the safari.
Reason: Eating or drinking increases the risk of food, drinks and droplets falling on the ground which could increase the risk of transmission of diseases.
Rule: Observe your body language when with the gorillas especially pointing fingers.
Reason: Some body language especially pointing fingers can make the gorillas more aggressive.
Rule: Do not litter the rubbish while in the park with dangerous items such as canisters, hand kerchiefs and small items. They should be wiped out.
Reason: The littered items may choke or even poison the gorillas.
Rule: Trekkers should not clear the vegetation close to the gorillas so that they get a better view of the gorillas.
Reason: Clearing the vegetation destroys the habitat of the gorillas putting them at the risk of moving to places rich with forest cover.
After you have tracked the mountain gorillas
Rule: After tracking a gorilla group, you are advised to maintain a low voice as you walk back until you are 200 meters away from the gorillas.
Reason: Keeping your voice low prevents behavioural changes of the gorillas.
Why should you track mountain gorillas in Uganda?
The fact that you will see half or more of the world’s remaining- rare mountain gorilla population is one of the major reasons why you should trek these primates in Bwindi impenetrable national park or Mgahinga gorilla national park. Mountain gorillas are rare species found only in Uganda, Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of Congo. This means one stands a chance of being in proximity with these primates and learns about their life while on a magical mountain gorilla safari.
The once in a lifetime experience one gain when he/she takes on the adventure of trekking mountain gorillas in very rewarding. The experiences learnt about gorillas such as feeding, copulating, nesting among others all make your mountain gorilla safari memorable.
You are guaranteed a 99% chance of seeing mountain gorillas when you do mountain gorilla trekking in Uganda. This is because Uganda alone has half the world population of mountain gorillas not to mention habituated mountain gorilla families compared to other countries. You wouldn’t want to miss this spell-binding encounter with the gentle giants.
It is cheaper to track mountain gorillas in Uganda where a gorilla permit costs $600 compared to Rwanda where a gorilla permit costs $1500.
While you trek mountain gorillas, it is inevitable for you not to see the unique vegetation in the parks. From the impenetrable forest of Bwindi, you will get to appreciate the beautiful bamboo trees alongside tall ever green trees in Mgahinga gorilla national park.
Visitors who track mountain gorillas in Uganda are rewarded with an opportunity to see other wild animals and birds which they may view along with with the trekking sectors. These may include Forest elephants, leopards, golden monkeys in Mgahinga and a variety of bird species including the regal sun bird, blue-headed sun bird, Rwenzori Batis, Rwenzori Turaco, Kivu ground thrush, Red-headed blue bill and many others.
When you track mountain gorillas, you at the same time minimize community destruction of the habitat. This is because you provide the locals with alternative means to make a living other than poaching. You can support the community through cultural tours of the locals living around the park, hiring porters among others.
In conclusion, I would recommend mountain gorilla safari in Uganda or Rwanda because of it’s a once in a life time adventure.