‘The gorilla is one of the most maligned animals in the world. After more than 2,000 hours of direct observation I can account for less than five minutes of what might be called “aggressive” behavior’. Dian Fossey
Gorillas occur only in Africa. The species Gorilla gorilla is subdivided into three recognized sub species: the western lowland gorilla, which occurs in several countries in West Africa; the eastern lowland gorilla, which inhabits remnant forest areas along the eastern border of Zaire; and the mountain gorilla which occurs only in two separated and extremely small populations on and near the Ugandan, Zairean and Rwandan borders. All three are endangered.
Mountain gorillas are mainly terrestrial and quadrupedal; they walk on the soles of their hind limbs but pivot on the knuckles of their forelimbs. Gorillas are predominantly herbivorous, feeding mainly on the leaves, stems and roots of specific plants. Groups are strongly bonded; the same individuals typically travel together for years at a time. Groups are led by an adult male or ‘silverback’. All males, once they are they mature, become silverbacks, developing very distinct characteristics, including an impressive silver saddle extending across their back from shoulders to rump. However not all silverbacks are successful enough to ultimately gain leadership of a group. The size of a gorilla group varies from two to as many as 35 individuals. Average group size is about nine. In addition to a dominant silverback and occasionally one or two subordinates, the group consists of several adult females, sub adults, juveniles and infants.
Group daily activity patterns follow a relatively simple routine. Awaking in their night nests after daybreak, gorillas begin foraging and continue to feed slowly and selectively until a mid-morning rest period, during which individuals sleep, groom each other and, if younger, play. The rest period may last more than an hour, after which feeding once more begins. An afternoon rest period follows several additional hours of feeding. The group wraps up the day with another feeding bout, and just before dusk, each gorilla begins constructing a nest in which it will sleep throughout the night. Infants sleep with their mothers.
Gorilla tourism in Uganda: Ugandan gorilla tourism first began in late 1993 and is, therefore, relatively in its infancy in comparison to Rwanda and Zaire, where gorilla-tracking programmes have been operational for almost 15 years.
The gorilla tourism programme in Uganda: The Ugandan gorilla-tracking programme has been specifically designed to compliment the pattern of their daily activity. Beginning in the early morning, tourists hike to that point in the forest where a gorilla group was contacted the day before. Following a trail through dense forest and over rough terrain, the previous night’s nests are discovered and a fresh trail is pursued. Typically, the trackers will find the gorilla group during the mid-morning or early afternoon rest period and will be able to observe a wide variety of gorilla social interactions and behaviors. The group stays only for one hour with the gorilla group; the gorillas are then left to pursue their continuous nomadic lifestyle within their established home range, w3hich averages 10-15 square kilometres.
The procedure: The gorilla-viewing opportunities in both Bwindi and Mgahinga are extremely well regulated. Demand for permits is high and must be sought well in advance.
Tourists are monitored at park headquarters for signs of even minor illness, against which the gorillas have no immunity and are extremely susceptible. Before entering the forest, tourists are briefed by their guides as to ‘gorilla etiquette’ and the do’s and don’ts of tracking. The actual hike to find the gorillas can be strenuous (and take 2-3 hours), since both parks are located at high altitude and the terrain is rough.
Where to track gorillas in Uganda: Mountain gorillas inhabit and are protected in two of Uganda’s newest national parks: the Bwindi Impenetrable National Park and the Mghinga Gorilla National Park, located on the northern slopes of two of the Virunga volcanoes adjacent to Volcano National Park in Rwanda and Virunga National Park in Zaire.