Of the few thousand Mountain Gorillas that remain on earth, over half of them live in Uganda: five troops in Bwindi Impenetrable National Park (331 sq km); and one troop in Mghinga National Park (33 sq km). And, so heavily protected are they, that only thirty tourists per day are allowed into their domain (many of whom book their ‘gorilla viewing permit’ years in advance). Which makes the shy and gentle Mountain Gorillas, Uganda’s most famous tourist attraction.
Traditionally feared by mankind, and hopelessly miscast as ‘King Kong’ in the 1930s movie, the Mountain Gorilla (Gorilla gorilla beringei) is one of the gentlest creatures on earth; it will not attack unless its survival is threatened; and its only predator is man, with whom it shares 95% of his genes.
Earth’s largest living primate, weighing over 400 pounds and reaching six feet in height, the gorilla is a reclusive herbivore, which spends most of its day foraging for leaves, shoots and berries. Roaming over a range of up to 40 sq km, gorilla troops build makeshift camps out of leaves and branches where they spend the night, females and young often sleeping in tree platforms above ground while the males act as sentries below. Led by a dominant male, known as a silverback, (so called because the hair across the male gorilla’s back turns sliver with age) a typical gorilla troop will comprise two or three subdominant males, three mature females; and assorted offspring. Ruthlessly hunted and snared by poachers in the past, today’s gorillas remain supremely wary of the approach of humans; which makes them difficult to track. Those that have visited them, however, say that to look into their gently amiable brown eyes is one of life’s most poignant moments.
Visiting the gorillas
Gorillas in the Mist: Gorilla-tracking first sprang to world prominence thanks to the famous 1988 film ‘Gorillas in the Mist’. The film, which was directed by Michael Apted, followed the life and work of American zoologist, Dian Fossey (played in the film by Sigourney Weaver), who spent 23 years studying the behavior of the critically endangered Mountain Gorillas of Uganda, Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of Congo. Almost solely responsible for drawing the attention of the world to the plight of the threatened gorillas, and saving them from certain extinction, Dian was tragically murdered in 1985 at her gorilla camp in Rwanda. As a result of Dian’s work, the Mountain Gorillas now enjoy protected status in all the national parks of the region; and the chance of seeing them is one of the most sought-after tourist events in the world.
A limited, well-regulated, expensive and relatively non-intrusive natural history tourist activity, gorilla-visiting is Uganda’s fastest-growing tourism opportunity. Its primary objective, however, is to protect the gorillas; the tourist experience being of secondary importance. By promoting gorilla-viewing, it is hoped that the local communities will also perceive the gorillas and their forested homes as important national resources, thus ensuring that their future may be insured.
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.
What to wear: Clothing should cover all eventualities, cool mornings and heat in the middle of the day. Layers are recommended as well as long sleeves and long trousers. Stout walking boots with good traction are required; as is rainproof clothing. A comfortable rucksack capable of carrying water, waterproofs, sun protection, guide books, camera, film and personal requisites is also a must.
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.
Photography: Photography: you will need faster speed films of 200 and 400 ASA as the forested areas where the gorillas are found are often dark or in shadow.