Wildlife

Gorilla Information & Rules

Gorilla Parks & Families

The mountain gorilla lives in four parks in Uganda, Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC).

Uganda

Bwindi Impenetrable Forest National Park, in Uganda, has four habituated families with 32 permits available daily. With steep hillsides and thick foliage tracking can take anything between 2-8hrs. Three of these families (Mubare, Habinyanja, and Rushegura – commonly known as M, H and R groups) are accessed from the north via Buhoma. Lodging in this area includes Bwindi Lodge, Buhoma Lodge and Gorilla Forest Camp. Other activities are also possible in this area including nature walks, bird watching and visiting local communities and projects. The fourth family, in Southern Bwindi (Nkuringo) can be accessed via the town of Kisoro. This group is accessed via a very steep track. Lodging in this area includes the Clouds Mountain Lodge at Nkuringo or Mt. Gahinga Lodge.

Mgahinga, in Uganda, is a great place to appreciate the unique Virunga volcanoes and has one habituated family. On occasions this group moves across the border into Rwanda and in this instance it is possible to track gorillas at Nkuringo in Southern Bwindi (approx a 2hr drive away). There are six permits available. Activities in this area include bird watching, nature walks and a visit to the local caves.

Rwanda

Volcanoes National Park (Parc National des Volcans - 
PNV), in Rwanda, has five habituated gorilla families (Group 13, Sabinyo, Amahoro A, Amahoro B and Susa). Tracking in this area varies between 2-8hrs. There are 38 permits available daily. Tracking is slightly easier than Bwindi as slopes are not so steep and undergrowth is not as thick. Other activities in this park also include tracking the golden monkeys, climbing one of the volcanic peaks or visiting the remains of the Dian Fossey Research Centre, the grave of Dian Fossey and the gorillas with which she worked. Lodging in this area includes Virunga Lodge, Sabyinyo Silverback Lodge, Gorilla Mountain Lodge (formerly The Gorilla’s Nest) and La Palme at Ruhengiri.

Republic of Congo

Odzala-Koukoua National Park has a number of families of Western lowland gorillas. The gorillas found here are amongst the highest density globally and groups contain between 10 and 20 individuals. It is possible to track the gorillas from Ngaga Camp and Lango Camp, both of which are in great proximity to the wildlife.

Central African Republic

The pristine area of Dzanga-Sangha National Park is the best area for lowland gorilla sightings in the Central African Republic. Here you will find some of Africa’s most intact primary rainforest and ecologically diverse terrain. 

Democratic Republic of Congo

Jomba & Kahuzi Biega, in the DRC, also has a number of habituated gorilla families but Natural World Safaris does not currently take clients there. If you would like to receive further information on these areas please do not hesitate to get in contact us at our UK office.

Overview: Gorilla Tracking & Permits

  • Only a specific number of gorilla tracking permits are available each day and therefore they must be booked well in advance. (Gorilla tracking permits are now selling well over a year in advance!).
  • Please ensure that you take the appropriate clothing and equipment for tracking the gorillas. Please refer to our packing list or alternatively contact our UK office for further details.
  • Gorilla tracking is limited to people aged 15 or above and all trackers must be in good health; please note that if you are ill you may be forbidden to track the gorillas. This is due to illnesses being passed directly from humans to gorillas.
  • Tracking is not easy; however it is possible by most people in good health and reasonable fitness. 
  • A percentage of each permit goes back into the local community and park infrastructure. 
  • Tracking of gorillas can be denied at short notice due to security in the area or as a result of park authority regulations.
  • You are tracking wild animals and therefore the purchase of a gorilla permit does not guarantee seeing them. Please obey your guide at all times, they know what to do and not to do around these animals and it is for your safety and security that they are there. Please keep a minimum distance of 7 metres at all times from the gorillas.
  • Flash photography is not allowed. Professional filmmakers must purchase the relevant permits however personal video recorders are permitted.
  • You will be designated your guide at the park office. Your guide will explain the rules as to how to behave when around the gorillas.

Gorilla Tracking Rules of Conduct & Regulations

It is important that all gorilla tracking participants familiarize themselves with the following regulations and rules of conduct:
  • You MUST, at all times, follow the instructions of your guide. He is in contact with the gorillas every day and understands them well. Always remain in a quiet, compact group behind the guide, who will attempt to position you in such a way that the dominant male of the group can see you at all times. Please try to keep a minimum distance of 7 metres at all times from the gorillas.
  • If the dominant male gorilla (usually a silverback) approaches very closely, or if he charges, it is very important that you do not move backwards. Remain exactly where you are, look downward, and adopt a submissive, crouched posture.
  • NEVER make any sudden moves or loud noises in the presence of the gorillas.
  • If a young gorilla approaches, NEVER under ANY circumstances make any move to touch it. Your guide, in certain instances, may take steps to discourage a youngster from trying to touch you, as this could create a threatening situation with the dominant male.
  • If a gorilla stares at you, look away or down.
  • Avoid taking an excessive number of photographs, and NEVER use a flash when photographing the gorillas.
  • Only visitors in good health AT THE TIME OF TRACKING will be permitted to track gorillas, as gorillas are susceptible to colds and other respiratory diseases transmitted by humans. All visitors must be physically fit and capable of enduring a walk of several hours in difficult terrain.
  • Each gorilla family may be visited only once each day, during the morning hours.
  • At this time, all gorilla visits are limited to a maximum of eight (8) persons per gorilla family for a maximum length of one (1) hour. Due to the already-limited number of persons allowed to visit the gorillas each day, it is not possible to do gorilla tracking on a private basis.
  • Smoking, eating, and/or drinking are not permitted within 200 meters of a gorilla family. Please avoid smoking at any time if possible.
  • It is prohibited to destroy any vegetation unnecessarily and to make open fires in the national parks and reserves. The flora and fauna of national parks and reserves are strictly protected.
  • All visitors must carry their own litter with them out of the park or reserve, leaving NOTHING behind.
  • Children under the age of fifteen (15) cannot be accepted on gorilla tracking excursions.

You must also understand that Natural World Safaris does not control the administration or play any part in the operation of Uganda's or Rwanda’s national parks or reserves. These areas are the total responsibility of local authorities. If our local ground agents observe situations that merit improvement, they will request that local authorities make changes; but these authorities are under no obligation to do so. It should also be noted that we do not employ any of the park guides, gorilla trackers, or porters and, therefore, cannot accept responsibility for the manner in which they operate. Travellers should keep in mind that the trackers are local, native-born people who have spent a lot of time in the forest with the gorilla families and that they probably have very good reasons to do things a certain way.

Detailed Gorilla Tracking Information

Gorilla groups tend to move around a lot and their home ranges often overlap. For this reason, one group cannot be said to be easier to track than another. For up to five years each, these groups have undergone an extremely delicate process that has gradually made them used to the presence of humans, and allowed a few privileged visitors to interact with them briefly in the wild. The gorillas are by no means tame; they are completely wild animals which tolerate human presence for an hour a day at most.

Experienced guides will accompany you on your tracking, many of who have been involved in the habituation process themselves. These guides will brief you in detail on your arrival on the various aspects of ‘gorilla etiquette’, but the information contained in this set of guidelines is to help you arrive for your track well prepared and ready to enjoy this unique opportunity to the full.

Visitors may track for as many days as they like, on purchase of the required number of gorilla permits. The permits are in extremely short supply, and are often booked as much as 18 months in advance. Only persons over the age of 15 are allowed to track the gorillas. Gorilla tracking is a year-round activity, with no season as such. The rainforest is moist, and it rains very often, even in the dry season. Tracking commences every morning from the park headquarters from between 7:30-8:30 AM (your guide will tell you the exact time). There is a daily maximum of 8 visitors to each gorilla group, and each group is accompanied by a guide and by porters who will carry your day-pack for you.

The gorillas can cover relatively large distances and they are never constantly in one area. The guides will use their knowledge of the gorillas’ habits and information from the previous day to locate the group’s whereabouts. Because of this, the time taken to track the gorillas varies enormously, from as little as half an hour to as much as 9 hours before returning to camp. The terrain is extremely difficult, which steep slopes (often steeper than a flight of stairs) covered in dense vegetation that gives the park its name. In addition, the altitude of 1,800 metres and more means participants do need to be physically fit to enjoy the track.

Once the gorillas are located, your group will be allowed a maximum of one hour with them. After this, you will return to the park headquarters and your camp.

Illness

Don’t try to track the gorillas if you know you have an illness that is contagious. You may pass the disease on to the gorillas with disastrous results. If you suspect that you have such an illness, report it to your guide. If you do not disclose your illness, and the park guides detect it, you will be barred from tracking, and your permit price will not be refunded. 

Illnesses in this case include colds, coughs, diarrhoea and influenza.

What to Expect & Tracking Conditions

These differ greatly according to the location of the gorillas, so the exact level of difficulty for a specific trek is impossible to define in advance. On an excursion, it is entirely possible that you will find the gorillas quite quickly and be back at your hotel for lunch. It is also entirely possible that you will have to hike three or four hours (or sometimes even longer) each way and will make it back to your hotel just before dark. Because it is impossible to predict the length and difficulty of any single tracking excursion, this program should not be attempted by anyone who is not in reasonable physical condition.

Tracking is likely to involve scrambling through, over, and under dense undergrowth with nettles, barbed vines, and bamboo thickets. Correct footwear and clothing are essential. It is recommended that you build up the strength and endurance of your leg muscles by walking, stair climbing, bicycling, knee bends, and similar exercises before you leave home. This should always be done under the supervision of your doctor.

Please Note: Travellers with physical disabilities and those who require frequent or ongoing medical attention should advise Natural World Safaris of their health situation at the time of booking (or at the time such a situation occurs should this be after the reservation is made).

Each traveller can opt to take his or her own porter for the duration of a tracking excursion. 
Taking a porter is highly recommended and a fee of $10 per person is the standard fee. 
Please note that your porter can only carry one (1) bag, and any additional items you want to bring must be carried by you. Because of the potential difficulty of any trek, it is strongly suggested that you take only one (1) bag (to be carried by your porter).

As you set off from the starting point, the trackers will first lead you to the spot where the gorilla family was seen the previous day and look for clues as to the direction the group may have travelled since it was last observed. Your group's lead tracker will have his "own" gorilla family, which he visits each day and whose home range and travel routes are familiar to him. 

All trackers are experienced in looking for signs of the gorillas, such as footprints, dung, chewed bamboo and celery stalks, and abandoned nests from the previous evening. Gorillas soil their nests and then abandon them to build new ones each night, and trackers are able to tell the age of the nests as well as which group made them. On days of heavy rain, it is more difficult to distinguish signs of the gorillas and the age of nests.

Gorillas do not live in the most easily accessible terrain, and some of it is virtually impenetrable. They prefer secondary growth vegetation with plenty of food plants near the ground and think nothing of climbing extremely steep slopes to get it. Unfortunately, this means that tracking gorillas can be difficult for humans. If the gorillas you are tracking have wandered deep into the forest, it is entirely possible that the trek to find them will take three or four hours (or sometimes even longer) in each direction. Additionally, you may have to overcome mud, stinging nettles, and some areas of elevated vines where your feet may not touch the ground. The trek can be difficult in both directions (out to the gorillas and back to the starting point).

Trackers generally do allow time to stop and rest along the trail. However, they tend to hike at a steady, somewhat upbeat pace throughout the excursion, for they must be mindful of the time to ensure that you will be able to reach the gorillas, spend a full hour with them, and make it back down the trail before dark. If you occasionally lag behind the group to take photos or are having difficulty negotiating a steep or slippery portion of the trail, your porter will stay with you to assist; but the group will most likely continue forward.

You will probably smell the gorillas before you actually see them. When you reach them, the tracker will move forward, making soft smacking and groaning sounds with his mouth to assure the group that friends are approaching. Although gorillas make very few vocalizations, this sound of reassurance is one that family members often use with each other.

If your trek to find the gorillas has not been unusually long, you are likely to visit them during their long midday rest and play period. At this time of day, the dominant male (usually a silverback) generally lounges on the ground or against a tree while youngsters roll in the vegetation and climb on trees, vines, and each other. Females nurse and play with their infants. Occasionally, a curious youngster may try to approach you or someone in your group. Though it is tempting to touch, this is STRICTLY forbidden. Your tracking group will be instructed to stay together, a minimum of 7 metres away, and crouch down while observing the gorillas so that the dominant male can see you at all times and the family does not feel threatened, surrounded, or overwhelmed. Never stare directly into the eyes of a gorilla, for a fixed stare is as aggressive to them as it is to most humans. Although you may find a gorilla looking directly at you, you should maintain a subservient stance and look at it sideways or from a lower height. 

Sometimes, as a release of tension or as a display to the rest of the group, a male gorilla may charge and beat his chest, tearing up vegetation and hurling his tremendous frame directly at your tracking group. Despite the temptation to run, you must stand your ground, maintain a subordinate, crouching position, and do your best not to flinch – for the gorilla will stop before actually reaching you and calmly return to his previous location, glancing back at you with smug satisfaction. Such displays may turn savage when used between males of different gorilla families but are simply a bluff when used with human observers on tracking excursions to habituated gorilla groups.

Your tracking group will spend up to one (1) hour with the gorillas on each tracking excursion. This time limit is carefully observed and protects the gorillas from undue stress. If your group were to stay longer than this, the gorillas would probably end the visit themselves -- by simply leaving. Although they are getting used to being visited regularly and are curious about their human visitors, they are accustomed to one-hour visits; and their intensely shy and private nature will reassert itself in the end.

In the event a gorilla tracking participant is unable to complete a tracking excursion to the gorillas, he or she will either be allowed to immediately return to the base of the trail with a porter OR the participant will be asked to remain in place with a porter while the group continues its track of the gorillas, rejoining the rest of the group on its way back to the base of the trail.

At the start of the tracking day, there is no way of telling exactly where the habituated gorilla families are (even though trackers are very skilled at looking for signs of gorillas and their paths of travel). 

Even experienced trackers may not be able to locate them on a particular tracking day. Also, because gorillas are wandering animals that favour areas of dense vegetation, consistent, clear viewing at close range cannot be guaranteed.

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