Trekking Mountain Gorillas: Africa’s Gentle Giants
Gorillas, chimpanzees, orangutans and humans all belong to the order of primates. Humans share 98.4% of their genetic material with gorillas and 98.8% with chimpanzees.
Gorillas; the largest of the great apes are divided into three subspecies that include the western lowland gorillas (Gorilla gorilla gorilla) and the eastern lowland gorillas (Gorilla gorilla graueri). The eastern and western lowland gorillas were identified for science in 1847 and 1877 respectively.
The third subspecies – the mountain gorilla (Gorilla gorilla beringei) was identified for scientific purposes in the year 1903 and has gone on to become Uganda’s star attraction.
Mountain gorillas are physically distinct from lowland gorillas. They are larger, have more hair, a short trunk, a broad chest and shoulders and also have a longer and slightly different nose shape.
Mountain gorillas are born small, covered with black hair and usually weigh about 2.3 kilograms. Gorillas develop about as twice as human babies with the mature female mother also undergoing a gestation period of nine months. They are unique species; as a gorilla with an infant may not have another baby for up to four years: good family planning.
Male and female gorillas between the ages of three and six years are classed as juvenile. They increase in size and weight at similar rates for the first six years. On reaching six years; most mountain gorillas weigh about 68 kilograms and are usually about four feet tall.
The female mountain gorillas stop growing taller at around six years whereas the males continue growing both in size and weight till they reach the age of ten to eleven.
Between the ages of six and ten, the males have a black hair colour and are thus referred to as the black backs. On reaching maturity which is usually between 10 and 12 years, they develop silvery grey hairs on their backs thereby being referred to as silverbacks.
The silverbacks usually leave their parental group at the age of 11 and then moves alone or in the company of other males for a few years before managing to attract females from other groups to him hence forming his own family. Silverback is a dominant male in a group of about 12 or more gorillas that usually include females, juveniles and other infants.
On a good day, you will find them chewing leaves, laughing and farting not only continuously but with a lot of contentment. They are diurnal and nomadic, sleeping each night in a fresh nest built from leaves and branches.
Mountain gorillas are primarily vegetarian with their menu comprising bamboo, nettles and gallium being some of their favorites.
They occasionally also eat safari ants which are scooped in huge handfuls to stuff into the mouth until the safari ant bites overpower them. Gorillas spend most of their time traveling and foraging in search of food since plants and trees change with seasons.
Gorillas communicate through vocalizations. Twenty-five distinct vocalizations have so far been recognized with each one having its own particular meaning.
As an element of their socialization, they communicate through howls, grunts, barks and hoots. Screams and roars signal alarm or warning and are often produced by silverbacks.
They also communicate by beating on their chests or on the ground. This is done to show stature, prevent a fight or even scare off opponents.
However, even the infants beat their chests as a kind of displacement activity during play perhaps just to copy their elders.
Mountain gorilla life is peaceful and quite. It is from this that they have come to be called Africa’s gentle giants.
These gentle giants are found in the areas of Parc des Volcans – in Rwanda and Virunga National Park in the Democratic Republic of Congo while in Uganda, they are confined to Mgahinga Gorilla National Park and Bwindi Impenetrable Forest National Park.
Bwindi Impenetrable Forest National Park gazetted in 1992, is situated in south western Uganda on the edge of the western rift valley (Albertine rift) and is shared by Kanungu, Kabale and Kisoro districts. It is 331 square kilometres in size; on an altitude range of 1,160 metres (Ishasha gorge) to 2,607 metres (Rwamanyonyi peak).
Overall, Gorillas of Mgahinga , Virunga and Parc des Volcans (Volcanoes National parks) combined have nearly doubled in number since their 1980s low, reaching 480 in 2010, the time of the last census. Similar growth has been observed in Bwindi, where numbers rose from approximately 300 in 1997 to 400 in 2011 which is almost over half of the total estimated 880 left in the whole world. Gorilla tourism provides over 55% of tourism revenue for Uganda thus being a strong reason for its protection.
The threats to the Mountain Gorilla population and its habitat are many. Among these are increasing population and the possibility of disease transmission from humans to Gorillas. To address the issue of potential disease transmission to the gorillas and to reduce behavioral disturbances to the fragile population, Gorilla rules have been put in place.
Habituated Gorilla Families in Volcanoes National Park (Parc Nacional Des Volcans) Rwanda
Susa Group was the largest family of Mountain Gorillas in Rwanda with 41 members. However this group is now divided into Susa group with 30 members including 3 silverbacks and Kalisimbi Group with 15 members and one (1) silverback.
Kwitonda Group is a family of 21 members including 01 silverback. This family migrated from the Democratic Republic of Congo.
Group 13 which derives its name from the initial number of gorillas in this family. However they are now 25 hence now re named Agashya Group including 1 silverback.
Amahoro Group with two (2) silverbacks, is a family of 17 members
Hirwa Group comprising 16 members and 01 silverback, it was formed from different families among which were Sabinyo and Group 13.
Sabyinyo Group with with the biggest silverback called Guhonda has 13 members.
Umubano Group- 13 members including 01 silverback. It was initially a family of 11 which broke off from Amahoro after the dominant silverback was challenged by Charles, now the leader of Umubano.
Habituated Gorilla Families in Uganda
Mubare Gorilla Group on Buhoma side of Bwindi Impenetrable forest has 8 family members including 1 silverback called Ruhondeza. It was opened for tourism in 1993 making it the oldest habituated gorilla family in Uganda.
Rushegura Gorilla Group on Buhoma side of Bwindi Forest national Park has 19 family members including 1 silverback
Habinyanja Gorilla Group on Buhoma side of Bwindi Forest has 17 family members including 2 silverbacks. It was habituated in 1997. Habiyanja is derived from a Rukiga word called Nyanja loosely translated as place with water.
Oruzogo Gorilla Group on the Ruhija side of Bwindi Forest National Park has 25 family members including 2 silverbacks
Bitukura Gorilla Group on the Ruhija side of Bwindi Forest National Park has 14 family members including 4 silverbacks
Kyaguriro Gorilla Group on Ruhija side of Bwindi Impenetrable Forest National Park has 15 family members including 2 silverbacks
Nkuringo Gorilla Group on the Nkuringo side of Bwindi Forest National Park has 19 family members including 2 silverbacks
Nshongi Gorilla Family on the Rushaga side of Bwindi Forest National Park has 26 family including 4 silverbacks
Kahungye Gorilla Family on the Rushaga side of Bwindi Forest National Park has 13 family members including 3 silverbacks
Mishaya Gorilla Group on the Rushaga side of Bwindi Forest National Park has 12 family members including 1 silverback
Bweza Gorilla Group on the Rushaga side of Bwindi Forest National Park has 9 family members including 1 silverback
Busingye Gorilla Group on the Rushaga side of Bwindi Impenetrable Forest has 9 family members including 1 silverback
Nyakagezi Gorilla Group in Mgahinga Gorilla National Park has 10 family members including 3 silverbacks
ON THE WAY TO THE GORILLAS
1) Always wash your hands before you head out to the gorillas.
2) A maximum number of eight (8) visitors may visit a group of habituated Mountain gorillas in a day. This minimizes behavioral disturbance to the gorillas and the risk of their exposure to human borne diseases.
3) You will be taken to where the guides left the gorillas the day before. From there you will follow the mountain gorillas’ trail to find them. Look out for the gorillas’ nesting sites along the way!
4) When you reach the Mountain Gorillas, the guides will inform you when to get your cameras ready.
5) Please always keep your voices low. You will also be able to observe the great birdlife and other wildlife in the forest.
6) Do not leave rubbish in the park. Whatever you bring into the forest should be carried back with you.
WHEN YOU ARE WITH THE MOUNTAIN GORILLAS
1) Keep your voices low at all times. However, it is okay to ask the guide (s) questions.
2) You must stay in a tight group when you are near the mountain gorillas.
3) Keep a minimum of 7 metres (21 feet) from the Mountain Gorillas. This is to protect the Mountain Gorillas from human disease transmission.
4) Do not eat or drink while you are near the mountain gorillas.
5) Sometimes the Mountain Gorillas charge. Follow the guide’s example crouch down slowly. DO NOT look the Mountain Gorilla in the eye. Wait for the Gorillas to pass and do not attempt to run away as this could increase the risk of attack.
6) Do not touch the Mountain Gorillas. They are wild animals.
7) Flash photography is not allowed. When taking pictures, move slowly and carefully.
8) The maximum time visitors are allowed to spend with the Mountain Gorillas is one hour. This is done to limit their disturbance. If the Mountain Gorillas become agitated or nervous, the guide will end the visit early.
9) After the visit, keep your voices low until you are 200 metres away from the Mountain Gorillas.
GENERAL HEALTH RULES
Remember Mountain Gorillas are very susceptible to human diseases. The following are ways to minimize the risk your visit might pose to them;
1) If you are feeling ill, or have a contagious disease when you are already at the park, please volunteer to stay behind. An alternative visit will be arranged for you or you will be refunded your money as per gorilla reservation guidelines.
2) If you feel the urge to cough or sneeze when you are near the Mountain Gorillas, please turn your head away and cover your nose and mouth in order to minimize the spread of viruses or bacteria.
3) Always stay 7 metres (21 feet) away from the Mountain Gorillas. The further back you are, the more relaxed the group will be.
4) Respect the Gorilla limit imposed on the time visitors are allowed with the Mountain Gorillas each day. This minimizes the risk of disease transmission and stress to the group.
5) If you need to go to the “toilet” while in the forest, please ask the guide to dig you a hole and ensure you cover it when you have finished.
6) Do not leave any rubbish in the park.
By following the rules above and through purchase of a permit, you are contributing to the conservation of the Mountain Gorilla.
A percentage of the funds raised from park entrance fees and the community levy on permits is shared with the local communities living adjacent to the parks so as to help contribute to their development projects and also improve on the natural resource management in the region.
Any breach of these rules may lead to termination of tracking without any refund.
Gorilla Trekking Cancellation Policy
Cancellation fees are based on the date your written notification is received at Trek East Africa.
Gorilla Permit Cancellation Policy for Uganda (separate from main tour and safari cancellation policy)
Gorilla Permits cannot be guaranteed until we receive a full deposit of US$600 per permit (for the high season) and US$350 for the low season.
Cancellations received on full payment
More than 90 days before the tracking date 25% cancellation fee
46 – 90 days before the tracking date 50% cancellation fee
9 – 45 days before the tracking date 75% cancellation fee
0 – 8 days before the tracking date 100% cancellation fee
Cancellation fees are based on the date your written notification is received at Trek East Africa.
Gorilla Permit Cancellation Policy for Rwanda (separate from main tour and safari cancellation policy)
Gorilla Permits cannot be guaranteed until we receive a deposit of US$750 per permit (separate from the main tour deposit) and actually pay for the permits at the Offices of Rwanda Development Board.
More than 46 days before the tracking date 50% cancellation fee
0 – 45 days before the tracking date 100% cancellation fee
Percentages are based on the full current permit price.