Gorilla tracking in Uganda.
‘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'.
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.
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.
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.
Visiting the gorillas
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 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 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.
The Bwindi Impenetrable National Park
The Bwindi Impenetrable National Park is a 331 square kilometre tract of lower altitude montane forest ranging between 1.100 and 2,600 metres. This is Uganda's most accessible and dependable gorilla viewing park. Two gorilla groups are visited on a daily basis (maximum 6 per group). The forest hike is spectacular as Bwindi has some of the richest forest flora and fauna in Africa. In addition to mountain gorillas, nine other primate species occur, including red-tailed, L'Hoest's monkeys, black and white colobus and chimpanzees. Bwindi's bird list totals 334 species including nearly 40 regional endemics.
Mghinga Gorilla National park
Mghinga Gorilla National park is a small, 33.7 square kilometre park set amid the high-altitude montane forest that protects the Ugandan portion of the Virunga Mountains. The park is located on the slopes of Mount Muhabura and Mount Gahinga, two of the ancient cones of the Virunga Volcanoes. The higher reaches of both mountains are covered in afro-alpine vegetation; the lower slopes include bamboo and hypericum/hagenia forest.
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.
Limited, well-regulated, expensive and relatively non-intrusive natural history tourist activity ha. Hoped that by allowing local communities to perceive gorillas and their forested homes as important national resources, their future may be insured.
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.