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Tracking the gorillas in Uganda and Rwanda is a bucket-list experience. Tourism Update gets insider tips from the industry.
When to go?
Christiaan Steyn, Marketing Manager for Drifters Adventours said: “Uganda has a tropical climate, which means it rains throughout the year. March and April, as well as November are considered to be wetter but for our groups it does not really have an impact on the gorilla trekking. The animals are always there, the only thing that can change is the conditions under which people hike.”
Chris Roche, Chief Marketing Officer at Wilderness Safaris said: “Gorillas can be reliably seen at any time of the year, regardless of season.”
How many people can visit?
Steyn says permits are limited to 12 people per group to visit a family of gorillas. In some cases they only allow eight people per family, therefore visitors will always be in a small group.
“Mountain gorilla viewing in Rwanda, Uganda and the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) is conducted in small groups. In Rwanda, for example, the number of tourists permitted to visit a gorilla group is limited to eight. In other parts of gorilla range – for example in the Republic of Congo or Central African Republic, only six people at a time are permitted to observe western lowland gorillas,” said Roche.
Chances of a gorilla sighting?
“In the last eight years of running the Uganda tour and doing the trekking in Bwindi, we have never had a group that has not seen the gorillas. Some sightings may not be as great as others but we always find them. Although there is no guarantee of this,” says Steyn.
Roche says it is dependent on the gorilla species and the location where one is attempting to see them. The most frequently accessed gorillas are the mountain gorillas of Rwanda, Uganda and the DRC. The chances in all three countries, but particularly Rwanda, of seeing gorillas are very high, says Roche.
How long does it take to see the gorillas?
Different groups of gorillas roam the mountains and have quite a large range. Once a permit is issued, it will be to see a specific gorilla group and the ranger will guide guests to the group. Depending on their location, one could encounter the gorillas within the first hour, or it could take up to four hours.
How to behave?
Steyn says the guides that lead the treks give clients detailed information on how to behave.
“Silence is key. No sudden movements when close to the animals and, should adult gorillas approach, people must sit still and stay as low as possible and look down, to signal no signs of aggression. This is important, especially if a silverback should approach” says Steyn.
Roche says the most critical element to consider is the genetic similarity between us and gorillas, and what this means for disease transmission, specifically airborne respiratory diseases, as humans are vulnerable to gorilla disease, but gorillas can be highly susceptible to human diseases to the extent that infections can be virulent and fatal.
“In this context it is important to avoid physical contact with gorillas, to maintain a distance of eight metres or more when viewing them,” says Roche.
Steyn says guests who show clear signs of being sick can be denied doing the hike by park officials.
Flash photography is also not permitted, so it is recommended that visitors familarise themselves with their camera settings beforehand, says Roche.
Uganda or Rwanda?
One must take into consideration that permits in Rwanda are $1 500, which are much more expensive that in Uganda at $600.
Those visiting Rwanda can fly into Kigali and visit the gorillas the same day if they wish, whereas Uganda is a four-hour drive to the border, so travellers will want at least a few days.
Uganda has a new permit called the ‘Gorilla Habituation Experience’ which allows up to four hours with one of the gorilla groups, whereas Rwanda guests pay more for a one-hour experience.
Roche says there is not a breeding season one must be aware of, as gorillas mate and give birth any month of the year. He says even their diet, aside from seasonal preference for bamboo, is relatively aseasonal.
He also suggests a second trekking, regardless of the first successful encounter, as the initial sighting can be overwhelming and the allotted hour passes by in a flash. He says every gorilla experience is different (different families have different dynamics, different age to sex ratios and different personalities) and seeing the gorillas just once is insufficient to really get a sense of the species.
Guests must ensure they arrange a permit well in advance, especially during peak season in Rwanda.
Visitors must wear clothes that are lightweight as it can be fairly warm. The advice is to wear long sleeves and pants as the walks are through the forest and this helps to avoid scratches and bug bites.
Guests must take sunblock, rain gear, camera and drinking water, as they should be prepared to be out hiking for at least half the day.
In Rwanda, a visit to a coffee plantation can be added, and in Uganda, a chimpanzee trekking experience.