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Gorilla Spotting 101: How to See Mountain Gorillas in Their Natural Habitat

Here is everything you need to know about trekking with the endangered great ape—and helping increase its population.

Though an endangered species, the number of mountain gorillas in the world has quadrupled in the past 40 years. Understanding the interdependencies between these gentle giants, the people that live near them, and the tourists that want to see them is essential for protecting them and keeping the population rising. Here’s what you need to know to see and help mountain gorillas.

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PHOTO: GUDKOV ANDREY/Shutterstock
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What’s the Difference Between a Mountain Gorilla and a Lowland Gorilla?

You may have seen lowland gorillas in zoos, but unless you’ve been trekking at high altitude in central Africa, you’ve never seen a mountain gorilla. Mountain gorillas live in only three countries—Uganda, Rwanda, and the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC, formerly Zaire). The world has two separate populations of this endangered species. One lives in Bwindi Impenetrable Forest in Uganda. The other lives in the Virunga Mountains which straddle the three countries, in Rwanda’s Volcanoes National Park, in Mgahinga Gorilla National Park in Uganda, and in the DRC’s Virunga National Park. They can’t survive in captivity or even, for long, at altitudes outside their preferred range of 7,200 to 14,100 feet above sea level.

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PHOTO: adventures_of_rico/Shutterstock
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Which Country Is Best to See Them?

Due to political unrest in the DRC, it’s only realistic to see mountain gorillas in Uganda and Rwanda (the DRC temporarily closed gorilla trekking to international tourists in May 2018).

In Uganda, 19 gorilla families are habituated for tourist visits, compared to 10 in Rwanda. On average, trekking is more challenging in Uganda, particularly in Bwindi (but gorillas are unpredictable; on any given day they can be very near or very far from base camp in any of the parks). Trekking in Rwanda is at a higher elevation than in Uganda.

Accommodations and trekking permit costs are lower in Uganda, with a greater range of wilderness lodging choices. Distances and driving times are shorter in Rwanda and road conditions are better. English is everywhere in Uganda, though it’s also easy to find English at tourist centers in French-speaking Rwanda. If you trek in Uganda, you have a broader range of other activities—savanna and boat safaris, chimpanzee trekking, visiting the source of the Nile—to add to your trip.

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PHOTO: AndamanSE/iStockphoto
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It's Not Cheap but It's Worth It

A trekking permit is required to see gorillas, as a way of restricting numbers and protecting the animals. A habituated gorilla family can be visited only for one hour per day by tourists (veterinarians and trackers might spend more time with them). A maximum of eight tourists are allowed each visit, accompanied by a small group of staff. Fewer than 250 permits are issued per day in Rwanda and Uganda combined. You’ll want to book these far in advance, especially in high season.

In Uganda, a trekking permit costs $600 (that price is locked until December 2019). Rwanda doubled the cost of their permit to $1,500 in 2017. Other expenses to consider include travel to the areas where the gorillas live and nearby accommodation, in addition to getting to central Africa in the first place. It’s expensive, but you’ll not only have a trip of a lifetime, you’ll be contributing to protecting the species.

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PHOTO: Vagabondering Andy - Andy Doyle/iStockphoto
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Tourism Is Essential for Saving the Gorillas

Travelers who want to promote responsible tourism shouldn’t balk at pricey permit costs, as it, directly and indirectly, protects the animals. A portion of the permit cost goes to the park rangers, veterinarians, and trackers who ensure the animals’ health and safety. Another portion goes to help nearby communities, where the benefits are indirect but equally essential to protect the endangered species.

Habitat loss is one of the biggest risks to mountain gorillas. Humans living near the gorillas need land for subsistence farming and firewood for cooking. The money you spend on your trekking permit, hotel, food, activities, and souvenirs helps ensure people have clean water, enough food, cooking fuel, healthcare, education, jobs, and a stable political environment.

Gorillas improve the economies of the three countries where they live and create a vested interest in further protecting them. When tourists spend their money directly in at-risk communities, it ensures local people benefit from tourism, minimizes risks of resentment and disenfranchisement, and builds an interdependent and sustainable tourism industry.

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PHOTO: Photodynamic/Shutterstock
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Habituating Mountain Gorillas to Humans Saves the Species

Habituating mountain gorillas to humans is helping the gorilla population grow. In 1981, the mountain gorilla population was estimated at only 254 individuals. There are now just over 1,000 animals, up more than 25% since 2010. Uganda’s Bwindi gorillas have increased to over 400, while the tri-national Virunga gorillas now number over 600, up from 480 in 2010.

INSIDER TIPGorilla sustainability is dependent on the trackers that visit them every day.

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PHOTO: Tobias Frank1/Shutterstock
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Trackers: The Glue That Holds Everything Together

Each gorilla family has a group of trackers assigned to it. They’re local men and women who know the forest well; some are reformed poachers.

Mountain gorillas are tricky to find. They move almost constantly throughout the day and sleep in a different spot each night, making a nest on the ground to cuddle up in. Early every morning, trackers search for the nests and then radio rangers at base camp so they know which direction to start bringing their tourists. Trackers follow the trail until they find the gorillas feeding, and then radio rangers again. Trackers keep following their gorilla family while rangers lead tourists to them. The success rate is over 95%, ensuring that tourists keep paying for trekking permits and contributing to the local economy.

Trackers carefully observe their gorillas for signs of injury, illness, and stress, and call in veterinarians when needed. Trackers monitor pregnancies, births, deaths, and when silverbacks steal females from other families. They also remove poachers’ antelope snares and other hazards from the forest.

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PHOTO: Brina L. Bunt/Shutterstock
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When to See Mountain Gorillas

You can trek to see mountain gorillas throughout the year, but it’s tougher during rainy seasons. Uganda has two rainy seasons—from mid-March to the end of May, and from October to November. Discounts on both accommodations and trekking permits are available. It typically rains only for a few hours at a time, but mud increases the trekking challenge. Uganda’s main dry season—June to September—is busiest, as is Christmas. The shorter dry season of January and February is an optimal time to visit.

In Rwanda, the rainy season is from the end of February through to May. An advantage to the rain is that the gorillas can feed at lower elevations so there is often a shorter distance to trek to find them, though you still need to battle the mud. Rwanda’s dry seasons are from June to September and from mid-December to mid-February.

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PHOTO: Travel Stock/Shuttertock
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Vital: Visas and Vaccines

Americans and many other nationalities need a visa to enter Uganda and Rwanda. Your passport must be valid for six months past your planned date of departure from the region and you need at least one blank page per country you plan to visit. Apply for Ugandan visas online at least two weeks prior to traveling. A single-entry tourist visa for Uganda is $50 (plus a 3% fee for online processing). Apply for a Rwandan visa in advance or purchase upon arrival for $30. If you plan to visit both countries, apply online for the East Africa visa for entry to Uganda, Rwanda, and Kenya for $100 (plus 3% processing fee). You can get this visa on arrival in Rwanda, but not in Uganda. U.S. currency printed in the mid-1990s or earlier is generally not accepted either for visa purchases or at currency exchanges.

You will need to show proof of yellow fever vaccination upon arrival at the airport. Uganda and Rwanda are malarial countries, so you’ll want to take antimalarial pills and wear bug spray to protect against other mosquito-borne diseases like Dengue. Lakes and rivers, including Lake Victoria and the Nile, have bilharzia. You can buy treatment in-country or back at home if you think you’ve been exposed.

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PHOTO: GUDKOV ANDREY/Shutterstock
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Getting to the Mountain Gorillas

You’ll want to book at least two nights at a lodge near the national park. Gorilla trekking starts early in the day and afterward you’ll crave a hot shower and probably a nap.

It’s about a three-hour drive from Kigali to the gorilla lodges in the Virunga Mountains on both the Rwandan and Ugandan sides of the border. If you’re only planning to gorilla trek in Uganda, it’s best to fly to nearby airports from Entebbe/Kampala, as it’s a six-to-eight drive to Bwindi and it can take nine hours to Mgahinga. But if you’re also exploring other parts of Uganda, driving is a fine way to admire the countryside between destinations (for example, it’s a two-to-three-hour drive to Bwindi from Queen Elizabeth National Park). Note that small planes usually have luggage weight restrictions.

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They Don’t Call It the Impenetrable Forest for Nothing

You might get lucky, but you should be mentally and physically prepared for gorilla trekking to be the hardest day hike you’ve ever done. Gorillas spend their days at altitude looking for food through the undulating hills of the often muddy rainforest. You’ll need to follow their tracks to find them. Rangers, porters, and trackers carry machetes to somewhat clear your path of vegetation.

Mountain gorilla trekking often involves sliding down slopes, using vines to pull yourself up steep inclines, and even levering yourself up with your walking stick. You might find your gorillas resting in a clearing a half-hour walk from base camp, or you might need to follow them through the brush as they feed. Gorilla treks tend to last a few hours but it can take up to seven hours to find your assigned gorilla family.

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PHOTO: tacud/Shutterstock
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Should I Hire a Porter?

If you’re worried about your ability to get through such an arduous hike, you should seriously consider hiring a porter (or two). Not only will they carry your gear for you, but they’ll also push and pull you over the most difficult stretches if needed. You might lose a little dignity, but at least you won’t lose the chance to see mountain gorillas. And no one at home needs to know how much help you accepted.

Hiring a porter is another way to help protect gorillas. Porters, trackers, and rangers are often reformed poachers, now using their forest skills to protect endangered species. Ensuring that they can make a living wage helps prevent them from returning to poaching to feed their families. It costs $20 to hire a porter in Bwindi and $10 in the Virunga Mountains; tipping on top of that is welcomed. A tip of $15 for trackers and $10 for guides is also recommended.

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Do I Need to Train for a Gorilla Trek?

Mobile people at almost any fitness level can complete a gorilla trek (especially with the help of a porter). If you’re not used to hiking hills, yes, you absolutely should do some training.

Go for a few hikes near home to get your body used to walking up and down inclines. Unless you plan to hire a porter, hike carrying your camera and other gear too. You can also climb stairs or use a Stairmaster. The hike will likely be harder than the equivalent at home because of the rough terrain, humidity, and altitude.

Don’t forget to break in new hiking shoes before you leave. Blisters in the middle of the Impenetrable Forest are best avoided.

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PHOTO: Vagabondering Andy - Andy Doyle/iStockphoto
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Will I Get Altitude Sickness?

Gorillas live at 7,200 to 14,100 feet above sea level, well into the altitude sickness zone which starts at 8,000 feet. You’re unlikely to get altitude sickness on a hike of a few hours, but you will find it harder to climb slopes and you will huff and puff more than you normally would.

Fitness level does not affect your ability to handle the altitude. Humans need time to adapt to the lower oxygen levels and lower air pressure that characterize high altitudes, and some people adapt better than others. Drinking a lot of water, eating lightly, avoiding alcohol, and walking more slowly help you feel better.

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PHOTO: Andaman/Shutterstock
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What If I Do Feel Sick?

If you feel the minor effects of altitude—shortness of breath, headache, low energy, fatigue—you’ll likely be able to push through your trekking day. But if you feel more serious signs like severe headache, confusion, loss of coordination, tightness in your chest, or like you might throw up, you shouldn’t trek and should get to a lower altitude.

Similarly, if you feel any kind of sickness, like a cough or stomach bug, that might be caused by a virus or bacteria, do not go to see the gorillas. It’s essential that you don’t pass on any diseases to these critically-endangered animals.

If you voluntarily declare that you’re too sick to trek, rangers will try to organize a new trek for you or will refund 50% of the cost of your trekking permit. But there’s no refund if you show up and the ranger determines your illness will put the gorillas at risk and cancels your participation.

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PHOTO: FCG/Shutterstock
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Is Gorilla Trekking Dangerous?

You will be trekking in the wilderness searching for wild animals, so yes, there is an element of risk. Your chances of encountering any problems (other than sore calves from the climb) are slim.

All trekking groups are accompanied start to finish by a ranger and a police officer. The police officer carries an AK47 just in case the group surprises a forest elephant which needs to be scared off by a gunshot in the air, or in case you come across poachers that need to be arrested. Both are unlikely; elephants and poachers are scarce, and inexperienced trekkers announce their presence with a lot of noise.

Gorillas are generally gentle. You’ll be told how to behave so that you don’t seem aggressive, especially to the silverbacks which weigh about 400 pounds and have upper body strength about six times stronger than humans. You’ll need to move slowly and quietly. If a gorilla approaches you, stay still and don’t make direct eye contact.

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PHOTO: Hel080808/Dreamstime
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What to Wear: No Shorts or T-Shirts

You’ll be in a rainforest. Bring a breathable rain shell and a hat. Dress in layers. Mornings start cool (even in the low 40s) and daytime temperatures are between 60 and 80 degrees Fahrenehit.

The terrain is rough. Hiking boots with ankle protection are wise. Running shoes are acceptable provided they have a very good grip. Count on your shoes getting muddy and wet. Trackers generally wear knee-high rubber boots but you likely need better traction and stability.

You won’t spend much time on open trails, though rangers will cut paths through the thickest brush with their machetes. You need pants and long sleeves to protect you from thorns and stinging nettles. Wear long socks to tuck your pant legs into so fire ants won’t crawl up your legs and bite you.

You’ll be happy to have gardening gloves, especially the kind with rubber palms, but breathable on the back. Gloves will help prevent blisters from your walking stick and minimize your worry about stinging nettles and thorns. You will need to grab vines and branches as you go up and down steep slopes.

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PHOTO: Leila Boujnane/Unsplash
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What to Bring on a Gorilla Trek

The most essential item is a camera, extra memory, and extra battery. A ziplock bag will help keep your equipment dry if the skies open up.

Your hotel will likely pack a lunch for you. It’s wise to also bring a few easy-to-eat-while-walking snacks. You need a minimum of two liters of water.

You’ll want a bag, preferably waterproof, to keep your stuff together. Wear clothes with pockets to keep your essentials close at hand, particularly if you hire a porter to carry your bag.

Gorillas live at higher altitudes than mosquitos, so you’re not at risk of malaria while you’re trekking or at most lodges near the gorillas (but you should continue to take your malaria pills since the rest of Uganda and Rwanda are malarial). Gorillas have swarms of gorilla flies around them. They seem to prefer gorillas, but they might come and check you out. Insect repellent is wise.

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PHOTO: Lennjo/Shutterstock
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What Not to Bring

You will need a walking stick for the trek, but don’t bring your own (either from home or purchased there). There will be a selection of walking sticks to borrow for the day. If you bring your own, it will be a hassle to keep it with you. When you get near the gorillas, porters and trackers will gather up all the walking sticks because gorillas get aggressive when they see sticks. After your time with the gorillas is up, the trackers will try to return the sticks to you, but there’s a chance they may have had to leave them behind if the gorillas are on the move.

You can’t have stick-resembling tripods or monopods near the gorillas, so bringing them is useless weight. And don’t even think of bringing a selfie stick. A mini tripod would likely be allowed, but unlikely to be of much use in the conditions.

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PHOTO: Random Institute/Unsplash
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Photography Tips

Practice taking photos in dim light before your trip. You might get lucky and your gorillas will be sitting still in a sunny clearing. But they’re more likely to be in the deep shade amongst bushes and trees. They might be on the move.

Practice breathing slowly and holding your camera still to compensate for slower shutter speeds. Learn your camera’s manual settings, how to widen the aperture, and which ISO setting is the right one to increase sharpness but not have too much noise in your photo.

Remember that flash photography is not allowed—you do not want to scare or annoy a 400-pound mountain gorilla. Triple check that your flash is off before you begin your trek.

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More Rules to Protect the Gorillas

You’ll be briefed on the gorilla rules before you leave base camp, and reminded as needed throughout the trek. Only kids aged 15 or older are allowed.

It’s important to speak quietly around gorillas. When you’re about 200 yards away, you’ll be told to start whispering. When they come within sight, you need to keep a distance of 23 feet away from them. The gorillas are not required to follow this rule themselves. Every once in a while, one gets curious and approaches a tourist, perhaps even touching them. Stay still, keep your eyes lowered, and hope that someone gets a photo if this happens to you.

The gorillas are not required to follow this rule themselves.

You can’t eat, drink, or smoke within sight of the gorillas. Of course, never leave any garbage within the parks. Sticks and flash photography aren’t allowed.

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PHOTO: Travel Stock/Shutterstock
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Post-Gorilla Activities

Mountain gorillas and Batwa people (pejoratively called Pygmies) used to live together in the forests. The Batwa were displaced when the national parks were created. Some have become subsistence farmers, still, more don’t have access to land and rely on the generosity of others. But these traditional hunter-gatherers are at risk of losing their culture. You can help—booking a walking tour or cultural activity directly in a Batwa community helps protect their culture, creates economic self-sufficiency, and enriches your trip. With the Ruhija Community’s Cultural Walk with a Batwa, for example, you’ll learn firsthand about the traditional practices of these former-forest dwellers, understand the history and prejudices which contribute to keeping them in poverty, sample foods, and have the chance to buy art. Your interest and the small fee are critical for helping keep their culture alive.

Shop ethically from organizations like Ride 4 a Woman. Avoid “gorilla dance” performances at orphanages, giving gifts directly to kids, buying art from kids, and any tourist interactions you wouldn’t want your own child to have.

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PHOTO: Bkamprath/iStockphoto
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Don’t Go Just for the Gorillas

Visit Rwanda’s and Uganda’s cities for culture and history, and add a traditional safari onto your trip. Ishasha, near Uganda’s Queen Elizabeth National Park, is one of only two places in the world to see tree-sleeping lions. On a boat ride down the nearby Kazinga Channel, snap photos of hippo, crocodile, elephant, waterbuck, and more. Go bird watching–half of Africa’s bird species live in Uganda, including the prehistoric-looking Shoebill. Take a coffee tour and bring home Gorilla Conservation Coffee. See the source of the Nile, go horseback riding along it, or bungee jumping over it.

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Where to Stay

Volcanoes Safaris has three luxury lodges near the mountain gorillas. In Rwanda, Virunga Lodge is on the edge of Volcanoes National Park and was instrumental in relaunching Rwanda’s gorilla trekking. Across the border in Uganda is Mount Gahinga Lodge at the base of the Virunga Volcanoes and which supports the Gahinga Batwa community. In Uganda’s Bwindi Impenetrable Forest is Bwindi Lodge, which was renovated in 2018. Stays include complimentary daily post-trek massage.

Wherever you stay, pack for chilly nights at altitude; temperatures can dip into the low 40s overnight. Upscale rooms usually have fireplaces, but hot water at some lodges, even high-end ones, can run low at peak times. WiFi and battery charging are often only available in main lodge buildings, even at top hotels.

Many travelers need a layover in Entebbe, the airport suburb of Uganda’s traffic-congested capital, Kampala. The Gately Inn and its lush gardens are just 10 minutes from the airport. The boutique hotel is popular for its comfortable cottages and excellent open-air restaurant and coffees. Stay on the way to or from your gorilla trek, or perhaps both.