(Photo: Amy Reed on Unsplash)
Mountain gorillas are undoubtedly Uganda's iconic attractions, and trekking through the tropical forest to see them leaves nature lovers thrilled. Today, Uganda is the most sought-after destination, attracting thousands of tourists worldwide who come to enjoy mountain gorilla trekking adventures.
Mountain gorillas are impressive wildlife species and thrive only in their natural habitat. These great apes that are few as about 1000 individuals live in only three countries; Uganda, Rwanda and DR Congo. Booking a gorilla safari in Uganda or Rwanda is one way that you can support conservation efforts and contribute to their population growth.
Where do mountain gorillas live in Uganda (the Pearl of Africa)?
There are only two places to visit to see mountain gorillas in Uganda: Mgahinga Gorilla National Park and Bwindi Impenetrable Forest. Both national parks are situated in the far southwestern region of Uganda and are home to over half of the world's remaining 1,063 endangered mountain gorillas.
Bwindi Impenetrable National Park (BINP) in Kabale is one of Africa's dense rainforests, one of the few natural forests on the continent, and it protects the largest population of mountain gorillas. Over 480 of these rare apes survive within Bwindi Impenetrable Forest, sharing the same habitat with several other mammal and bird species.
Bwindi spans southwestern Uganda along the Albertine Rift Valley and is a renowned biodiversity hotspot. Mgahinga Gorilla National Park (MGNP) in Kisoro is set high in the clouds, with a maximum altitude range of 2,227 to 4,127 meters. It features a dense forest where a section of mountain gorillas resides, along with the endangered golden monkeys.
Both Bwindi and Mgahinga were once inhabited by the Batwa pygmies until 1991 when they were displaced. The two protected areas were officially recognized as National Parks in Uganda. The Batwa are most well-known as a hunter-gatherer group, the first people to live in the jungles of Bwindi.
Mgahinga and Bwindi National Park in Uganda feature five sectors where gorilla treks begin early in the morning with a briefing from park officials. They include four sectors in Bwindi - Ruhija, Nkuringo, Rushaga, and Buhoma - while Mgahinga N. Park has the Ntebeko sector.
Gorilla families to visit
While on gorilla safari, visitors can visit 21 gorilla families that have been habituated for tourism. Twenty of the habituated gorilla families exist in Bwindi National Park and only one exist in the Mgahinga National Park. The number of gorilla families in Uganda has tremendously increased compared to the 1990s when gorilla tourism was still in its infant stage.
Within Bwindi, the gorilla families are dispersed over sectors; Buhoma and Ruhija in the north of the park as well as Rushaga and Nkuringo in the south of the park. It is therefore important when placing your booking to know the location of the available sector since it determines where to stay, the day before the gorilla hike is to be done.
Some of the popular gorilla groups that are visited include Christmas, Oruzongo, Mucunguzi gorilla group, Bikingi, Rwigi, Kutu, Busingye, Mukiza group, Bushaho, Nshongi group, Bitukura group, Mishaya, Bweza, Habinyanja, Mubare, and others.
According to gorilla trekking standards, visitors intending to travel to Uganda to see the iconic mountain gorillas are required to have valid permits that are issued by the Uganda Wildlife Authority (UWA). One permit for gorilla trekking in Uganda costs US$700 per person for foreign nonresidents, US$ 600 for foreign resident tourists living in East Africa, and 250,000 Ugandan shillings for East Africa citizens.
Considering the high demand, tourists are encouraged to book permits well in advance, at least 2-6 months before the actual date of their gorilla visit. Uganda gorilla permits are easier to secure through a reliable tour operator since a large slot has been allocated to them.
How does Uganda gorilla trekking work?
If you plan to go on a Uganda safari that features mountain gorillas, you should consider traveling to Bwindi Impenetrable National Park and Mgahinga Gorilla National Park. By road, be prepared for an 8-10 hour journey from Kampala or a 2-hour domestic flight from the Entebbe International Airport.
Visiting mountain gorillas involves trekking through tough and simple terrains, dense vegetation, with an experienced guide. The entire adventure is tiresome as it involves navigating through the forest on foot, without predefined paths like during game drives. Therefore, a considerable degree of fitness is needed and expected amongst trekkers. For tourists with special needs, accessibility has been devised and you only need to get in touch with a travel planner to make your dream come true.
How long can a gorilla trek take?
Visiting gorillas in the wild can take anywhere from 2 to 6 hours, and the search is conducted with an experienced park guide.
After long hours of trekking through the jungles, there is an opportunity to stay face to face with the mountain gorillas for one hour. This is a special moment for photography and observing the daily behaviors of the gorillas.
For those who are looking to longer time with the great apes, the gorilla habituation experience that gives you up to four hours stay with the gorillas is the best option for you. However, there are very few slots for this activity that comes at a hefty US$1500 per trek.
When to travel to visit Uganda's unique mountain gorillas?
Uganda is a dream destination for every primate lover. Both parks in Uganda are open to tourists all year round. However, the most ideal time of the year to enjoy gorilla trekking is during the two phases of the dry season: June, July, August, and September. Alternatively, consider planning your gorilla tour around December, January, and February.
These apes can also be visited during the wet or rainy season: March to May and October to November, but these months experience heavy rains. Due to the heavy rains, most travelers tend to avoid them and prefer to travel during the dry seasons/peak months of the year. However, for those that brave the rains, the experience is also more personal since there are fewer tourists and gorilla families are often visited by less than 6 tourists per family.
What to carry
Whether you plan to visit Uganda's mountain gorillas during the dry or wet season, there are certain must-pack items. These include a waterproof daypack, long-sleeved shirts, cameras, toiletries, insect repellents, long trousers, a sweater, and other essentials.
You are encouraged to carry energy giving snacks during the gorilla trek. A first aid kit is also recommended since the hikes are done in the forest.
If you think the luggage is heavy, you can take use of porters from the briefing point to give you a hand. Hiring a porter is also a great contribution towards increasing local community support in conserving the endangered mountain gorillas as well as other natural resources protected within the parks.
There is plenty of accommodation to choose for your stay within Bwindi and Mgahinga National Park. From budget lodging to ultra luxury, there are several lodges that have been developed close to the gorilla parks. A local operator can help you make a great choice of which option to include in your travel plan.
Where else to find iconic mountain gorillas?
Besides Bwindi and Mgahinga National Parks in Uganda, a section of mountain gorillas also resides in the jungles of Virunga National Park in the D.R. Congo and Volcanoes National Park of Rwanda. With Eastern part of DR Congo being unstable due to on and off political conflicts, Volcanoes National Park Rwanda remains another great option to Bwindi for those looking to meetups with the mountain gorillas. This historical park that Dian Fossey called home is located in northern Rwanda.
In addition to mountain gorillas, Africa is also home to a significant concentration of western lowland gorillas and Grauer's gorillas. The Grauer's/Eastern lowland gorillas in Africa can be found in Kahuzi-Biega National Park in the Democratic Republic of Congo.
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