With only around 900 mountain gorillas left in the world, seeing them in the wild is something only a few people will ever have the chance to experience. This section will tell you where you can see mountain gorillas, where to stay, how much it costs, and help you choose the best safari company to go with.
Where Can You See Mountain Gorillas?
About 480 mountain gorillas inhabit an extinct volcanic region called the Virunga Range along the borders of Rwanda, Uganda and the Democratic Republic of Congo ( DRC) in East Africa. The other 400 or so mountain gorillas inhabit a nearby area of Bwindi in Uganda, a thick rainforest.
There are two parks in Uganda, the Mgahinga Gorilla National Park and Bwindi Impenetrable National Park where you are able to go gorilla tracking. Click here to see a map of where the parks are located.
Mgahinga is situated on the extreme southwest corner of Uganda on the slopes of the Virunga Mountains. It borders the DRC and Rwanda. The park only covers 28 square miles so it's quite small, but besides gorillas you can also see leopard, buffalo, bushbuck and golden monkeys.
Bwindi is in south-western Uganda and is home to about half of all mountain gorillas. The park covers about 200 square miles of extremely dense rainforest and is a proclaimed World Heritage site. Part of the fun of tracking gorillas here is trying to follow them through the dense foliage. You can also get to see chimpanzees as well as some spectacular bird life.
Rwanda has one park in the North of the country encompassing its share of the mountain gorilla population: the Virunga National Park or Parc National des Volcans (PNV). The park covers an area of about 46 square miles and encompasses six volcanoes. Despite the terrible genocide in the early 1990's the country is fairly stable and the park permit system is running smoothly. The PNV was where Dian Fossey set up her base and research center. Tracking gorillas in the PNV is slightly less strenuous than at Bwindi since the gorillas move around a little less.
The more open terrain also allows more light for better photo opportunities than in Bwindi. Check out my gorilla tracking experience in Rwanda.
Democratic Republic of Congo
The DRC also has a section of the Virunga Mountains park called the Parc National des Virunga. The DRC gorilla population suffered a major setback because several gorillas were brutally hacked to death in 2007. To find out how the game rangers are handling the situation and the difficulties they face, read their blogs. In 2012 a census showed the gorillas were doing better than expected despite the civil war raging around them in large part due to the amazing efforts of rangers putting their lives on the line at Virunga National Park.
In 2014 the Director of the park was shot in an ambush, but survived and continues the effort to save the park from various rebel movements encroaching on their territory as well as oil-companies looking to gain drilling rights. Watch the excellent "Virunga" documentary, available on Netflix for more.
Gorillas move around the Virunga National Park. In March 2005 it was reported that the gorilla group that is usually resident on the Ugandan side of the park had moved to Rwanda (tastier bamboo shoots perhaps). By mid - 2009 they had returned. Safari companies operating in the area keep track of all gorilla movements and will know where the habituated groups are.
Tracking Mountain Gorillas
Getting to see gorillas is not easy, nor are you guaranteed to see them. The trek to where the gorilla groups live takes you through very dense vegetation, up steep slopes and can last several hours. The dense vegetation is filled with burning and stinging nettles, so wearing gloves is a good idea. Red ants are also common, so wear long socks to tuck your trousers into. Gorillas move around so they aren't all that easy to track. The gorillas you'll be meeting are habituated to humans which is why you are able to get quite close to them.
Some basic rules of tracking gorillas include:
- You have to be over 15 years of age
- You can not be sick or have any infectious disease
- Only one hour is allowed with the gorillas and you have to keep a distance of at least 5 metres
- Maximum number of visitors per day is 6-12 people per group
- No flash photography is allowed
- Trekkers must be fit and well equipped, which includes warm clothing for the wet cool climate high in the mountains.
- No eating or drinking in the vicinity of the gorillas
- No touching the gorillas (although they may decide to touch you)
- No pointing at gorillas
You need an official permit handled by each of the national parks to see the gorillas. Usually, you have to obtain these several months in advance. If you are going with a tour it will be arranged for you.
In Uganda, it costs USD 750 per day per person for a gorilla permit in high season. In low season a permit costs $500 to track gorillas during the months March - May and October - November. You can get the permits in Kampala (the capital of Uganda) at the Uganda Wildlife Authority (UWA) headquarters. It is possible to make an international booking for permits using email direct with UWA but they do not accept credit cards so it gets a bit complicated. See their web site for more details. To make it simple, you can just purchase your whole gorilla tour through a specialized company, like Gorilla Trekking or Volcanoes Safaris.
In Rwanda, you can get permits through the Rwanda Tourism Board offices (ORTPN) in Kigali or Ruhengeri (near the PNV). You can call (250) 576514 or 573396 or email at email@example.com. The permits cost USD 750 per person per day. Most people will get their permits through a tour operator that specializes in trekking. It is difficult to obtain a permit without booking a tour at the same time. When I went Gorilla tracking in Rwanda, permits were sold out for 4 months in advance, so book early especially if you plan to go between June - October.
In the DRC it's best to just arrange your permit (USD 400) and tour through one of the companies listed on the Visit Virunga web site. They will also be up to date on current security in the park. You can combine your visit with chimpanzee trekking and an amazing volcano trek.
When to Go
You can track gorillas at any time of year, although the rainy season tends to make the paths a little more difficult to navigate. The rainy seasons are March-April and October-November.
How to Get There
To Bwindi Impenetrable National Park
Public buses run (almost)daily from Kampala to Butogota a town near the park entrance. It takes about ten hours. Your final destination is Buhoma and you'll have to catch a taxi from Butogota to get there.
To Mgahinga National Park
The main town outside of the Mgahinga park is Kisoro(still 6 miles outisde the park HQ.) To get to Kisoro you have to go through Kabale. It is a smooth, easy ride from Kampala to Kibale (around 6-8 hours by bus). From Kibale to Kisoro you'll be driving on a very bumpy unpaved road. The Horizon bus company operates 2 buses a day from Kampala through to Kisoro.
To PNV in Rwanda
Getting to PNV in Rwanda is about a 3-hour drive from the capital Kigali. The town of Ruhengeri is at the entrance to the park. You can catch mini-bus taxis or hire a regular taxi.
To Virunga National Park in the DRC
The park is 20 miles outside of Goma, the capital of North Kivu province. It's a very rough road, so best to go with someone who knows the area well and take a tour, check out Amahoro Tours. The tourist infrastructure is not as well developed as in Rwanda and Uganda -- see more details about visiting Virunga in the DRC.
Where to Stay
Most gorilla safaris will include accommodations, but these links below will help those traveling independently and also give you an idea of what is available. This list is by no means exhaustive. I stayed at Virunga Lodge in Rwanda, it was fantastic but not one for budget travelers.
Hotels and Lodges
- Kinigi Guesthouse, Rwanda
- Virunga Lodge in Rwanda
- Bwindi Lodge in Uganda
- Buhoma Lodge near Bwindi Impenetrable Forest
- Mantana Luxury Tented Camp at Bwindi Impenetrable Forest
- Mount Gahinga Lodge, in Mgahinga National Park, Uganda
- There are several hotels and lodges available in Kisoro (just outside Mgahinga national park).
Campsites and Bandas
Safari Tours and Costs
Most mountain gorilla safaris will be scheduled well in advance because permits to see the gorillas are very restricted. My gorilla safari was organized by Volcanoes Safaris, and it was perfect, I'd highly recommend them. There are plenty of tour operators in Kampala and Kigali who offer private gorilla safaris and will have pre-booked permits available. Most hotels and even some of the backpacker accommodations in the two cities will offer gorilla tours. Gorilla safaris are often combined with chimpanzee safaris in Uganda or as add-ons to the "regular' safari out on the open plains.
Lowland gorillas are the gorillas you will see at zoos around the world. Although there are more lowland gorillas (current population about 50,000) than mountain gorillas, viewing them in their natural habitat is not much easier. Getting the gorillas habituated to humans proved difficult in areas where poaching was rife. There was some success in the Lossi Gorilla Sanctuary in the Republic of Congo but in 2003 almost the entire population was wiped out due to the ebola virus. Recent reports (August 2008) have shown a remarkable come back though with the finding of more than 100,000 Gorillas in the country.
Gabon is proving to be an excellent upcoming destination to view lowland gorillas, still relatively remote but worth the trip.
Where Can You See Lowland Gorillas?
The Republic of Congo and the DRC
There are two parks in the Congo region where gorillas can be seen. The eastern lowland gorilla is much rarer than the western lowland gorilla and their numbers are depleting rapidly mainly due to poaching and armed conflict in the region. The eastern lowland gorilla can be seen at the Kahuzi-Biega National Park (in the DRC). This park appears to have suffered enormously from the armed conflict raging on and off in this region for years now. For more information on helping Kahuzi-Biega National Park see Born Free, a UK-based international wildlife protection charity, and also the Kahuzi-Biega blog.
The Odzala National Park (in the Republic of Congo) is home to the densest population of the western lowland gorilla. The civil war situation in the DRC and the parks' proximity to Gabon makes it easier to get to from Gabon. It is the only park where you can see gorillas in the open grass. There are 5 tented camps dotted around the park some of which are only accessible by canoe. This is definitely a park you should visit with a tour group, just for ease of travel. A true safari experience if ever there was one.
The Ivindo National Park is new and a good place to see lowland gorillas. It is quite undeveloped, but you can stay at the nearby Loango National Park. The gorillas are quite unsused to human contact here and therefore are quite accessible. The park is also home to some spectacular waterfalls.
Loango National Park boasts gorillas on the beach no less. This unique setting makes it a very attractive destination. There are several accommodation options including a lodge, bungalows and beach camps around the park.
For a recent travelogue on these two parks read this from the New York metro site.
There are two parks you can see lowland gorillas in Cameroon. The Korup National Park which covers a large tract of rainforest and the Lac Lobeke National Park. There is very little information for visitors to these parks, but check the Berggorilla website for up to date information about conservation in this area.
Lowland Gorilla Safari Tours
Safaris to see the lowland gorillas can be quite rough and strenuous, especially those that venture into the Republic of Congo.
- Steppes Discovery offers safaris to various National Parks in the Congo and CAR to see western lowland gorillas and forest elephants. (UK-based operator)
- Baka Pygmy and lowland gorilla tour from Camtours in Cameroon.
- ResponsibleTravel.com offers a wonderful two-week lowland gorillas safari in Gabon and the Congo. The costs are over USD 8000 per person but it includes flights.
Further Reading and Listening
- Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund
- Gorilla Facts from the World Wildlife Foundation so you can know the difference between the lowland and mountain gorilla and where they reside.
- About Uganda has updated information about the conditions in the parks in Uganda and news affecting your gorilla tracking such as cost of permits, movement of habituated groups and more.
- Amateur Traveler Podcast Listen to a podcast from Chris Willis who tracked Gorillas in 2006/7 in Rwanda and Uganda. Chris offers tips about getting a permit, country conditions, what it's like to see Gorillas and more.