Gorillas are the world's largest living primates and share more than 98% of our genetic code, making them one of our closest relatives. They live in troops with complex social structures and exhibit behavior that most of us can recognize from interactions with our own families. Despite (or perhaps because of) the similarities between our species and theirs, all African gorillas are endangered or critically endangered. Pushed to the brink of extinction by habitat destruction, poaching and disease, seeing them in the wild is a privilege that future generations may never have.
This article is not an exhaustive list of all the countries in which gorillas occur; but rather a recommendation of the best places for successful gorilla trekking tours.
Different Types of Gorilla
There are two species of gorilla: eastern gorillas and western gorillas. These two species are divided into subspecies, the most common being the western lowland gorilla, the eastern lowland or Grauer's gorilla and the mountain gorilla. The western lowland gorilla is the smallest, most numerous and most widespread gorilla subspecies. It lives in the lowland forests and swamps of Central Africa, including Cameroon, Gabon, the Central African Republic and the Republic of the Congo. There are around 100,000 western lowland gorillas left in the wild.
The Grauer's gorilla is the largest gorilla subspecies and is only found in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). There are thought to be less than 4,000 living in the mountainous forests of the eastern part of the country. There are even fewer mountain gorillas: just over 1,000 individuals divided into two separate populations. One is found in the Virunga Mountains (accessible from Rwanda, Uganda or the DRC) and the other is confined to Uganda's Bwindi Impenetrable National Park.
What to Expect
Wherever you choose to go gorilla trekking, it's important to remember that you will have to work hard to find the troops and sightings are never guaranteed. All gorilla species have learned to stay as far away from humans as possible, and the journey to find them usually involves several hours of hiking through dense vegetation. Expect plenty of waiting around and be prepared for stinging insects and extreme heat. Habituated troops are used to human visitors, though, so when you do find them you will be able to get quite close—allowing for an incredible encounter that makes the effort of getting there well worth it.
Rules & Regulations
Because gorillas are so vulnerable, human interactions are strictly regulated to minimize impact and ensure the safety of everyone involved. You will need a gorilla trekking permit (your tour operator should organize this for you—expect it to cost anywhere from $400 in the DRC to $1,500 in Rwanda). Only a certain number of daily permits are granted for each location, so it's a good idea to book as far in advance as possible. Regulations may differ slightly from country to country, but generally resemble the following guidelines from the Rwanda Development Board:
- To minimize possible transmission of human diseases, visitors are asked to maintain a distance of 7m (about 22 feet) from the gorillas. If you are sick with a cold, flu or other contagious illness, please do not visit the gorillas.
- Viewing time is limited to one hour.
- Maximum 8 visitors per group.
- Spitting in the park is strictly prohibited.
- Should you need to cough, cover your mouth and turn away from the gorillas.
- When with the gorillas, keep your voice low.
- Try not to make rapid movements that may frighten the gorillas.
- If a gorilla should charge or vocalize at you, do not be alarmed, stand still, look away from the gorilla and follow your guide’s directions.
- Do not litter.
- Do not use flash photography.
- Tracking can be done by persons of age 16 and above.
Best Places to See Mountain Gorillas
There are two locations for gorilla trekking in Uganda. The first and most popular is Bwindi Impenetrable National Park. This UNESCO-recognized reserve covers 321 square kilometers of dense, mist-filled rainforest thought to be over 25,000 years old. It is home to approximately half of the world's mountain gorilla population, including nine trackable or habituated troops.
The second, less-frequented option is Mgahinga Gorilla National Park, located in the extreme southwest corner of the country on the slopes of the Virunga Mountains. It shares borders with Rwanda and the DRC and with a total area of just under 34 square kilometers, is Uganda's smallest national park. It is home to one habituated gorilla troop.
Visitors to Rwanda can track gorillas in Volcanoes National Park. Located in the northwest of the country, the park spans 160 square kilometers of the Virunga Mountains and is famous as the place where gorilla scientist Dian Fossey worked and died. The forest is easier to navigate than Bwindi and there are 10 habituated gorilla troops to look for.
Best Places to See Grauer's Gorillas
Rwanda and Uganda are safer choices for those wanting to see mountain gorillas, but the DRC is the only option for those in search of the endemic Grauer's gorilla. They inhabit primary tropical forests in the east of the country and are most reliably spotted in Kahuzi-Biega National Park (a UNESCO World Heritage Site) and Maiko National Park.
Recommended Tour: Gorilla Trek Africa 5-Day Congo Gorilla Safari
Best Places to See Western Lowland Gorillas
Republic of Congo
Located in the north of the country, Odzala-Kokoua National Park was once home to more than 22,000 western lowland gorillas. The population was decimated by an ebola outbreak in the early 2000s but has since recovered so that the park remains the number one destination for spotting this species. There are two troops that can be tracked by tourists.
Recommended Tour: Wildlife Worldwide 11-Day Lowland Gorilla Encounter, Ngaga Camp Tours
Gabon has lowland gorilla populations in many of its 13 national parks. The first park to attempt the habituation of a gorilla troop was Moukalaba-Doudou National Park, and tourists can now track them deep into the forest on foot. Other parks with gorillas include Ivindo and coastal Loango National Park, although tourist infrastructure in both places is minimal.
Recommended Tour: Steppes Travel Gabon Pioneering Group Tour