When I went gorilla trekking in Rwanda in June 2007, there were only around 700 Mountain gorillas alive in the world. It was an exhausting trek, most of the way up Karisimbi Volcano (4507m) in Rwanda’s Volcanoes National Park. At that time, the Susa group was the biggest family, but they have since split into two smaller groups. It was one of the most emotional and challenging experiences of my life. But most importantly, it made me realise how privileged I was to see them, and the danger our closest relatives were still in.
Mountain gorillas do not survive in captivity and are very susceptible to human diseases, so you will not see one in any zoo. With 98.5% of their genes similar to us humans, just looking into one’s eyes will tell you there is a lot of human-like intelligence there. But this similarity is also very dangerous. In 2009, two gorillas from the Hirwa group in Rwanda died from what is now believed to have been a human pneumonia virus infection. Gorillas have been hunted, as recently as in the last couple of years, and their mountainous home forest is shrinking at an alarming pace under the pressures of overpopulation and the need for farming land.
Luckily, through research, most famously Diane Fossey’s work in the 1960’s and 70’s, education and especially carefully controlled tourism, the Mountain gorilla population have now increased to an estimated 786. A permit is expensive, but for a precious hour, you get one of the most memorable wildlife experiences on earth, and the money is used to fund research and conservation. Thankfully the governments of Rwanda and Uganda have realised that live gorillas are much more valuable than the unspeakable alternative.
Help save the gorillas
The best ways to help save the gorillas are through tourism, but make sure you book your permit through a reputable operator, and do not go on a trek if you are ill. Also stay well away from the gorillas when you are with them, although this is not always possible, sometimes curiosity gets the better of them too.
Touched by a gorilla
One visitor to Sanctuary Gorilla Forest Camp in Bwindi, Uganda discovered just how unpredictable and curious gorillas can be in December 2011. The local gorilla family simply walked through the camp, and under the watchful eye of the silverback, some of the younger family members started grooming his hair. You can see the amazing video “Touched by a Mountain gorilla” below. When I saw the silverback of the Susa group, I was terrified; he moved a lot faster than his huge almost 300kg hulk suggested, I can only imagine the adrenaline pumping through him at that moment!
Gorilla trekking tips
- Take lots of water and some snacks. Some groups can be close to base camp, but some can be a couple of hours hiking up some very steep paths, as I discovered on my trek.
- Wear good hiking books, long light-weight trousers and gloves (like gardening gloves) are great as protection against nettles.
- Take a few days to acclimatise to the altitude before you attempt the trek. Learn more about the history and culture and go shopping shop for beautiful local wood carvings and delicate baskets.
- Take a spare camera memory card and make sure your camera is fully charged, but leave your heavy flash behind; you are not allowed to use it as it might scare the gorillas.
- Most of all, enjoy it! It truly is a once in a lifetime experience.
See them for yourself
You can still get a gorilla permit for trekking in Rwanda for US$500, if you book and pay before the end of May 2012 – permits will increase to US$750 from 1 June 2012. In Uganda, the permits are still around US$500, and Sanctuary Gorilla Forest Camp have some discounted gorilla permits on offer until October 2012.