10 of the world's best places to see gorillas (Hjalmar Gisalson)

10 of the best places to see gorillas

8th December 2010

Probably 99% of people who go to see gorillas see them in Uganda or Rwanda; only a few hundred make it elsewhere. Here Ian Redmond reveals ten places to see them for yourself

Ian Redmond

If you do decide to go elsewhere, contact the local national parks or wildlife department on arrival in the capitalof your chosen destination, or beforehand from home by email or phone. Some conservation NGOs offer travel advice and may even help run the permit-bookings system in countries without a well developed tourism infrastructure. If all else fails, and you are arriving in a village in a forest that isn't in a protected area, ask for the headman, chief of police or church leader and negotiate the services of a hunter/tracker - but insist he leaves his gun behind!

Abbreviations: WLG = western lowland gorilla; ELG = eastern lowland gorilla; CRG = Cross River gorilla; MG = mountain gorilla

Please note: this article was originally taken from Wanderlust travel magazine, issue 103 (April/May 2009). Many 'gorilla countries' are on the Foreign and Commonwealth advisory list (www.fco.gov.uk). To be on the safe side it is best to travel with an established tour company. Most of the countries featured below have a Ministry of Tourism; when applying for a vise, independent travellers should make enquiries about local operators and facilities. 

1. Nigeria

Visitor infrastructure: 3/5

Chance of sighting: 1/5

Cross River gorillas (CRGs) are found only in Cross River State, where the government has invested heavily in tourism infrastructure (for example, the spectacular cable car up to the Obudu Cattle Ranch Hotel). However, as yet the chances of seeing gorillas here are slim. Only a hundred or so gorillas survive, divided between three sites – Afi Mountain, Mbe Mountain and Okwango Division of Cross River NP, so scientists are cautious about habituating any.

Visiting the habitat helps conserve it, though, and two outstanding primate sanctuaries and reintroduction projects – Pandrillus for drill monkeys and chimpanzees, and Cercopan for numerous monkey species – are based in Calabar.

2. Cameroon

Visitor infrastructure:  2/5

Chance of sighting: 3/5 (WLG), 1/5 (CRG)

Cross River gorillas (CRGs) live in the English-speaking part of Cameroon bordering Nigeria, in small pockets of forest that are the focus of a conservation project but with no tourism component yet. The only captive CRG can be seen at the Limbe Wildlife Centre (www.limbewildlife.org), which also cares for about 20 WLG orphans with a long-term goal – funding permitting – of rehabilitation back into the wild.

WLGs live in the French-speaking part of the country, such as the Campo-Ma’an National Park in the south-west, where WWF is developing ecotourism (but it’s early days yet, so
gorilla-viewing is not guaranteed).

More rescued WLGs – orphans of the illegal bushmeat and wild animal trade – can be seen in forest enclosures at Mefou NP, close to the capital, Yaoundé.

A community-based initiative to habituate gorillas in the Lomié region, south-east of the Dja Reserve, had some success, but lack of visitors was a problem – head for Karagoua and Koungoulou if you want to be part of the solution.

3. Equatorial Guinea

Visitor infrastructure: 1/5

Chance of sighting:  The Monte Alen NP is a spectacular forested park, whose rugged terrain served to protect it from commercial logging, but as yet has no habituated WLG. The ECOFAC programme is developing tourism infrastructure.

4. Gabon

Visitor infrastructure: 3/5

Chance of sighting: 3/5

Gabon made a bold bid to diversify its economy by creating 13 national parks in 2002, most of them containing gorilla habitat. Habituation is underway at Mikongo, on the east side of Lopé NP; although the WLGs are still wary, tracking them is an amazing experience and even a glimpse is rewarding.

Moukalaba-Doudou NP has some of the highest densities of gorillas, and an ecotourism project has begun there with help from www.gorillas.org.

Loango NP offers the rare combination of rainforest and Atlantic beach, where hippos
have been seen surfing, whales and dolphins surface offshore and the forests are home to gorillas, chimpanzees and forest elephants – my idea of heaven!

5. Angola

Visitor infrastructure: 1/5

Chance of sighting: 1/5

WLGs are found only in the Cabinda enclave, the part of Angola north of the mouth of the River Congo. There is little in the way of tourism infrastructure, but if it is adventure you want…!

6. Congo

Visitor infrastructure: 2/5

Chance of sighting: 4/5

Since the loss of the habituated Lossi gorillas to Ebola in 2002, the nearby Odzala NP now presents one of the best options for seeing WLGs. They are not yet habituated, but can be seen from hides as they visit bais (open clearings in the forest). The most famous bai is Mbeli Bai, in Nouabalé-Ndoki NP, where about 100 gorillas have been monitored by the Wildlife Conservation Society for a decade; gorilla groups can be seen wading into the marsh to forage for water plants alongside forest elephants, buffalo and antelope such as sitatunga.

Rescued gorilla orphans (WLG) are being rehabilitated back into the forest in the Léfini Reserve (two hours’ drive north of Brazzaville), where visitors can view silverbacks on a forested island from a boat.

7. Central African Republic

Visitor infrastructure: 2/5

Chance of sighting: 4/5

One of the best places to track WLGs is Bai-Hokou in the Dzanga-Ndoki NP. A WWF project has succeeded in habituating a group, and a calm contact is likely, though the dense forest and low light beneath the canopy make photography challenging.

The mountain gorilla nations

8. Rwanda

Visitor infrastructure: 5/5

Chance of sighting: 5/5

Rwanda is about the size of Wales, with good main roads (making it quick to get around) and a relatively well-developed infrastructure.

But it is the work of Dian Fossey, as dramatised in the film Gorillas in the Mist, that really makes Rwanda’s Volcanoes NP many people’s first choice for a mountain gorilla safari – around 25,000 visitors come here each year. Very few return disappointed, because the relaxed gorillas and relatively open habitat – montane vegetation, often with stunning views – greatly improve the chances of good gorilla watching.

The professionalism and kindness  of the guides, many of whom have spent decades helping visitors cope with steep slopes, stinging nettles and nerves, makes every muddy, gasping step that bit easier… but sometimes it is sunny, and the gorillas are only a short stroll from the park boundary, and people wonder what all the fuss is about!

9. Uganda

Visitor infrastructure: 5/5

Chance of sighting: 5/5

Second in popularity to Rwanda (Uganda’s gorillas see about 20,000 visitors each year), the two gorilla parks in the south-west of the country offer different experiences. Mgahinga NP is part of the tri-national Virunga Conservation Area, and its habituated gorillas often cross into DRC. However, climbing to the top of Mt Sabinio, where Rwanda, Uganda and DRC meet, is an outstanding way to see the whole mountain gorilla kingdom – an island of forest surrounded by a sea of densely populated farmland.
Just to the north, on dramatically winding roads, Bwindi Impenetrable Forest NP is more biodiverse and at a lower altitude. It has four groups well-habituated for tourism,
and two more are being habituated to cope with demand. Some taxonomists regard the Bwindi gorillas as a separate sub-species of eastern gorilla – the lack of hair on their brow easily distinguishes them from their shaggier Virunga cousins.

One of Uganda’s real plus points is the range of other activities on offer: combine your gorilla tracking with the country’s other national parks and adventurous activities, from hiking the glaciers in the Rwenzori Mountains to white-water rafting on the Nile.

10. Democratic Republic of Congo

Visitor infrastructure: 1/5 (WLG), 3/5 (ELG and MG)

Chance of sighting (security permitting): 1/5 (WLG), 3/5 (ELG), 5/5 (MG)

Three of the four sub-species are found in DRC. Gorilla tourism with habituated groups began here in the mid-1970s, in Kahuzi-Biega NP, a stronghold of eastern lowland gorillas (ELG), and this park still offers one of the best gorilla-viewing experiences. Bukavu is
the nearest town (with some beautiful lakeside hotels), but check the security situation if entering DRC from Rwanda.

Mountain gorilla (MG) tourism in Virunga NP is also excellent, if security allows. Things have improved since the early 2009 arrest of rebel leader Nkunda, but the area is still unsettled. However, even during the troubles many people visited the gorillas at Djomba on day trips from Kisoro, Uganda, because permits were available in the DRC and sold out in Uganda. Take advice on the spot – it can change from one week to the next.

Some WLGs survive in the far west of DRC in the beautiful Madiakoko Mountains, Bas-Congo, crossing back and forth from Cabinda (Angola), but you’d be a pioneer tourist here.

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