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Gorilla watching

Gorilla watching travel guide

Meeting a gorilla is something that has to be experienced to be believed. Here’s our guide to making the most of your gorilla encounter

In 2011, Wanderlust readers voted meeting mountain gorillas in Rwanda and Uganda as the second-best travel experience in the world. Ask anyone who has made eye contact with a fellow hominid, and they’ll tell you it’s the experience of a lifetime.

There are two different species of gorilla – eastern and western – each with two sub-species. Mountain gorillas are an eastern gorilla sub-species. Though numbers are increasing, there are only about 700-800 of them; they are listed as ‘Critically Endangered’. Eastern lowland gorillas, of which there are around 5,000, are the largest sub-species of gorilla – adult males have been known to reach 250kg, making them the world’s largest primate.

Less is known about the western lowland gorilla sub-species. They’re known to be more numerous, but winning their trust has been much more difficult because they are terrified of humans. They live in Angola (Cabinda only), Cameroon, Central African Republic, Congo, DRC, Equatorial Guinea and Gabon.

The other western sub-species is the Cross River gorilla. They are the most endangered sub-species, and the hardest to see. The tiny population is divided into a dozen sub-populations across Nigeria (Cross River State only) and Cameroon’s South West Province.

The mountain gorilla has become an icon of ecotourism and conservation. In the 30-odd years since the BBC first broadcast Life on Earth, with David Attenborough being surrounded – and even sat upon – by our hairy cousins, many TV documentaries have charted their story.

Virunga Conservation Area (covering areas of Rwanda, the Democratic Republic of Congo [DRC] and Uganda) is what most people picture when they think of gorilla watching. It comprises Volcanoes NP in Rwanda, Mgahinga NP in Uganda and Virunga NP in DRC. There are 36 family groups distributed throughout this protected area.

The survival of gorillas in the wild is only possible if they’re proved (to both locals and governments) to be worth more alive than dead. The biggest threat to gorilla populations in Africa is poaching and loss of habitat.

Politics and human conflict also play major roles in gorilla welfare. The FCO currently advises against travel to many countries and areas where gorillas live.

Even in areas where it is safe for travellers to go, gorilla tourism is both an emotive subject and a vexed question. Many potential visitors are worried that tourism might be causing disturbance or exposing the animals to human diseases. In truth, Africa’s surviving gorillas probably wouldn’t be here without tourism.

Advice, tips, information and recommendations are credited to Ian Redmond OBE, gorilla conservationist and primatologist.

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