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Gorilla watching

Gorilla watching travel tips

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

Gorilla etiquette The most important rule: follow your guide’s instructions

A direct stare may be understood as rude or aggressive Glance sideways to be less intrusive

Speak softly If at all

Don’t point (even if you spot the first gorilla) or wave your arms (such as trying to untangle your camera from a vine)

Turn off your camera’s flash

Be considerate of other camera-users’ fields of view

Try to kneel or sit You will seem less intimidating (gorillas only stand bipedally to impress or get a better look) and the people behind you will be grateful

Don’t panic! If you are visiting unhabituated WLGs, you are unlikely to get close but you might get charged. Don’t run, but kneel and wait for the silverback to finish then back away a little and wait for him to calm down. If you hire a local hunter as a tracker, make sure he leaves his gun behind – you might turn him into a conservationist if he learns he can make more money by NOT shooting gorillas

Stay away if you have a cold Gorillas are susceptible to human respiratory diseases

Visas and permits

UK nationals require visas for Uganda as well as other gorilla-inhabited countries. Check before you travel.

You’ll need a permit to go gorilla watching in Africa’s national parks.

If you arrange your trip with a tour operator, they will usually organise these. However, if you’re travelling independently, be aware that mountain gorilla permits can be sold out months in advance. It is often best to book a permit, then build the rest of your trip around that.

In WLG parks you may find you are the only tourist there – great if you like solitude, but the service will often not be attuned to Western expectations. If you do decide to go elsewhere, contact the local national parks or wildlife department on arrival in the capital of 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.

Rwanda’s gorilla permits cost $750 (from June 2012). Uganda’s permits cost $500 in high season, $350 in low season (March-May and October-November).

When to go

Unseasonal rain and sunshine seem more common with climate change, but traditionally the drier seasons in the Virungas coincide conveniently with European summer and Christmas holidays. At almost any time of year, gorillas in the mist can become gorillas in the downpour!

Further reading

Mark Carwardine’s Ultimate Wildlife Experiences (Wanderlust 2012)

Gorillas in the Mist by Dian Fossey (1988)

Health and safety

Many 'gorilla countries’ are on the Foreign Office advisory list. To be on the safe side, it is best to travel with an established tour company.

Most of these countries have a Ministry of Tourism; when applying for a visa, independent travellers should make enquiries about local operators and facilities.

Health precautions should be taken – contact your GP or a travel clinic for advice. Malarial prophylactics are a good idea. You will need a yellow fever vaccination certificate.

If you are comfortable going hill-walking in the UK you’ll survive most gorilla visits. Children under 15 cannot visit habituated gorillas as a precaution against transmission of childhood diseases.

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