Gorilla encounters are always memorable... (Hjalmar Gislason)
Article Words : Ian Redmond | 01 April

Travel Icon: Gorilla watching in East and Central Africa

Ever since David Attenborough sat with silverbacks, gorilla-watching has become a 'must-do'. We explain how to get the best view of these gentle giants

Gorilla encounters are always memorable, but my last one was extra special. In Rwanda I bumped into an old friend, Titus the silverback. I’ve known him since 1976, when he was a mischievous bundle of black fur and I was a newly graduated biologist, just starting out as Dian Fossey’s research assistant at her Karisoke Research Center. 

Meeting Titus again was both fortuitous and frustrating. Fortuitous because I was with a film crew making a BBC documentary about Titus himself. He was the first gorilla I saw on my first day in the field – he was then a two-year old being chased up a tree by his younger brother, Kweli. 

A succession of scientists have followed him ever since, and watching his dramatic life unfold has been absolutely fascinating. However, as I realised it was Titus’s group up ahead, the frustration was intense. To reduce the risk of disease transmission, access is only allowed after any new observer has been in the country for three weeks – none of us was yet out of quarantine, so we had to walk away. 

In the end, the film crew and Karisoke staff shot some amazing footage of the power struggle between Titus and Kuryama, a younger silverback who, a DNA paternity test later revealed, is his son.

Research into gorilla society is full of surprises – this is nature’s soap opera. But will today’s infants have the same chance of success as Titus did? 

The face of conservation

The mountain gorilla has become an icon of ecotourism and of conservation. In the 30 years since the BBC first broadcast Life on Earth, with David Attenborough being surrounded – and even sat upon – by his hairy cousins, many TV documentaries have charted their story. Silverbacks have even knuckle-walked across the silver screen in the Hollywood version of Dian’s book Gorillas In The Mist. 

As a result of the support this has generated, the mountain gorilla is the only great ape known to be increasing in number. Chimps, bonobos, orangutans and other gorilla sub-species are all known or feared to be declining. A recent survey of chimpanzees in Ivory Coast, for example, found a decline of 90% in only 18 years. And eastern lowland gorilla numbers are feared to have crashed by more than half.

West Side (& East Side) Story

There are two different species of gorilla – eastern and western – each with two sub-species. Much research has been done into mountain gorillas (an eastern gorilla sub-species) and, though numbers are increasing, there are only 700 of them: they are still listed as ‘Critically Endangered’. The western lowland gorilla sub-species is more numerous but less well known – winning the trust of WLGs has been much more difficult because they are so totally terrified of humans.

The illegal but profitable market for bushmeat means that most gorilla families in west-central Africa will have experienced an attack. Baby gorillas are often captured alive, worth more as a pet than as meat. Such babies may be confiscated by the authorities, but are so delicate that four out of five die before reaching skilled care. Given that to capture one usually involves killing at least two adults, one live gorilla in a sanctuary represents 14 dead ones.

Can tourism help?It is impossible to protect every gorilla if local people do not see a value to the gorillas and their habitat. This is where ecotourism can provide an alternative income: kill a silverback and you can sell the meat only once – and it takes 15 years to grow a replacement. Win a silverback’s trust and, if you can protect him from other hunters and attract tourists, he will pay you much more than the meat value every day for decades. Gorilla tourism is certainly no panacea, but it does have the potential to change attitudes. 

Gorillas are keystone species in their ecosystem, dispersing seeds in their dung and pruning branches as they feed. Ensuring they survive to play this role is a critical part of managing forests. To an ecologist, apes and elephants are the gardeners of the Old World forests; if we value the forests, we must ensure no one shoots the gardeners.

Can tourism help?

It is impossible to protect every gorilla if local people do not see a value to the gorillas and their habitat. This is where ecotourism can provide an alternative income: kill a silverback and you can sell the meat only once – and it takes 15 years to grow a replacement. Win a silverback’s trust and, if you can protect him from other hunters and attract tourists, he will pay you much more than the meat value every day for decades.

Gorilla tourism is certainly no panacea, but it does have the potential to change attitudes. Gorillas are keystone species in their ecosystem, dispersing seeds in their dung and pruning branches as they feed. Ensuring they survive to play this role is a critical part of managing forests. To an ecologist, apes and elephants are the gardeners of the Old World forests; if we value the forests, we must ensure no one shoots the gardeners.

Know your gorillas

Each of the four sub-species of gorilla has its own characteristics and habitats. Here’s what to see where

Species: Western gorilla (Gorilla gorilla)
Short, brownish-black coat, often with ginger crown, sometimes extending down to shoulders; thick nostrils and bare brow-ridge

Sub-species western lowland gorilla (G. g. gorilla)

Population estimate Up to 200,000
Where found Angola (Cabinda only), Cameroon,  Central African Republic, Congo, DRC,  Equatorial Guinea, Gabon

IUCN* status Critically endangered

The facts The most widespread gorilla is familiar to zoo visitors but difficult to see in the wild. The mid-1996 population estimate was under 100,000; with known declines, many feared it was down to half that until, in 2008, new survey data indicated higher than expected densities in northern Congo, plus some remote populations that hadn’t been counted. Despite the revised estimate, the IUCN status for this sub-species is still Critically Endangered due to the combined threat of bushmeat hunting, habitat degradation and Ebola haemorrhagic fever.

Sub-species Cross River gorilla (G. g. diehli)

Similar to western lowland gorilla, but the smallest sub-species, with shorter skulls, shorter molar rows, narrower palates and a relatively broader skull base.

Population estimate 250-300

Where found Nigeria (Cross River State only), Cameroon (SW Province only)

IUCN* status Critically endangered

The facts The most endangered sub-species, and the hardest to see; the tiny population is divided into a dozen sub-populations, but most are still joined by habitat corridors so there is hope that improved conservation will allow movement of individuals between different sites. No clear photos or video have yet been taken in the wild, so they remain a challenge for aspiring wildlife photographers.

Species: eastern gorilla (Gorilla beringei)  Black coat, larger of the two species, longer (more prognathous) jaws

Sub-species mountain gorilla (G. b. beringei)

Shaggy coat and sideburns; Virunga gorillas have hair on brow-ridge and often thick nostril skin-folds making ‘nose-print’; Bwindi gorillas have less hair on eyebrows, smaller nostrils and often less obvious nose-print.

Population estimate 700

Where found W Uganda, NW Rwanda, eastern DRC

IUCN* status Critically endangered

The facts The most famous and most expensive to visit wild apes (if not animals) on earth. Mountain gorilla tourism is a mainstay of the economy of two nations, Uganda and Rwanda, and revenues largely fund their other national parks, as well as hundreds of community projects. Visits are tightly controlled to minimise negative impacts on the gorillas, with only one party of eight or fewer visitors per habituated gorilla group, for one hour per day, approaching no closer than 7m – though the gorillas do break that rule, so be prepared to back away. Try not to breathe over them: your germs are their greatest threat.

Sub-species eastern lowland gorilla (G. b. graueri)

Also called Grauer’s gorilla. Largest sub-species, smoother appearance, longer face and smaller, low-set nostrils; less shaggy than mountain gorillas, but more muscular due to climbing fruit trees

Population estimate 5,000?

Where found Eastern DRC

IUCN* status Endangered

The facts The largest gorilla: the record is held by a silverback measured at 1.94m, shot in North Kivu in 1938. Estimated at about 17,000 in 1996, numbers have plummeted during DRC’s civil wars, mostly killed for bushmeat to feed illegal miners and the various armed factions who fight for control of these resources.

In all four sub-species, males develop a saddle of short, silvery-white hair on their back when they reach sexual maturity (age 12), plus an elongated head, long arm-hair and bare chest. Adolescent males are known as blackbacks. Infants have a white anal tuft, which disappears by three years of age.

A short course in 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’ field 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!

Planning your trip

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!

Getting there Kigali, Rwanda, is the closest capital to the mountain gorillas, but a day or two spent acclimatising is a good idea. Uganda’s Entebbe airport is a day’s drive from the gorilla parks, but this gives an opportunity to visit some of Uganda’s savannah and other forest parks. For WLG visits, tour operators are few; seek advice from embassies and/or local conservation groups and be prepared for an adventure.

Note: UK nationals require visas for Uganda (£25) and Rwanda (£35) as well as the other gorilla countries.

What to take Virunga gorillas live at 2,500m to 3,600m, so temperature varies. Pack as if you were walking in the Scottish Highlands – it can be hot and sunny, but always have a warm layer, and waterproof jacket and trousers (which also protect against nettles, thistles and thorns, as do gloves) in your day-pack.

For tracking lowland gorillas, jungle boots and insect repellent are the order of the day but, again, expect rain – they live in rainforests: the clue’s in the name!

How to book Tour operators can arrange your trip from the UK, which usually includes your permit. Mountain gorilla permits can be sold out months in advance, so unless you have time to wait for a permit to become available (eg because of a cancellation), 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.

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The permit price is standard for Rwanda, Uganda and (before the latest unrest) the DRC Virunga park: US$500 a day, including park entry fees. DRC also offers ELG tracking in Kahuzi-Biega at $350 a day.

Permits to visit Rwanda’s mountain gorillas should be booked through the Rwanda Tourism Board offices in Kigali (Boulevard de la Révolution 1,
PO Box 905, Kigali; +250 576514). Permits for Uganda are available from the Uganda Wildlife Authority (Plot 7 Kira Road, Kamwokya, PO Box 3530, Kampala; +256 414 355000).

Health & 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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