Gorilla watching travel guide, including top gorilla watching destinations, tips for gorilla watching and when to go
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.
Rwanda is about the size of Wales, with good main roads (making it quick to get around) and a relatively well-developed infrastructure. The work of Dian Fossey, as dramatised in the film Gorillas in the Mist, makes Rwanda’s Volcanoes NP many people’s first choice for a mountain gorilla safari. Very few return disappointed; the relaxed gorillas and relatively open habitat – montane vegetation, often with expansive views – greatly improve the chances of good gorilla watching.
Mark Carwardine recommends Bwindi Impenetrable NP in south-west Uganda for the country’s best gorilla-viewing. Here, 330 sq km of equatorial rainforest is home to 310-340 mountain gorillas. The dense, overgrown park earns its ‘impenetrable’ title, but your reward for trekking into the jungle is to experience one of the most biodiverse places in the world and (with luck) an astonishing hour with the park’s gorillas. Mgahinga NP, the Ugandan part of the Virunga Conservation Area, is another option.
Cross River gorillas (CRGs) are found only in Cross River State. The Nigerian government has invested heavily in tourism infrastructure but as yet the chances of seeing gorillas here are slim. There are only 100 or so gorillas, and scientists are cautious about habituating any of them. Visiting the habitat helps conserve it, though, and there are two outstanding primate sanctuaries and reintroduction projects based in Calabar: Pandrillus, for drill monkeys and chimpanzees; and Cercopan, for numerous monkey species.
Note: there are FCO warnings on travelling to areas of Nigeria – plan your visit carefully.
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. Do check current FCO advice before travel.
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 began there in 2008 with help from www.gorillas.org.
Loango NP offers the rare combination of rainforest and Atlantic beach, home to gorillas, chimpanzees and forest elephants as well as whales and dolphins offshore.
The Monte Alen NP is a spectacular forested park. Its rugged terrain has protected it from commercial logging, but as yet there are no habituated WLGs. The ECOFAC programme is developing tourism infrastructure.