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Gorilla Tracking in Uganda: Is it Safe?

Gorilla tracking in Uganda with a baby and mother gorillas in the wild
With more than 95% of DNA identical to humans, the powerful and intelligent herbivore, the gorilla, has fascinated Man for many decades. The huge silverbacks (male leaders of an extended family of gorillas known as a troop, numbering up to 30) rarely display their enormous strength and only ever become aggressive with other silverbacks. That is the theory yet tourists keen to see gorillas in the wild may have a little apprehension about the safety of venturing into gorilla territory with minimal protection from these impressive creatures. The question is whether tracking gorillas is totally safe?

Remember ‘’King Kong’’ was fiction. The original film from the 1930s and the early 21st Century remake showed the gentle side of the beast as well as aggression when he felt threatened. The atmosphere that is important is one in which the gorillas feel no threat or need to protect their young from strangers.

The Species

A gorilla eating plants in Gorilla tracking in Uganda
It is thought that there are less than 1,000 mountain gorillas in the world, and they simply do not survive in zoos; if you have seen a gorilla in a zoo, it will be a lowland gorilla from West Africa.

As male gorillas grow past childhood, they leave the troop to begin their own troop with some of the females often going with him. That happens around the age of 15 with life expectancy anything between 40 and 50 years. At 15 they are known as blackbacks with their hair turning silver with age.

Females can give birth at the age of 10 and will tend for their young for 4-6 years so will have perhaps four youngsters in their lifetime?

They are also creatures of routine rising from their leafy beds early each day and spending up to five hours a day eating. They take naps at midday and are generally asleep for the night after sunset by which time all tourists are long gone.

Gorillas are susceptible to several diseases that humans catch such as cold and flu, so it is to avoid spreading any such things into a gorilla troop. Physicians monitor the gorillas as a result who are able to identify one from another because they have unique nose prints, as well as fingerprints.

The Habitat

Mountain where Gorilla tracking happen in Uganda
Half of the world’s population lives in two Ugandan National Parks, Mgahinga Gorilla National Park and Bwindi Impenetrable Forest National Park, a very suitable name.
Mgahinga was created in 1991. It is located in South West Uganda and covers just 34 square kilometers, but it is an area of dense forest in the Virunga Mountains with the altitude varying from 2,200 meters to over 4,000 meters. Even with those figures, it is the easiest of the two parks for visitors to see mountain gorillas.

Bwindi is also in the South West on the border with the Democratic Republic of the Congo. It covers 320 square kilometers and this UNESCO World Heritage Site is home to over a third of the world’s mountain gorilla population. The general altitude of Bwindi is lower than Mgahinga, ranging from 1,100 meters to 2,600 meters.

Tourism

A group of people doing Gorilla tracking in Uganda
Families of mountain gorillas in Uganda have become habituated to tourist visits; habituation is a process that can take a couple of years, and that is done by the visits of just rangers and tourism personnel without tourists themselves. The result is that tourists who follow simple instructions from their guides are perfectly safe. As a precaution, rangers and tourism police are armed but the chances of any need to use weapons against gorilla families are remote indeed.

Wildlife tourism is Africa is big business but on the plains of East Africa, tourists are confined to vehicles. In order to see gorillas in Uganda, their remote habitat can only be reached on foot and hence groups must trek in search of their close relatives.

Guides will always know the general area to find a troop, but gorillas are nomadic traveling most days in search of food.

Security is important because of the value of human life and the revenue that gorilla tracking brings to the Ugandan economy. That security is the role of both wildlife rangers and tourism police whose role includes guarding against more than gorillas with incursions of rebel groups into Uganda from over the border, something that has occurred in the past, yet is now under control. Security is in place throughout any holiday involving gorilla trekking and that includes overnight accommodation.

Mountain gorillas live in dense forest, sometimes on steep slopes, so those wishing to go gorilla trekking must have a certain level of fitness although a tourist party will move at a comfortable rate. This is not something that independent travelers can do by themselves because the gorilla habitat is strictly under tourism authority control.

Everyone needs to be suitably attired in comfortable footwear, light raincoats in their carry bags as well as water and headgear. The number of tourists allowed to visit mountain gorilla troops is limited.

Summary

There is an element of adventure in every contact with a wild animal and although the gorilla troops that trekking tours approach has all been habituated, make no mistake! Gorillas are wild animals with moods, just as people have. They make few sounds other than grunts and a sign that a silverback is unhappy with the situation is an impressive beating of the chest, a rare photo opportunity. However, it is not something that guides of a tourist party will ever want to see because it is a warning.

The important thing for everyone who goes gorilla trekking is to remember the simple rules that guides explain before the party sets out and follow those rules. It is possible to get fairly close to the troop, even to a female with a youngster but it is important to stop when advised and keep quiet at all times so none of the troop is startled.

The rules are common sense, and if followed, make gorilla trekking perfectly safe and an experience that tourists will remember for the rest of their lives.

Ready for an exciting gorilla tracking adventure in Uganda? We recommend you check out these tours!

6 Days Primate Safari Bwindi NP and Kibale NP

7 Days Gorilla Tracking Uganda

12 Days Uganda Adventure  

Written by: Branded Africa