The global population of the endangered mountain gorillas which is estimated to be fewer than 900 individuals is restricted to and divided between the Virunga Region and Bwindi Impenetrable National Park. The bamboo clumped slopes of the Virungas protect the endangered gorillas in three national parks; Virunga National Park of the Democratic Republic of Congo, Volcanoes National Park in Rwanda and the Mgahinga National Park in Uganda.
Typical to some areas within Africa that were divided during the scramble and partition of Africa, the Virungas were divided across three separate colonial territories; Uganda, Rwanda and Congo. Today the Virunga gorillas are harboured in three national parks independently managed by three countries.
Mountain gorilla tracking is inevitably the most popular tourism activity in the Virunga though there are many other attractions in the area. Gorilla tourism has been developed in these three parks and gorilla trekking is possible all year round. The most reliable locations in which to track the gorillas are
- Volcanoes National Park where 10 gorilla groups have been habituated for human visits
- Mgahinga National Park – one gorilla group, called Nyakagezi has been habituated
- Virunga National Park – about 5 gorilla groups have been habituated within the park.
In the past tracking opportunities in Congo have been rare due to the perennial insecurity. However for the past two years, the Eastern side has had a semblance of peace and usual gorilla treks are possible within the park.
Gorilla Trekking in the Virunga Massif
Mountain Gorillas are found in Africa majorly in Uganda and Rwanda plus congo -DRC ,uganda has 12 habituated families, Rwanda has 10. 8, in Virunga its 6 permits per family with the exception of the Bikingi Family in Uganda which is allocated 4 permits. These 4 permits are for the Gorilla Habituation programand its ffound in the southern sector of Bwindi ($1500/person, not $600) and affords you up to 4 hours with the family rather than your standard 1 hr. You are present to assist in the habituation of this particular family so the nature of the viewing can be more variable. Habituation permits are only available if you are staying in the southern Rushaga area and be mindful if you’re to go for habituation experience you have to book the accommodation within that same locality.
In this perspective all 4×4 Uganda clients should be aware that the location of your accommodation will dictate which families you can trek as alluded to above. In the southern area of the park you can trek in the Nkuringo or Rushaga area. Nkuringo has 2 family (Nkuringo and Bikingi) and the Rushaga area has 5 (Nshongi, Busingye, Kagungye, Bweza and Bikingi). The northern Buhoma sector, you can trek the Rushegura, Mubare and Habinyanja families. You can also drive about 90 min away to the Ruhija area for the Oruzogo and Bitukura families.
In Rwanda, the permits are not tied to where the location of your accommodations, meaning you have more flexibility in the choice of family you trek. Families are allocated each morning at HQ during the 7AM briefing (in Uganda, brief commences at 8AM).
Easiest access to Volcanoes National Park in Rwanda is via road transfer (about 2.5 hours from Kigali). Access to Bwindi Impenetrable Forest is via scheduled air to either Kihihi or Kisoro depending upon where you are staying. Flights departing from Kisoro are in the AM due to winds in the area meaning you cannot trek on the day of departure from the Kisoro area. In Rwanda, you can trek the morning of your departure to Kigali as you aren’t bound to the schedule of commercial air.
From my experience, the trekking in Uganda is through denser vegetation on some gorilla families except for Mgahinga family and Nkuringo gorilla group. Trekking through Rwanda can be less bushwhacking, but at higher elevation. The scenery with the volcanic mountains on the Rwandan side is terrific. In addition, you can opt trek Golden Monkeys from Volcanoes National Park which is an interesting/fun excursion at $100 in volcanoes while Uganda golden monkey trekking are done in Mgahinga National Park at fee of $50 plus park entrance fee of $40.extra activities that are done in Bwindi include Birding and Munyaga water fall walk.
Important Tips for Travelers Planning to Go Gorilla Trekking in Uganda
- In Uganda, gorilla permits sell out first! It is advisable to book your gorilla permit as early as possible. You can book the gorilla permits through a local tour operator or directly with the Uganda Wildlife Authority. If you are looking to an independent tour, you can use one of the agencies offering car rental services in Uganda to assist you in booking your gorilla permit.
- Gorilla permits are sold on first come, first serve basis! Therefore endeavor to avoid last minute bookings.
- Physical fitness is a requirement is required while considering the particular gorilla family one wishes to track, normally elderly people are given the first priority.