Gorilla trekking is tightly controlled and regulated for the safety of the visitor and importantly for the safety of the Mountain Gorillas. A maximum of 8 visitors may visit a group of habituated Gorillas on any given day; this minimizes behavioral disturbance and the risk of their exposure to human-borne diseases. Reports are mixed but there seem to be 7-10 habituated groups currently, but that number fluctuates since a family could travel to DRC or Uganda, or sometimes they split or regroup. Current groups: Susa, Sabyinyo, Amahoro, Agashya (Group 13), Kwitonda, Umubano, Hirwa, Karisimbi, and Ugenda. Also, there are several research groups, which have the largest number of individuals. Study groups include Beetsme, Pablo’s Shida’s and Bwenge (recently listed as a group for visitors).
No trek is the same, just depends where the gorillas are that day. Sometimes it is a 15-minute trek over flat ground, but I have read of people coming back in the dark with flashlights. It is not unusual to walk long distances through thick vegetation, up steep, wet and muddy terrain. Altitude minimum 5,200 feet plus
VNP or PNV? Both, Volcanoes National Park or Parc National des Volcans
Rwanda is located close to the Equator, so daytime temperatures can reach 80 to 90 degrees Fahrenheit, but, due to the high altitudes (5,000 to 9,000 feet), the mornings and evenings are cooler and nights can feel a little cold. In Rwanda the long dry season is June to September, but Volcanoes National Park is considered a rain forest so be prepared for afternoon thunderstorms at a minimum.
▪ Long pants, not too thin. Good chance of encountering stinging nettles which duh, sting so probably do not want to wear your thinnest pants.
▪ Long sleeves probably best – again stinging nettles
▪ Tall socks – just remember you are not there for fashion when I tell you this one. Besides stinging nettles the most common complaint is ant bites and they hurt. Lots of column ants. Easiest way to avoid is to tuck your pants leg into your socks – yep, you will look ridiculous, but beats ant bites.
▪ Gaiters – This is kind of like using belts and suspenders. Most stinging nettles are knee high and it provides another layer of protection against ants. The good thing is they are pretty light.
▪ Gloves – Garden gloves with thorn protection. If you are scrambling and need to grab it won’t be fun if you end up grabbing stinging nettles without protection.
▪ Rain Gear – Even in dry season it is a rain forest, just saying. Also, on difficult hikes through a lot of vegetation rain pants might be welcome protection.
▪ Hat – Probably won’t need in the forest, so optional
▪ It is a rain forest so may be very muddy. All the lodges take your boots and give you slippers/sandals to wear while they clean the boots. Most people report the boots come back better than new.
Other things to take on the hike:
▪ Water – more than you think you will need
▪ Snacks/Energy Bars – Most people write that after an hour with the gorillas and the adrenaline rush they sorely need a snack. Also, on difficult treks you could be gone all day.
Gorilla Mountain View Lodge:
• Rooms are large with fireplaces. No heaters, but there will be a fire which should take out some of the dampness and thick blankets and hot water bottles in bed. Might want something warm to sleep in.
• For mornings and evenings a fleece or jacket
• The grounds are supposed to be very nice with lots of bird activity around the lodge
▪ Tripods – Most of the terrain is very uneven and tangled with underbrush so may be difficult to use a tripod. Most advise against tripods.
▪ Monopods – Joe McDonald reported using a monopod successfully on one of his recent trips, may be easier to maneuver than a tripod. We have to leave walking sticks behind so still a question if some guides will let you keep the monopod. Also, with at least a minimum of a two camera set-up will you be able fully utilize the monopod
▪ High ISO & fast lens – Especially if using no support and it can be dark you will need the flexibility to use high ISOs and fast lens
▪ Challenge – even though we are close, the gorillas are looking away from us 90% of time. “That’s right, all of the human visitors that come daily to disturb them seems to have created this behavior that when they see humans, they cover their faces or turn around! This is true the closer you get to them.”
▪ Lens – the single most suggested lens I have seen is a 70-200 f2.8, paired with a wide angle on another camera. Big telephotos are out, you will be too close and they are too heavy.
▪ Memory cards – duh, lots!
▪ Rain protection. Even though June is the dry season it is still a rain forest.
▪ Vest or something with lots of pockets – have to leave backpacks behind with porters, so need the ability to stuff pockets with cards, batteries, microfiber cloths, extra prime lens
▪ Rwanda: 230/240 volts at 50 Hz. 2-pin (round) sockets
▪ Very few mosquitos at VNP due to elevation and soil composition not conducive for standing water
▪ The Virungas has five peaks – Karisimbi (4507m), Bisoke (3711m), Sabyinyo (3634m), Gahinga (3474m) and Muhabura (4127m).
▪ Other animals including – the rare golden monkeys (Cercopithecus mitis kandti), Cape buffalo, black fronted duiker; a profusion of bird life including the Ruwenzori turaco and beautiful francolins
▪ In the vicinity the beautiful lakes Burera and Ruhondo.
▪ The Virunga ecosystem is composed of 4 major vegetation zones: Bamboo (base altitude), Hagenia and Hypericum forest (2600-3300m), Sub-alpine (3300-4000m) and Afro-alpine (4000+m)
▪ Between Bisoke and Sabyinyo volcanoes lie lakes Ngezi, Nyirambubu, Gasindikira and Muraro. Crater Lake is at the peak of Bisoke. Visit to the lakes can be organized
Gorilla Viewing Rules:
▪ Keep a minimum of 21 feet (7 meters) from the Gorillas – this is to protect them from catching diseases.
▪ Do NOT remove anything from the park e.g., flowers, fruit, porcupine quills, etc.
▪ Keep your voices down at all times
▪ No Flash photography is allowed
▪ Do NOT eat or drink when close to the gorillas – this is a disease risk
▪ Do NOT touch the Gorillas – they are wild animals
▪ The maximum time you can spend with the gorillas is ONE hour, however if the gorillas become agitated or nervous the guide will finish the visit early
▪ If you are feeling ill, or are carrying a contagious disease, please volunteer to stay behind. An alternative visit will be arranged for you, or you will be refunded your viewing permit money
▪ Do NOT spit in the park and go to the bathroom only as instructed by your guide
▪ Do not leave anything in the park, if you pack it in, pack it out!
▪ Obey the local guide instructions at all times, for the safety of the Gorillas and visitors
What to expect day of:
Breakfast around 6am since we need to be at park HQ by 7am. After breakfast we will be driven to the park HQ office where we will meet up with the other trekkers. Mountain View Lodge is about 15 minutes away from park meeting place. Typically there will be about 50-60 tourists, but recent report noted that due to the recent increase in the trekking fee tourist numbers were down (TA – Dec’12 only 2 groups of trekkers, TA – Dec’12 only 5 people in a group to Kwitonda). While we have coffee or tea the guides talk and figure out who will go to each group. Not all groups are the same – some groups are large, some small; some are close, some are far; some have babies, others have older “kids”. So basically the guides will be matchmaking us to see who goes to which group. Typically it is around 8am before groups are sorted and we are on our way.
Once groups are confirmed you get back in the car and drive fifteen minutes to an hour to get the spot where the trek will begin. Meeting us will be “trackers” and “porters”. You are encouraged to hire a porter even if you don’t think you will need them since if the hike gets tough they will help “push” or “pull” you up. They will offer you a walking stick – definitely recommended. You can buy your walking stick after the trek – they typically go for about $10.
So you start off by hiking through fields– usually at least 30 minutes, but read can be up to an hour and a half hike until you get to the park. The park has a wall around it made out of rock – this is to keep buffalo and mountain elephants out of the fields. Will need to climb over the wall and from there the vegetation increases as we get to the “forest”. From some reports it seems like there is often a bamboo belt/forest close to the wall – it is dense and not a good place for photos so don’t want to be there. From the wall it can be 15 minutes to an hour or two to get to the gorilla group.
Once we get to the group – typically our guide will thank the trekkers whom we may not see much of after this so if you are going to tip them this is your best chance. We will leave our backpacks and walking sticks with the porters. You have to be able to hold whatever you take to the gorillas at that point and can’t leave anything like cameras on the ground (or else they may end up being a gorilla toy). Short walk to the gorillas and the clock starts – one hour. Sometimes the gorillas are moving around so we may end up moving quite a bit. After the hour we head back to the car.
Tipping your Guides, Trackers and Porters:
Just for treks plan on at least $60-$80 a trek in tips – here are some commonly suggested amounts:
▪ Gorilla Trek Guide US $20 per trek
▪ Gorilla Trek Assistant Guide US $10 per trek
▪ Gorilla Trackers US $5 per tracker per trek (usually 3 or 4 trackers are used to find the gorillas)
▪ Gorilla Security trekker – Some reports say you shouldn’t tip the security guys and please do not take pictures of them, but I have see where some give US $5per trek. There are usually 2-3 security trekkers, depending on activity in the DRC there could be more.
▪ Porter US $10 per trek, but recent reports that they may be increasing to $20 per day (they don’t earn a salary and many used to be poachers so hiring them really helps the community and helps them motivated to help the gorillas) [porters can also help “pull” or “push” you up the mountain so if we get a far group then I am probably hiring 2!]
Easier Groups to Trek –
▪ Sabyinyo is an easily accessible group led by the parks largest silverback Guhonda – he is massive and powerful at 220 kgs
▪ There are fewer members (about 14) within this family than in the other groups however they are equally impressive as a family
▪ Named after the rugged Sabyinyo volcano. Sabyinyo means ‘old man’s teeth’
▪ 11/12 – Guhonda is 42 years old and it is reported that his son, a twenty year old silverback, Gihishamosisi, is now disputing the ownership of the group, often preventing Guhonda from mating
▪ They have a “crazy” blackback who enjoys terrorizing tourist, but he seems to have mellowed
▪ To be confirmed/updated: 2 silverback (1 old, 1 young), 4 adult females, 1 non adult female, 1 juvenile, 4 babies
▪ Jan’12 (McDonald) – easiest hike of trip, Nov’12 (McDonald) – 1st trek finished shoot by 10:50 and returned to vehicle by 11:45
▪ Relatively new group formed from different existing families, namely from Agashya/Group 13 and Sabyinyo and eventually more gorillas joined
▪ Led by silverback Mumyinya, a large, pretty confident gorilla and he seems to like attention
▪ They have twins which are about a year and a half old as of 12/12
▪ About 17 individuals located on the Sabyinyo volcano, they do overlap territory with the Sabyinyo group so usually a relatively easy trek
▪ To be confirmed/updated: 1 silverback, 6 adult females, 4 sub adult females and 5 babies
▪ Jan’12 (McDonald) – about 50 minute hike to wall, another 45 minutes to gorillas, TA – Nov’12 fairly easy hike; Oct’12 (McDonald) – 1st trek an easy 4 out of 10, 2nd trek an easy 2
▪ 20ish member group is named after it’s former silverback, Kwitonda, whom passed away September 2012. Kwitonda means “humble one”
▪ Kwitonda has three silverbacks and in 11/12 inquisitive juveniles
▪ Having migrated from DRC, this group tends to range far sometimes making it a moderately difficult trek. The McDonald’s trekked this group twice in November 2012 – both times pretty easy.
▪ Jan’12 (McDonald) – 40 minute hike to wall, another 40 minutes to gorillas, Dec’12 easy hike TA, Nov’12 (McDonald) – trek about a 2 out of 10, Oct’12 (McDonald) – hike an easy 4 out of 10
▪ When first habituated this group had only 13 members hence its name and now has approximately 25 members
▪ Renamed after its silverback Agasha
▪ Located on Sabyinyo Volcano
▪ To be confirmed/updated: 1 silverback, 13 adult females, 2 sub adult female, 2 twin babies, 2 juvenile, 5 babies
▪ Jan’12 (McDonald)– hike to wall steep but fairly easy, from wall about 25 minutes, TA – Dec’12 moderate to difficult hike,
More Difficult Groups to Trek –
Susa or Sousa: ▪ The largest group with 35 to 40 gorillas
▪ This was Dian Fossey’s research group
▪ Notoriously hard to trek as it tends to range high into the mountains
▪ The group is also well-known for having rare 5 year old twins named Byishimo and Impano (Hirwa now has twins also)
▪ To be confirmed/updated: 4 silverbacks, 5 blackbacks, 12 adult females, 3 sub adult females, 1 sub adult male, 2 non adult female, 2 juveniles & 13 babies, but group recently split so now about 29 gorillas remain in the group
▪ Susa is the name for stinging nettles
▪ Sept ’12 – visitation was suspended to Susa since they moved too far from park headquarters, but visitation has been restored
▪ Led by the calm and easy going Ubumwe
▪ Amahoro is made up of 17/18 members and means “peaceful”
▪ To be confirmed/updated: 2 silverback, 1 blackback, 6 adult female, 2 young female, 2 sub adult males, 1 juvenile, 3 babies
▪ To reach Amahoro one must endure a fairly steep climb however the climb is well worth it once in contact with this tranquil group
▪ Has 11/12 members,
▪ Umubano were originally Amahoro members but broke off after the dominant silverback was challenged by Charles, now the leader of Umubano
▪ Ubumwe of Amahoro respects Charles and the two groups live peacefully alongside each others territories
▪ Umubano means “live together”
▪ To be confirmed/updated: 1 silverback, 1 sub adult male; 4 adult females, 2 younger female, 1 juvenile & 3 babies
▪ Intermediate to difficult hike
Karisimbi (formerly Susa B):
▪ New group, made of 15 members originally from Susa group
▪ Separated from Susa and is called Karisimbi, the highest peak in Rwanda since they stay there most of the time
▪ Per Gorilla doctors, visit on 11/14/12 to check on dominant silverback, Getty, who is 16.5 years old
▪ Getty had an interaction with the Susa group so probably similar territory so would probably be a decent hike.
▪ 11-13 individuals located on the Visoke volcano
▪ 2 silverbacks – it is considered an “intermediate” hike
▪ Aug’12 report – about an hour to the wall, not far from the wall, Nov’12 – TA, steep trek, TA – Aug’12, fairly steep trek
▪ 10 individuals located on the Visoke volcano
▪ Formerly a research group so not much information on them
▪ Includes Maggie, a 32 year old female and 1 of only 3 gorillas alive that Dian Fossey studied
▪ Silverback Bwenge is the son of Titus, one of Dian Fossey’s original gorillas and who is known to be the longest serving silverback, strongest, and the silverback with the most amount of children ever fathered
▪ Gorilla gossip – Bwenge’s mom (Maggie?) left Titus’ family to join her son and then they had a child – very Oedipus and very rare for gorillas
▪ July’11 – 30 minute drive, 1 hour 15 minutes to wall, then 30-40 minutes to gorillas, July ’11 about 2 ½ hours to gorillas
▪ McDonald’s trekked them October 2012, usually a long uphill hike. Oct ‘12 it took them 1.5 hours just to get to the wall. They started at 8,000 feet and gained about 1,000 feet of elevation in the hike – they gave it a 9 out of 10 in difficulty.
▪ 6-7 gorillas
▪ Aug’12 – report of unsuccessful in finding them
▪ Families juveniles observed dismantling a snare (July’12) a few days after a snare killed a family member
• Alex is McDonald’s usual guide
• François mentioned – he kind of puts on a show of behavior and sounds, most say it is good, but one couple really didn’t like it
• Patrick – “We had a great guide in Patrick. I am sure all the guides know their stuff but Patrick had such a wonderful personality for the job, calm yet brimming with enthusiasm for these apes, like your favorite teacher in school.”
Mountain Gorillas – General Information
The two mountain populations, one in the Virunga Volcanoes area on the border between the Democratic Republic of Congo and Rwanda and the other in the Bwindi National Park in Uganda, belong to the Eastern group, which changes their classification to Gorilla Beringei Beringei. After chimpanzees, gorillas are our closest relatives and share about 97.7% of our DNA. Mountain gorillas are the largest living primates, an adult male weighing up to 180 kilograms (400 pounds), with an arm span of about two meters (seven feet). They have longer, thicker fur than Lowland gorillas and a slightly different nose shape among other skeletal differences.
Mountain gorillas do not survive in captivity, which is why they are not seen in zoos. Tracking the mountain gorilla through the misty forests requires patience and stamina, often walking for hours in the mud and the wet. Finally meeting them in the undergrowth is an inspiring moment. Quietly chewing away at their vegetarian delicacies, they seem like a marooned human family. The tender grooming and firm disciplining of their offspring seems all too familiar. The gorilla family cast a wary glance at the sudden human intrusion into their private world, but is comforted by the clucking made by the trackers. When provoked, the noisy but harmless silverback grunts, screeches, bares his fangs and beats his chest, before slithering off with attendant females, offspring and other mature males.
Mountain Gorilla Facts and trivia
1. The name Gorilla is derived from a Greek word Gorillai meaning hairy women.
2. Today there remain only 10 countries (all within the western, central and Eastern Africa region) with naturally occurring gorilla populations.
3. The Latin name for mountain gorillas is Gorilla Gorilla Berengei
4. Mountain gorillas are only found in three countries in the world – Uganda, Rwanda, and DRC
5. Mountain Gorillas are critically endangered specie. There are only about 786 mountain gorillas left in the world.
6. Over half the world’s mountain gorilla population is to be found in Bwindi Impenetrable Forest in Uganda.
7. The rest are to be found in the Virunga Volcanoes shared between Uganda, Rwanda and DR Congo.
8. Mountain gorillas are not known to survive outside their natural habitat, meaning that there are none to be found in zoos around the world.
9. Gorillas are the largest living primates.
10. Gorillas are ground-dwelling herbivores.
11. Gorillas are divided into two species Western Lowland gorillas and Eastern Gorillas –
12. There was considered to be a single gorilla species, with three subspecies: the Western Lowland Gorilla, the Eastern Lowland Gorilla and the Mountain Gorilla. There is now agreement that there are two species with two subspecies each. More recently it has been claimed that a third subspecies exists in one of the species.
13. Almost all gorillas share the same blood type (B)
14. Like humans, mountain gorillas have individual fingerprints.
15. The DNA of gorillas is 98%–99% identical to that of a human, and they are the next closest living relatives to humans after the two chimpanzee species.
16. Man is gorilla’s only enemy.
17. A gorilla family is categorized in this way: Infant – 0 to 3 years; Juvenile 3 to 5 years; Sub-adult 5 to about 9 years; Adult female – About 9+ years depending on when she starts her menses. Blackback 9 to12 years. Silverback 12+ years, depending on when the male develops a spray of silver on his back marking him as mature enough to head a family.
18. Females usually conceive at around 8 to 9 years with their first baby being born before age 10. Pregnancy lasts 8 and-a-half months. Infants are weaned at about 2 years, but will ‘comfort suckle’ as long as their mother lets them, or until she gives birth again – usually after around 3 to 4 years.
19. An adult female mountain gorilla has a reproductive and menstrual cycle of 28 days just like a human female.
20. A silverback is an adult male gorilla, typically more than 12 years of age and named for the distinctive patch of silver hair on his back.
21. A silverback gorilla has large canine teeth that come with maturity.
22. These large canine teeth are used for – tearing off tree bark; act as leverage when climbing up trees; prying into ant mounds to get the ants out; scrapping off soft limestone to get to the salt within.
23. Gorillas consider ants a delicacy.
24. Gorillas follow a very strict pecking order, with the dominant silverback enjoying key privileges and first rights to all that is desirable in a gorilla’s world. For example, if a blackback or adult female chances upon an ant mound and begins to feast on the ants, should a silverback come by, without question, the lesser gorilla will allow the silverback first feeding rights.
25. Silverbacks do not allow blackbacks mating rights with the females in a family.
26. Gorillas are very intelligent, and they share with us a full range of emotions: love, hate, fear, grief, joy, greed, generosity, pride, shame, empathy, and jealousy. They laugh when they are tickled and cry when they are sad or hurt. Gorillas cry with sounds, not tears.
27. One way in which gorillas establish and reinforce bonds is by social grooming. One gorilla will groom the other by combing through its fur with its fingers and teeth. In addition to the cleanliness it promotes, social grooming allows close contact and touch between the animals. Social grooming can relax a gorilla to the point that it will go into a trance.
28. Each evening, gorillas build nests in trees and on the forest floor, in which to spend the night. Up to the age of three, the young share their mothers’ nest. However, the nest-building instinct is so strong that they experiment with making their own nest at an early age.
29. In addition, each gorilla has a unique nose print with which researchers use to identify it.
30. Gorillas rarely attack humans. But in an encounter a person should stay still and refrain from staring or pointing at the gorilla.
31. Gorillas are susceptible to various parasites and diseases, especially to pneumonia during the long, cold wet seasons.
32. Male silverback gorillas can weigh 50-100 pounds more – and are about 10 times stronger – than the biggest American football players.
33. Gorillas live in tight knit social units – families, usually headed by a dominant silverback who determines where the group will range, eat, and sleep among other things.
34. When the group is attacked by humans, leopards, or other gorillas, the Silverback(s) will protect them even at the cost of his own life.
35. Gorillas can be very fussy eaters, eating only certain parts of plants. They may even stack the parts they don’t want in a neat pile off to the side.
36. It is commonly believed that silverbacks always kill the young ones not sired by them. This is not necessarily true among mountain gorillas as the dominant male takes care of all the young born to his harem of adult females as his own.
37. Habituation is the process where families of wild gorilla are gradually made used to non-threatening human presence. This process takes about two to three years and it involves UWA trackers monitoring gorillas for months on end. Once habituated, a gorilla family is then open for tourism.