KAMPALA/KIGALI – Uganda abounds with incredible sights, from soaring falls to savannas teeming with wildlife. Experience the country’s many wonders with or explore the dense vegetation that is home to the world’s endangered species: the golden monkey and the Gorillas.
There are fewer than 1020 mountain gorillas in existence, and gorilla trekking provides a rare opportunity to observe the everyday interactions of these gentle, mysterious primates.
Mountain gorillas only live in the dense vegetation of Uganda’s Bwindi Impenetrable Forest National Park and along with the dormant volcanic Virunga mountain range that stretches across all the three neighboring of Rwanda, Uganda and the Democratic Republic of Congo. An experience for a Rwanda Gorilla Trek is only possible in the country’s largest national park known as the Volcanoes that constitutes the second largest part of the Virunga protected Area before DR Congo’s Virunga National Park.
In 1981, environmentalists estimated there were only 254 mountain gorillas left in the world, but the small population is rising slowly,” revealed Uganda’s Tourism Professor Ephraim Kamuntu.
“We have over 50% of the World’s remaining population of mountain gorillas, 11% of the world’s recorded species of birds constituting 50% of Africa’s bird species richness. We have 7.8% of the Global Mammal Diversity constituting 39% of Africa’s Mammal Richness; Uganda also has 19% of Africa’s amphibian species richness and 14% of Africa’s reptile species richness, 1,249 recorded species of butterflies and 600 species of fish,” Prof Kamuntu proudly stated.
Gorilla tourism alone accounts for about 60% of the total wildlife protected area earnings for Uganda.
“Substantial numbers of species move across our national boundaries, with birds regularly migrating as far as Europe and Asia; Uganda is committed to protecting all,” he said
The mountain gorillas of Mgahinga Gorilla National Park range freely in the Virunga massif that is also shared between Uganda, and the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). “This in itself, he noted calls for substantial regional and international collaboration, in order to better manage these species that cross borders.
Meanwhile, since these critically endangered creatures can’t survive in captivity, the only way to see them is by trekking up to their natural habitat: misty cloud forests that can reach altitudes of 14,763 feet, the Nat Geo Wild documentary on Uganda revealed.
There are two gorilla trekking spots in Uganda: Bwindi Impenetrable Forest National Park and Mgahinga Gorilla National Park. Gorillas don’t pay mind to political borders, so populations across the Virungas are relatively fluid. Uganda has an edge, however, since Bwindi alone is home to half of the world’s mountain gorillas.
Bwindi Impenetrable Forest National Park (also called “The Place of Darkness” due to its dense treetops) is an ancient, montane and lowland forest spanning 128 square miles. The region was named a UNESCO World Heritage site thanks to its incredible biodiversity and a large number of endangered species that call it home.
Mgahinga Gorilla National Park accounts for 13 square miles of the larger Virunga habitat, which stretches across 168 square miles into Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
The national park includes three of the eight major Virunga peaks: Mount Gahinga, Mount Muhabura, and Mount Sabyinyo.
There are strict regulations in place to make sure the gorillas stay healthy and wild—starting with the gorilla trekking permit process. Daily viewings of each gorilla group are extremely limited, so visitors should apply well before their desired dates.
Mountain gorilla trekking involves hiking through the bamboo forest of the Virunga volcanoes to find these gorillas. You can stay with the gentle giants for a one-hour maximum and are allowed to take photos and videos. It is an amazing experience to get up close to these peaceful beasts.
Many tourists give fantastic reviews about the gorilla trekking experience and many come back to track these primates again. They have unforgettable and everlasting memories about meeting the gorillas and we think it’s fair to say that whoever has come to Rwanda has never regretted their stay here.
Most trekking in Uganda takes place in Bwindi, where there are multiple starting points and several gorilla families to track. Visits are led by park rangers and groups of eight are allowed to observe the gorillas for one hour, in silence and at a safe distance.
It’s hard work to reach the gorillas. It requires navigating uphill and downhill through thick tangles of vines, thorns, and roots. The appropriately named Bwindi Impenetrable Forest National Park is only accessible by foot. There are no paths, no signs, no directions—and more often than not, no clearings (which is why the park rangers carry machetes). The good news? The reward seems much better after all of the hard work.
The trekkers gather at 7 a.m. at the park headquarters to be grouped according to the difficulty of their hikes and it takes about three hours to break inclusive to reach the gorillas.
Common rules, which are often repeated by the rangers, stay at least 22 feet away and keep voices low. No camera flashes. Avoid sustained eye contact or finger-pointing. If a gorilla moves toward you, step calmly out of the way. If one charges, follow the guide’s instruction to drop to the ground in submission. Don’t freak out if the silverback beats his leathery chest. He’s just showing off, or perhaps warming himself.
Conservation in the park has become a national priority. Visitors must buy separate permits not only to see the gorillas but also to hike the volcanoes or explore caves. Much of the revenue is dedicated to fighting poaching.
Despite their cost, permits can be scarce. Some people trek on consecutive days in order to observe different families. So long as the visitors keep coming, and the Ugandans hold fast to their duty as stewards, the gorillas should continue to thrive in a rare ecological balance that benefits both communities.
Uganda Wildlife Authority, the body responsible for wildlife in Uganda this year, introduced new tariffs for tourists wishing to visit national parks as it responds to the rising costs of managing the parks.
The new park entry permits authorities say will encourage an influx of domestic tourists and filmmakers into the parks.
A gorilla permit is a document or card issued UWA that allows any traveler above 15 years of age to trek mountain gorillas in any of the three. A permit allows you to view gorillas for only one hour but the gorilla trekking itself can take a minimum of 30 minutes or up to nine hours while looking for gorillas in the forest.
The tariffs, which will take effect at the beginning of January 2021, permits for tracking Golden Monkeys in Mgahinga National Park and the other parks have however been increased for different sets of tourists.
UWA says effective July 1, 2020, Uganda gorilla permits will be selling at $700 for non-residents and $600 for foreign residents with working permits in any of the East African community countries.
But today, permits cost USD $100 per person and USD1500 for gorilla habituation experience permits. A single gorilla permit can only be used once, by a single person and to trek Uganda gorillas in only two destinations, Bwindi Impenetrable Forest National Park and Mgahinga Gorilla National.
East Africans including Ugandans will pay UGX 150,000 up from UGX 100,000 in the new arrangement.
Last year, Gorilla permits sales increased from 30,000 to 43,000 with peak season sales of over 100% throughout the year. The Authority says tourists’ arrivals also increased by 10 percent from 303,000 in 2017 to more than 344,000 tourists in 2018, earning the country in excess of UGX115b.
In contrast, Permissions to see the Rwanda Gorillas in the Volcanoes now cost $1,500 each, year-round. The gorilla trekking permits in Congo for both the lowland gorillas and mountain gorillas go for 400 USD for the foreigners and 200 USD for the Congolese citizens.