Seeing the gorillas in their native habitat is an activity that appears on many people’s bucket list. In the Gorilla Highlands, there are three parks where one can do this in the Virunga Mountains. It is in these mountains where three countries come together. They are Uganda, Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). I opted to do the tracking on the Uganda side in Mgahinga Gorilla National Park.
Mgahinga Gorilla National Park
Mgahinga Gorilla National Park is one of two national parks in Uganda where a person can visit the mountain gorillas. The other park is Bwindi Impenetrable National Park. Mgahinga is the smallest of the ten national parks in Uganda, but it’s set against a beautiful backdrop of three volcanoes. One of the volcanoes is Muhabura as seen in the picture below.
Muhabura means “the guide” because it is a visible landmark from all three countries, stands at 4,127 m (13,540 ft).
Mgahinga was first established in 1930 when the British Administration of Uganda established it as a game sanctuary. It became a national park in 1991 to preserve the mountain gorillas. While national parks and gorilla preservation are important, it forced the Batwa (Pygmies) to be removed from what they had called their home for centuries.
Mountain Gorillas are found only in Uganda, Rwanda and the DRC. Their population has been tracked since 1971 when there were 275 mountain gorillas. It declined from that date to a low in 1981 of only 242. Much of that decline was attributed to poaching and deforestation.
Since 1981 there has been an increase in their population. Today there are more than 1,000 mountain gorillas, but they remain critically endangered.
The population growth is attributed to the introduction of park guards, veterinary care, community support projects and regulated tourism. Mgahinga has just one habituated group of mountain gorillas and only eight people are allowed to visit the group each day.
What Is A Habituated Group?
A habituated group of mountain gorillas has been acclimated to be comfortable around humans. This happens through a process led by experts from the Uganda Wildlife Authority (UWA). Habituation can take up to two years. Habituation makes the mountain gorillas more accepting of people in their territory. It also helps promote the safety of tourists who have come to see these beautiful animals.
Another benefit of this process is that UWA authorities have learned to understand the mountain gorillas better and have also learned how to treat them for sickness or injury.
There are 14 habituated mountain gorilla groups in Uganda. In Mgahinga, there is only one habituated group. The group has nine members. The oldest is the lead silverback and is the father to most of the group. In addition, there are two more silverbacks, two blackbacks, two females and both of their babies.
In total, there about 80 mountain gorillas in Mgahinga, but only one habituated group.
Gorilla Tracking Permit
To participate in Gorilla Tracking, one must have a permit. Since I was tracking in Uganda, the permit was purchased in advance from the UWA. When we were planning our trip, the permits in Uganda were 600 USD and in Rwanda, they were 1,500 USD. These are per person and includes one hour of time with the mountain gorillas.
The Introduction to Mgahinga Gorilla National Park
The day began with a pickup from the hotel in Kisori, Uganda at 7:00 am. It was only a 20-minute drive to one of the two entrances of Mgahinga Gorilla National Park. A phone call was made the day before to see where the gorillas were in relationship to the two park entrances. That determined which gate we would drive to. Mountain gorillas are relatively sedentary and don’t move more than a kilometer (.62 miles) in a day.
When our driver left us off, I thought the tracking was starting from there. But that was only the “introduction.” We walked from the parking area up, up and up along a rocky path that helps prevent severe erosion. It was tricky walking but the hiking was going to become much more strenuous.
Our group met at the ranger station, had an orientation and then we all collected our walking sticks. They would be needed!!
The Tracking Begins
We stopped throughout our hike to observe the view. It was beautiful as we looked out over the western part of Uganda in the early morning.
And we also would take an occasional, very needed rest!! As you can see in the picture above, I’m easily the oldest person in the group with the others mostly in their 20’s. Travel Tip: Do this while you are young!!
The Gorilla Trackers
Trackers were sent out in advance of our group to find the mountain gorillas. Our set of trackers was in contact with the advance trackers by walkie-talkie and cell phone.
In the picture above, the tracker who provided a steady hand for me on the steep terrain was Felix, who is pictured at the right of the picture. He certainly earned the big tip I gave him at the end of the journey!
As you can see, machetes and guns are being carried by the trackers. The machete is used to clear vegetation to help carve out the trail. The guns are only used as a deterrent if there would be an uncontrollable situation. The machete was used the guns were not.
The Tracking Continues
Shortly after we started the tracking, we received word from the advance trackers of the location of the mountain gorillas. We were told to take a shortcut laterally across the mountain. That was some of the best news I heard all day!! For me, most all of the hiking was challenging. The vegetation is very, very thick; there are lots of nettles that stick to your clothing and at times the trek will take you straight up through the vegetation on some very slippery slopes.
The Mountain Gorillas Are Close
About 2 hours and 15 minutes into the tracking, we were approaching the gorillas. Felix, the tracker who brought up the last part of the group and was behind me, asked if I could smell anything different. I couldn’t tell, but he said the gorillas were very close.
After a little more walking, the group gathered together and were again given our final instructions that included not to move if a gorilla started to move toward us. Sometimes they might be curious about us and sometimes they are just going to another area with other mountain gorillas from the group. We also were told that if we had to sneeze or cough, to cover it up. Gorillas can catch an illness from humans. Don’t drink water. Don’t smoke. In other words, use common sense when around wild animals!!
The Mountain Gorillas
After the reminders, we walked a short distance and there was the first mountain gorilla, a silverback.
Silverbacks are adult males and are called that because gray or silver-colored hair develops on their backs with age, typically more than 12 years of age.
Eventually, more of the group was seen in the immediate area, so we proceeded to move about to take our pictures. Helping us were the trackers who used machetes to cut the vegetation making it easier for us to move around the area.
One of the best mountain gorillas of the group for pictures was one of the females. You have to remember that gorillas don’t pose and you don’t get perfect lighting conditions! You think you’re ready to take a great photo and suddenly the mountain gorilla moves and part of the picture is blurred. But this female sat for the longest time eating the vegetation and watching the younger ones play.
You can see how “photogenic” she was in the picture above as she watches the trees where the babies were. And she’s also the mountain gorilla in the featured image of this post.
They Love To Play
The last part of the hour, the females and younger ones started to play.
While the pictures above are good ones of the younger ones playing, that activity is best captured on video.
At the end of it all, we had some of our own play time with many of us having our picture taken in front of one of the silverbacks.
Two Close Up Experiences
I was fortunate to have two very interesting close-up experiences with the mountain gorillas when they were moving.
As I previously mentioned, we were told not to move when a mountain gorilla came near us. I was one of the lucky ones to have a silverback come right by me! At the time I was just watching him and didn’t have my camera in a position to shoot. Fortunately, our group shared pictures/videos and I found the video that shows what happened.
The video begins as the group member turns his camera from elsewhere. You’ll see three people standing together and I’m right behind them. I was the first person the silverback went by as he moved downhill. Quite an experience!!
The second close up experience was with the two younger mountain gorillas as they moved to the tree to play. This happened to me twice and each time one of the trackers then asked me to move out from under them when they climbed the tree. I’ve been pooped on by birds flying overhead, but a young mountain gorilla might have been too much!!!
Our Graduation Ceremony
The climb back down the hill was even more difficult than the climb going up. Instead of going the long way, we went straight down the hill. There was no worn path. The path was being cut for us. And most everyone in the group ending up sliding on their butt……most of us doing that unexpectedly!!
Upon reaching the ranger station where we started the tracking, we all sat around sharing our experience. Each of us received a certificate. The presentation for mine was left to the end since I was the “Silverback” of the group!!
It was a great experience sharing the mountain gorilla’s habitat with them for one hour. The pictures and videos will serve as a lasting reminder of a memorable day in Mgahinga Gorilla National Park.