I decided in this post I would discuss one of the increasingly popular activities for travellers in Africa and how it affects the region. Gorilla trekking in Uganda is a remarkable experience. You are surrounded by rainforest looking at an animal with expressions so human-like you’ll later swear you shared a ‘moment’ with the silverback… and there’s a chance you may have.
With fewer than 900 mountain gorillas left in the world and roughly half of those living in the Bwindi Impenetrable Forest in Uganda, ensuring the impact of your visit is a positive one is vital to gorilla survival. Mountain gorillas can only be found in parts of Uganda, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Rwanda and cannot generally survive in captivity, so trekking into rainforest really is your only chance to see them. In the 1970s population numbers dropped to below 400 due to poaching and habitat destruction and it is only subsequent conservation efforts and the rising popularity of gorilla tourism that has led these majestic creatures away from extinction.
Who runs Gorilla Trekking in Uganda?
In Uganda, trekking to the gorillas requires a permit which is purchased through the Ugandan Wildlife Authority. This is a government agency with an edict to preserve and manage Uganda’s wildlife for the Ugandan people. At US$500 per trekking permit (included on Tucan Travel tours) it is hardly an inexpensive activity, so it’s important to know that gorilla trekking is also a vital conservation fund-raising tool. Gorilla tourism profits account for the majority of the UWA’s overall budget which also goes into the conservation and maintenance of 10 national parks and 12 wildlife reserves in Uganda. It has made the mountain gorillas a valuable asset to both the Ugandan people and the government, bringing infrastructure and employment to the region. Since the 1970s mountain gorilla numbers have doubled, and although they are still critically endangered Uganda has a vested interest in ensuring gorilla numbers continue to rise.
When trekking, you are accompanied by a ranger. Rangers are very experienced, often having worked in the area for many years. There is a period of acclimatisation between the gorillas and the rangers which can result in the rangers being able to make similar sounds to the gorillas and, in a way, communicate with them to calm them when the trekkers appear.
UWA ranger at Kyambura Gorge
How are the Gorillas protected?
The major concern surrounding gorilla trekking is that it makes mountain gorillas habituated to humans, making them more vulnerable to poachers. While there is always the chance of poaching, local education programs and cash motivation through the tourism industry has meant poaching is no longer such a problem in Uganda. The biggest threats are the loss of habitat and the potential for diseases transmitted by humans. Amazingly mountain gorillas share 98% of their DNA with humans making them susceptible to the same diseases. When you are with the gorillas you are required to maintain a minimum distance of seven metres (although sometimes the gorillas do not respect these rules!) as a way of protecting them from human contact. If you are ill on the day of the trek, you will not be allowed to trek, as decided by the park ranger. In addition, trekking groups are limited to a maximum of eight people who have just one hour with the gorillas to minimise behavioural disturbance and risk of disease transmission.
How to behave while Gorilla Trekking?
Of course, it is important for you to do your part and there are several things you can do to make your trip more pleasant for yourself as well as the gorillas. Follow the guidance of the park rangers at all times and do not try and touch or in any way interfere with the mountain gorillas. Do not trek if you are ill and do not carry food or drink with you when you trek. Pack appropriately and make sure you have good walking boots and waterproofs!
You can read more on the Uganda Wildlife Authority on their website: http://www.ugandawildlife.org/.
About the Author: Rebecca is Digital Marketing Manager for Tucan Travel. She has travelled independently and on group tours through South America, Africa, Asia, Middle East and Europe. You can find her on Google+ or read her other contributions here.