You do not teach the paths of the forest to an old gorilla
The shy Mountain gorillas have never survived in captivity. They all live in only three countries; Rwanda, Uganda and the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
Here they are concentrated in the Virunga Mountain Range which harbors Volcanoes National Park in Rwanda, Bwindi Impenetrable Forest in Uganda and the Virunga National Park in the DRC. These parks are interconnected and the gorillas roam freely between all three. The DRC is the least stable country politically, and for safety, we do not advise our travelers to trek here.
What is different about Gorilla trekking in Rwanda
One-third of all Mountain Gorillas live in Volcanoes National Park between altitudes of 7,545 and 14,760 ft (2,300 and 4,500 m).
Rwanda has a dozen habituated gorilla families. Other families are set aside for research or are simply wild.
Each family can be visited by a maximum of eight guests for an hour every day. On the mountain, the only way for a silverback to have his own family is to fight a dominant silverback or to leave and poach females.
When a new family is formed or a baby born, they are given a name as part of the gorilla naming ceremony Kwita Izina that takes place yearly.
What is different about Gorilla trekking in Uganda
In Uganda, Mountain gorillas only live in the dense vegetation of Uganda’s Bwindi Impenetrable Forest National Park and Mgahinga (Place of Darkness). You can trek for gorillas in both locations. Uganda has 15 habituated gorilla families. Each family can be visited by a maximum of eight guests for an hour every day. In Uganda, there are also two groups undergoing habituation, a process which introduces human presence to the family. These groups can be trekked on the one-of-a-kind Gorilla Habituation Experience Program, where you spend four hours with a family, observing them and staying near in order for them to be more relaxed in human presence. This experience is an all-day trek.
The Mountain Gorilla families of Rwanda
Taking its name from the silverback, Agashya means “the news” and refers to the fact that the silverback hijacked an entire gorilla family of 12 from Nyakarima- the silverback of Group 13.
Agashya now has 27 gorillas. The silverback is famous for snatching gorillas from other groups, attracting lone gorillas and procreating. Currently, the family has the highest number of baby gorillas. They occupy the same territory as the Sabyinyo group but can move deeper into the mountains when sensing danger. Agashya also has a habit of moving to a higher altitude and you must be physically fit to hike to this group.
Amahoro means “serenity” in Kinyarwanda and the family is known for being peaceful and congenial under the leadership of a sweet main silverback Ubumwe. This family of almost 20 members (including two silverbacks) established their home on the slopes of Mount Bisoke which makes for a fairly strenuous trek. The laidback nature of Amahoro’s leader has resulted in some breakaways creating the Umubano group.
A few years ago the Bwenge gorilla family lost six young gorillas and now is comprised of only 11 members and their silverback. The Bwenge silverback, whose name means “wisdom”, left his original group over a decade ago and started attracting females from other families. The family can be tracked on the slopes of Karisoke between Karisimbi and Bisoke mountains, which is challenging to trek to as you have to navigate muddy, slippery and long slopes. The Bwenge group appeared in the movie ‘Gorillas in the Mist’.
Hirwa means “the lucky one” and was formed in June 2006 with parts of the Sabyinyo and the Agashya families. A small family of around 16 with one silverback, this group also has twins. They inhabit the foothills of Mt. Sabyinyo to the side of Mt. Gahinga.
Kwitonda means “humble one” and refers to a group of around 23 gorillas including four silverbacks. The Kwitonda family came to Rwanda from the DRC. They wander the lower slopes of Mt. Muhabura and can be onerous to track, especially when they move to the upper slopes or far away.
A recently discovered family that has been named for the guide who found them.
The “old man’s teeth” Volcano of Sabyinyo Mountain features a family with the largest of all the gorillas in Rwanda. Guhonda is a prime attraction and fulfills the image of a fierce, huge silverback who is an active protector of his family. The main challenger Ryango has not succeeded in toppling Guhonda. The family of 9 is also located on the park’s edge on the gentle slopes of Mount Sabyinyo and Gahinga and is one of the trekking favorites.
Susa A Family
Named after the River Susa that drains through their home range, it might be the most famous gorilla Family in Rwanda as it was studied by Dian Fossey between 1967 and 1985. It is the oldest habituated gorilla group and hosts the oldest habituated gorilla, Poppy. Born in 1976, Poppy is believed to have been part of Dian Fossey’s original gorilla group.
Originally the group had 42 individuals but when it split in two in 2008 it was reduced to 33 gorillas including three silverbacks. Susa A also has playful young twin gorillas, Impano and Byishimo.
It is usually found at higher altitudes on the slopes of Mt. Karisimbi and this trek is suitable for fit trekkers only. Prepare for an entire day of trekking to this distant location.
Susa B or Karisimbi Family
Having split from the original Susa in 2008, the Karisimbi family is hard to track as they live on the upper slopes of Mt. Karisimbi at an altitude of 14,786 ft (4,507m). Treks are long and steep to the higher slopes of the volcano on top of the Karisimbi caldera. This trek is only for serious hikers who can climb for an entire day.
Titus was born when Dian Fossey studied his group at Karisoke. He lost his entire family, including his father, uncle, and brother to poachers. His mother and sister joined other families and Titus was orphaned and raised by unrelated male gorillas. When young, Dian described Titus as underdeveloped and spindly with breathing difficulties… in 1991 he became the leader of his group when he took it over from the silverback Beetsme in a coup. In 2007, he had to fight his son Kuryama for leadership. Kuryama passed away in 2012. Titus overcame many obstacles and so is considered one of the most successful of all the gorillas. He died on 14 September 2009.
This group is used primarily for research but can occasionally be visited.
The Ugenda family is named for their habit of always being “on the move” or “mobile”. Their unique habit of constantly changing area makes this group of around 11 gorillas difficult to track.
Umubano meaning “living together” or “neighborliness” was formed by Charles, a silverback from Amahoro who defeated the dominant male Ubumwe after months of disagreements and left with a few of his females. There are 11 individuals and two silver back. (Today Ubumwe and Charles get on really well.)
The Mountain Gorilla families of Uganda
Mubare aka Mubale(or M-Group) Gorilla Family
Located in Buhoma and led by the Silverback Kanyonyi this group has 11 members and was the original group to be habituated, a process that began in 1998.
It may take as much as a 5-hour round trip to track the group. This group has been visited by tourists since 1991.
Habinyanja (or H-Group) Gorilla Family
Roaming over a wide range of the Buhoma area in Bwindi Impenetrable Forest this group has 17 members led by Makara.
Habinyanja comes from the local name for water “Nyanja” referring to the swamp where they were first discovered.
Rushegura (or R-Group) Gorilla Family
Known for staying close to the park headquarters in Buhoma, it may on occasion be easier to track this group’s 16 members. Led by Kabukojo they sometimes venture out of the park and have been seen outside tents on occasion.
Oruzogo Gorilla Family
Found in the Ruhija area of Bwindi Impenetrable Forest this group of 17 gorillas have become popular with visitors as the juveniles and toddlers are playful. If you are lodging in the Buhoma area you will have to leave at six in the morning to complete the hour’s drive before you commence your trek.
The group is led by silverback Batakwe.
Bitukura Gorilla Family
A particularly intelligent group that was habituated inside 15 months (it usually takes at least 2 years), the group was originally 24 strong but has been whittled down to 15 through feuds and recruitments. The group is unusually peaceful.
It is led by Ndahura and they are located in the Ruhija area.
Kyaguliro Gorilla Family A
Also located in Ruhija this family consists of 20 members. When the group was habituated in 1995 no permits were issued and it was set aside as a Research Group studied by the German Max Planck Institute of Evolutionary Anthropology.
When the leader of the group, Rukina, was killed by a lightning strike on April 7th of 2015 inexperienced leadership led to the family being split in two.
The original Rukara group now has 10 members.
Kyaguliro Gorilla Family B
The second group Mukiza has 10 members.
The two families/ groups continue to stay in close proximity to each other which allows for the potential for a reunion or some members crossing over.
Nshongi Gorilla Family
In the Rushaga region, this group of 7 members is named for the Nshongi River where they were discovered… this area is also rich in other primates, birds and butterflies.
The group is headed by Bweza.
Mishaya Gorilla Family
Led by the silverback Mishaya this is a breakaway group from the Nshongi Gorilla Family. There are 12 family members and Mishaya is scrappy leading to battles with other un-habituated gorilla groups.
Kahungye Gorilla Family
Even following a recent split the Kahungye group still consists of 17 members. Opened to visitors in 2011 it is led by Rumanzi and roams the Rushaga area.
Their name comes from a hill where the gorillas were discovered.
Busingye Gorilla Family
Another splinter group, the Busingye family splintered from the Kahungye Group in August of 2012. Consisting of 9 members this group may lead to an additional 8 permits per day if they remain isolated from other groups.
Bweza Gorilla Family
The silverback Kakono leads 12 members following a break up from the Nshongi Family group. Tracked in the Rushaga region, this group is also responsible for the release of much-lauded additional permits.
Nkuringo Gorilla Family
This family might be responsible for the toughest trek in Uganda. Led by Rafiki in the Rushaga region, there are 12 members in the group.
Nyakagezi Gorilla Family
Ten members of this family live in the Mgahinga Gorilla Park. They are the only habituated group out of the 80 Mountain Gorillas living in the park. The group occasionally travels to the Democratic Republic of Congo and Rwanda but have been making their home in Uganda since 2012. Led by the Silverback Mark.
What to Expect When You are Expecting to See a Gorilla (in Rwanda and Uganda)
It is every bit as exciting as your wildest dreams and being prepared will ensure you can make the most of it.
On the Day of your Trek
There will be an early start to get you to the park offices by 7 am. Coffee and tea are available.
Visitors all meet and are assigned to the various gorilla families.
At around 7:30AM you will be called to your group and you will go to your assigned gorilla family’s specific briefing area.
The two gorilla guides who will go out with you will now brief you by introducing themselves, telling you more about the gorilla family you have and providing you with general tips and guidance. All the do’s and dont’s will be covered.
(While you are at the park offices gorilla trackers have already left the park early in the morning to find the families that will meet the visitors and so, you will be directed to the park entrance closest to your family to make the trek shorter.)
Porters will wait at your designated park gate. We have included this service for all of our guests as using them assists the community and it allows you negotiate the soft and sliding volcanic soil, thick vegetation, rivers and streams, barbed branches, stinging nettles, bamboo thickets, extreme undergrowth, and slippery mud. Porters can also create miracles for people who dream of visiting gorillas but are not physically able to trek to them. They have even carried people on stretchers through the forest.
Trekking inside the park boundaries is hard work and so you might stick to farmland on the boundary until you have to enter the park. The trek might last an hour but could be several or an entire day. Your group is escorted by park rangers, who will carry guns for your protection. Your trackers will wait within a few meters from the gorillas and you will have a quick reminder of the do’s and dont’s. You will smell the gorillas before you see them. You will leave all your belongings with the trackers while you spend time with the gorillas (this is to protect the natural habitat and way of life of the gorillas by keeping human food away from them).
Your guide will tell the silverback ‘We come in peace’.
You will now have one hour with your family. You can move with them and the experience remains dynamic.
At the end of the hour, guides and visitors depart while the trackers stay behind collecting data and observing where the gorillas make their beds for the night.
You trek back to the closest park gate (which might be far away). You can tip your guides, park rangers, and porters when you arrive at your pick-up car.
Do’s and Dont’s
Mountain gorillas are wild, but the families introduced to tourists are habituated for years and they do not perceive us as a threat.
The golden hour is strictly adhered to in order to preserve the natural gorilla activities.
Having said that they remain unpredictable.
In order to go on your gorilla trekking tour, you need to be at least 15 years old in Uganda and 16 years old in Rwanda.
Although you can take as many photographs and videos as you like, you cannot use flash photography as this could scare the gorillas and cause them to react violently.
Only 1 hour a day
Habituated gorilla groups spend only one hour a day with visitors. The golden hour is strictly adhered to in order to preserve the natural gorilla activities.
22 ft Rule
Guests are requested to stay 22 ft (7 m) from the gorillas although this is not always entirely practical and depending on the forest, the guides and the silverback, you may get much closer. IF a gorilla approaches you the guide will talk to them to make them back off.
Quiet, calm and non-threatening
Always remain calm and quiet. Never make direct eye contact with a silverback.
No cold or disease
Gorillas share almost all our DNA but none of our resistance. A simple cold could kill them. If you feel unwell your trek will be rescheduled.
What to Pack
Fun Facts about Gorillas
🦍 History of Gorillas
The first gorilla ever to be seen alive in the wild was found by Paul Du Chaillu in his travels through western equatorial Africa between 1856 and 1859.
Mountain gorillas evolved together with humans but they kept a very low profile until a German Army Officer named Captain Robert von Beringe went to meet the Sultan Msinga of Rwanda and killed two in the jungles of Congo in 1902.
The scientific name is Gorilla beringei beringei in his honor.
🦍 The Types
There are Western gorillas and Eastern gorillas (both species are critically endangered) depending on which side of the Congo they live on.
Eastern gorilla Subspecies
The Mountain gorilla and the Grauer gorilla. – Mountain gorillas have thicker and longer hair for protection.
Western gorilla Subspecies
The Western Lowland gorilla (living in Cameroon, Gabon, the DRC, Congo, Angola or Equatorial Guinea) and the Cross-Border gorilla (living on the border between Nigeria and Cameroon).
The Cross-River gorilla is the most scarce and Western Lowland gorillas the most numerous. The Mountain gorilla is the only population showing good, steady growth.
🦍 Reasons for their critically endangered listing
Loss of habitat as a result of human development, uncontrolled logging, mining projects, and subsistence farming.
Deaths derived from the ongoing conflict.
They are hunted for bushmeat or as trophies or pets.
Diseases are a threat to gorilla populations across Africa, especially Ebola and illnesses humans are immune to.
Gorillas have a slow reproduction cycle and few babies per lifetime.
🦍 The Silverback
A silverback is a male gorilla that has turned 12 which is the age when their shiny black fur starts to turn grey. All subspecies of gorillas have silverbacks. The silverback is the only member of the family allowed to mate with the female gorillas.
There can be more than one silverback in a family.
When a young gorilla male reaches maturity he usually has to leave his group to avoid mating with his family members.
🦍 Other facts
Gorillas are the largest living apes.
Baby gorillas have a mortality rate of 30% and remain with their mothers for three years.
Gorillas are incredibly shy, intelligent, peaceful creatures with individual personalities. They are also 8-9 times stronger than humans.
Their only predator is humans.
They are herbivores who eat 44 – 66 pounds (20- 30 kg) a day of the fruits, seeds, leaves, shoots, and vines they find. They can occasionally eat insects. They never eat meat and they don’t drink water.
They build a new tree nest to sleep in every night.
They can be identified by their nose print.
Rule of the Jungle
As mentioned you might only walk for an hour before finding your family on one day. On another, the trek will be 5 hours of climbing in the pouring rain.
As a rule, you can always hope for the best but it is essential to be prepared for the worst.
From bringing snacks to all weather gear, prior preparation is essential.