Where to see Gorillas in the wild
Trekking & standing face to face with Africa’s great apes is one of the most magical, humbling & downright bewildering experiences you can have on safari. Of all safari animals, the Mountain Gorilla is perhaps one of the most awe-inspiring. An encounter many of us dream of experiencing at least once in a lifetime, yet only a few get the chance to live. In this blog, we’ll give you some insights into what it’s like to trek the Mountain Gorilla families of Rwanda’s Volcanoes National Park and Uganda’s Bwindi Impenetrable Forest.
Where do Gorillas live?
Uganda, Rwanda and Congo are the only countries where you can see Gorillas in the wild. There are only two populations of Mountain Gorilla (Scientific name: Gorilla beringei beringei) in the world. Around 600 Gorillas reside in the high-altitude rainforests of the Virunga Volcanic Mountains - on the border of the Democratic Republic of Congo and Rwanda. The remaining population lives in the the Bwindi Impenetrable Forest National Park in southwestern Uganda (around 400 individuals). At the time of writing, Virgunga National Park in Congo is closed to tourists due to safety concerns, leaving Rwanda and Uganda as the prime destinations for a gorilla trek.
- Whether you want to visit the Gorillas of Rwanda or Uganda, strict regulations are in place and a trekking permit is a prerequisite.
- Be sure to book at least a year in advance to avoid missing out as gorilla permits are in limited supply.
- Have a look at our Magic of Congo itinerary, if you are interested in seeing the Western Lowland Gorillas.
In their high altitude rainforest homes, Mountain Gorillas are, for now, protected and closely guarded. Tourism is their biggest saviour, providing the vital funds for their protection and importantly placing value on their survival in the eyes of local communities. Whilst a lot of Uganda’s rainforests have had to make way for agricultural land, the tourism industry and especially the Gorilla (and Chimpanzee) treks, play a pivotal role in the preservation of the rainforests. Whereas the large swathes of rainforests of Rwanda’s Mountain Gorillas and Congo’s Eastern Lowland Gorillas are all connected through the Virunga Massif, Uganda’s Bwindi Impenetrable Forest is one of the last remaining islands of rainforest in the Ugandan landscape and therefore much more vulnerable.
With a direct connection between Gorillas, jobs and community upliftment projects, Wild Wonderful World Gorilla experiences give you more than an encounter of a lifetime - they support every level of Gorilla conservation and will expose you to the challenges and complexities, but equally the beauty and successes in the efforts to save Gorillas for our future generations. - Michelle & Grant, founders Wild Wonderful World
Grant & Michelle visited the Gorilla Organization in 2018, and experienced first-hand the important work they are doing to make sure Gorilla population in Uganda remains protected and growing.
Where to see Gorillas in Rwanda
Rwanda is a densely-populated country with most people living in rural areas. Here, the Volcanoes National Park - part of the Virunga Massif - is a World Heritage Site, and it is where Dian Fossey first researched and habituated Mountain Gorillas in the 1960s. Known as “The Land of a Thousand Hills”, Rwanda is one of Africa’s most biodiverse countries and a haven of rainforest endemism, conserved by its national parks. Volcanoes National Park is a truly legendary setting for a bucket list gorilla trek, offering guests some of the best primate tracking on the planet – set against the backdrop of its endless swathes of rain-forested hills and soaring volcanic mountainsides. In addition to over half of the world’s remaining mountain gorilla population, Rwanda is superb for primates in general, including the fun-loving Sykes monkey, the Golden monkey and the boisterous chimpanzee in the Nyungwe Forest. Despite a turbulent past, Rwanda is a safe and friendly destination – testament to the resilience and optimistic energy of its people. If you are seeking a deeply enriching safari, Rwanda offers an experience that is difficult to find anywhere else.
GOOD TO KNOW:
Every Wild Wonderful World safari to Rwanda supports the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund
“The country is very unique in the way in which the people take such care and pride in looking after this stunning piece of Africa. The streets of Kigali are spotless and without any litter, lined with giant Eucalyptus trees where the flocks of Black Kites roost. It’s a city steeped in horrific history but healed remarkably in such a short period of time. The rolling hills that surround the Volcanoes National Park and its pristine forests where the Mountain Gorilla's are exquisite and conservation efforts have seen a brilliant come back in Gorilla numbers. We were blown away by the entire experience." - Wild Wonderful World guide Gareth Poole
Rwanda Gorilla Trekking - By Gareth Poole
At sunrise, you head for the Volcanoes National Park Headquarters to meet your experienced park ranger, who has for years protected this remarkable primate from poachers and massive habitat loss. You’ll receive a brief explanation of the gorilla family you will be hoping to visit on the day, along with the do’s & don’ts of being up close with these giants and then off you go to experience something very few in this world ever will.
Speak to your guides carefully about the type of trek you're after. Although there is never any guarantee as to how long/short it may be, the park rangers know approximately where the various families are in Volcanoes National Park as they have trackers with them constantly and are in radio communication with them.
The trek begins in community land which is adjacent to the National Park; a stark reminder of the limited space these massive creatures have left. Once in the forest, the feeling of exploration and discovery begin to flood the mind, along with a spike in heart rate knowing you are now in the Gorilla land. Nothing can quite prepare you for the feeling when you hack through the last bamboo thicket and catch your first glimpse of these immense and exquisite animals.
The Gorilla families viewed today in the Volcanoes National Park are now habituated and comfortable with the presence of the few travellers that visit them each day, a privilege that should never be taken for granted. Your park ranger ensures appropriate boundaries are maintained, although there are some close encounters that do occur, but these are friendly and almost to the point of as if we were never even there. It is life-changing to view these families for the hour you're allowed as they forage, play and communicate with one another completely oblivious to our presence. They truly are one of a kind and incredibly similar to us in so many ways.
Like clockwork, on the hour, your ranger will kindly ask for the group to have one last look or take one last photograph before leaving the family to themselves to continue with their daily routine of feeding and nest making before settling down for the night. Back to the lodge for a hot shower and an evening of the most exquisite cuisine, wine and cultural sing and dance with people who absolutely love their heritage and are so grateful to share this amazing wilderness with us.
Where to see Gorillas in Uganda
A landscape of rolling hills, ringed in a thousand shades of green terraced agriculture, surrounds the Ugandan rainforests. Uganda is a country of contrasts, situated on the meeting point of East African savannah and West Africa’s luscious jungles. A rural and rustic destination, Uganda’s attraction lies in its simplicity. Driving to your different destinations, you will pass through rural villages, onto winding roads leading to lush, emerald green rainforests. If it is the Gorillas of Uganda you are after, the Bwindi Impenetrable Forest National Park is your destination.
Uganda has quickly become one of the safest countries in Africa, and one that lends itself amazingly to intrepid travel. A cloak of tangled green covering Uganda’s south-western mountains, Bwindi Impenetrable Forest truly lives up to its name. Accessible only on foot, it is one of the richest ecosystems in Africa providing habitat for over 90 mammals. The word “Bwindi” means “darkness” and once you have walked its forest floor, you’ll soon realise why. The vegetation is significantly thicker compared to Rwandan treks, though a lot more beautiful in our opinion. Immersed in the twittering of 346 bird species (including 23 highly localized Albertine Rift endemics), shaded by equally as many species of trees and guided by its 200 species of butterflies, hiking through Bwindi Impenetrable Forest can be a physically challenging undertaking - but one that has invaluable reward.
“It is incredible to follow a family of mountain gorillas as they range freely in the Bwindi Impenetrable Forest. As they move through the forest in search of food and resting places, observing and discovering their gorgeous natural habitat and the many species they share it with, is truly magical. It is a very humbling experience to stand just meters from man’s distant cousins as they eat, rest, play and bond with their young. On top of it all, the jungle surroundings on the hike are almost equally as awe-inspiring. There’s so much to see, you don’t know where to look!” - Wild Wonderful World Founder & Guide Michelle Pengilly
While a Gorilla trek in through Bwindi Impenetrable Forest is one of Uganda’s top wildlife experiences, perhaps one of the country’s most unique selling points is the diversity in the remainder of its offering. Uganda is the ideal destination for adventure travel and small group journeys. With the variation in habitat attracting over 1000 bird species, birding in Uganda is superlative and without a doubt one of the world’s most sought after. From the indigenous rainforest, to the glistening swamplands, to open plains and savannahs; you can be tracking Gorillas in Bwindi the one day, to spotting the elusive shoebill stork in the Mbamba Swamps and following lions hunting across the savannah the next!
GOOD TO KNOW:
Every Wild Wonderful World safari to Uganda supports the Gorilla Organisation, who work to protect Gorillas and their habitat through an innovative, community-led approach including organic farming, tree planting and gorilla friendly beekeeping. All of these give impoverished communities the opportunity to learn a sustainable income without having to rely on the natural resources found in the gorillas’ forest home.
Uganda Gorilla Safaris - by Michelle Pengilly
A gorilla trek in Bwindi starts at one of the fourpark headquarters for a pre-trek briefing. The head guide gives an overview of the area, what to expect and safety during the trek. You then get split into groups of max 8 guests per group and allocated a gorilla family, based on fitness & ability. The guide gives some information about the gorilla family you will be trekking, then it’s time to set off into the forest in the footsteps of the Mountain Gorillas! Ahead of your group, a team of experienced gorilla trackers will be searching for them, starting from the site where the gorillas were encountered the day before.
The walk is strenuous, have no doubt - you will hike up & down hillsides (mountainsides!), through mud and streams. It is very often slippery (you will likely slip and fall at least once - everyone does!) and the forest vegetation can be very thick. Although the hike is physically demanding the beauty of the forest and surrounding scenery make the trekking worthwhile! A game changer is definitely to hire a porter. They help you navigate the more treacherous/ steep parts of the track, avoiding stinging nettles and Siafu (red biting ants), helping with foot placements and offering a hand over obstacles.
Once located, you get an hour to spend with the gorillas. Your guide will be communicating where to stand/ sit and how to behave, and will answer questions throughout the experience. At times the trackers/ guide may cut away some of the thick vegetation to help give you a better view of the gorillas. The gorillas will likely move during this period so you will move with them. To see the youngsters and babies playing and jumping between the trees and play fighting just like human children, is exceptionally sweet and endearing to watch.
After viewing the gorillas you will trek back to the park HQ. Depending on the length of the trek, you will either have a picnic lunch out in the forest or have lunch and a refreshing shower back at your lodge. At the end of the experience, the guide hosts a “graduation” and you get given your trekking certificate with the name of the gorilla family on it - a special keepsake of this very personal experience.
Uganda vs Rwanda Gorilla treks: a quick comparison
Having trouble deciding which country to visit? Wondering about the differences between a Rwanda safari and a Uganda safari? We've noted some of the most pertinent differences below!
Is it better to trek Gorilla’s in Rwanda or Uganda?
The short answer is that trekking in both countries is incredible and you have the same chances of seeing gorillas in both. We’ve listed some of the main distinguishing factors below:
- Price: for many, the decision comes down to permit price, as the Ugandan trekking permits are a fraction of the price compared to Rwanda. Read on to learn why
- Terrain: Rwanda’s Volcanoes National Park is certainly more mountainous than Bwindi so the trek can be a bit more up and down in terms of climb (and slightly higher in altitude). However, Bwindi in Uganda is more of a rainforest so conditions underfoot are often wet and muddy, adding difficulty to the hike. In our experience, trekking in Rwanda is less strenuous overall compared to Uganda and therefore better suited to travellers who are less active. Keep an eye on our next gorilla blog for more details, tips & tricks on a gorilla trek.
- Accommodation: a big deciding factor for us is also accommodation – Uganda has a vast range of accommodation to suite most budgets, however if you are looking specifically for luxury, high end lodging for your gorilla stay, Rwanda has a greater choice of 5* properties.
Why are gorilla trekking permits cheaper in Uganda than Rwanda?
Ugandan Gorilla trekking permits are a fraction of the price compared to Rwanda’s – USD700 per person vs USD1500 per person in Rwanda, despite there actually being a higher population of Gorilla’s in Uganda. There are a number of reasons for this but none of them include quality of experience – trekking in both countries is equally superb. Rather, it comes down to Uganda pricing their permits competitively as they do less marketing globally compared to Rwanda. A second reason is accessibility – it’s much quicker and easier to get to Volcanoes National Park in Rwanda vs Bwindi Impenetrable forest in Uganda. It has also been suggested that the Rwandan government rely far more on foreign exchange earned from tourism compared to Uganda, who have extremely fertile lands so a large portion of their economy is supported by agriculture as well as oil, gas and other mining operations.
Best time of the year to trek gorillas?
Uganda and Rwanda both experience the same rainy seasons, which happen twice a year: usually in April and May, and then between October and December. We ideally recommend going to visit the Gorillas between January and February, or in June and July.