There’s been good news in mountain gorilla circles recently. The latest census of the only two remaining groups of mountain gorillas (in Uganda, Rwanda and DRC) saw their number creep up to over 1 000, an all-time high after their numbers dropped to nearly 250 in the early 1980s.
Clearing of their natural habitat, civil war, disease and poaching were the main culprits (and still are) of the devastation of the gorilla groups but extensive conservation efforts have brought the numbers of these shy and beautiful creatures slowly upwards.
1 000 mountain gorillas on the entire planet, however, is still a horrifyingly small number, making the mountain gorilla critically endangered and making sightings of this extraordinarily-close-to-human-but-hairy creature a very special occasion.
These are animals that you need to find, in dense and beautiful rain forests. You won’t find them in zoos – and we’re glad! – because they don’t survive when held captive.
Where are the African Mountain Gorillas?
The mountain gorillas are divided into two populations, one in Uganda’s Bwindi Impenetrable National Park and the other in the Virunga Massif, which includes three national parks – Mgahinga Gorilla National Park (Uganda), Volcanoes National Park (Rwanda) and Virunga National Park (DRC).
The gorillas live in family groups of up to 30, led by the dominant males, who are called silverbacks due to the silver stripe they get on their backs as they get older. The female gorilla starts breeding from about 10 years’ old and they have a gestation period – almost exactly the length of a human female – of 8-and-a-half months. They can produce between two and six babies in their lifetime.
To read up about the family groups, check out our blog Guide to Gorilla Trekking in Africa’s Rainforests.
All of the gorillas in these populations are wild, but some are more habituated than others. But what does that mean?
Habituation is the slow process through which the gorillas go in acclimatising to the presence of humans ogling at them from a distance. Basically, the gorillas you’ll see on a gorilla trek are the habituated ones.
There are only ten habituated gorilla families within Volcanoes National Park, eight within Virunga National Park, only one habituated family in Mgahinga National Park and eleven habituated gorilla families within Bwindi Impenetrable National Park.
See Gorillas in Uganda or Rwanda?
We have not included the DRC as a possible destination to see the gorillas as we don’t send tours there due to the political instability in the country. Travel to the DRC is advised against by numerous international advisory boards.
So Uganda or Rwanda it is, both beautiful African countries. So how to pick? There are pros and cons to seeing the gorillas in both countries and neither will disappoint. Here we’ll discuss some of the differences between them, firstly introducing each country.
Rwanda covers 26 338 km2 of volcanic rain forest just south of the equator in East Africa. Its capital, Kigali, with a population of just under 750 000, is located in the middle of the country and is served by an international airport.
Compared to many other African countries (Uganda included), Rwanda’s infrastructure is relatively good, with better road conditions and more working traffic lights than many of its neighbours.
Lying to the north of Rwanda and covering almost ten times as much land – 241 038 km2 – Uganda includes equatorial rain forest and savannah/grasslands. It has ten national parks, with Bwindi Impenetrable National Park in the south-west, where the gorillas live, and numerous ‘Big Five’ reserves in the rest of the country.
Kampala, Uganda’s capital, has a population of over 1.5 million. The international airport, Entebbe International Airport, is located about 40 km south-west of the capital, on the shores of Lake Victoria.
There are numerous smaller airports scattered across the country, to which local airlines fly. Road conditions in Uganda can be a little rough, and distances long. Our Uganda Fly-in Gorilla Trekking & Wildlife Safari includes flights to Bwindi, which cuts out the long travel time on the road.
Getting There: Rwanda vs Uganda
As mentioned above, both Uganda and Rwanda have international airports. It’s once you’ve landed that the difference comes in. From Kigali airport in Rwanda, to the Volcanoes National Park is just over 100 km, on fairly good road. Our Rwanda Gorilla Trekking & Primate Tracking Tour follows this route and includes a stopover to see the chimpanzees in Nyungwe Forest National Park.
From Entebbe Airport in Uganda, however, it’s just under 500 km on roads that have some parts that could do with an upgrade. It’s a slow drive, but a scenic one. Our 4 Day Gorilla Trekking & Uganda Wildlife Safari takes this pretty trip, stopping at the Queen Elizabeth National Park where we float down the Kazinga Channel on a boat looking for birds, elephant and warthog, before heading to the gorillas in Bwindi.
Interestingly, it’s quicker to drive to Bwindi from the Rwandan side, landing in Kigali. This we do – in the other direction – on our 6 Day Uganda & Rwanda Gorilla Trekking Safari which takes us to both Bwindi in Uganda and Volcanoes in Rwanda.
Do you need a permit to see Gorillas?
Yes you do, and this is where one of the biggest differences between gorilla trekking to Uganda and gorilla trekking to Rwanda lies. In Rwanda, a permit is $1500, in Uganda it’s $600.
Firstly, the permit prices explain why gorilla trekking tours are so much more expensive than other wildlife experiences. These are critically endangered animals who are highly susceptible to disease (yes, including those carried by us humans) and threatened by loss of habitat and poaching.
To protect them, a limited number of tourists are allowed to visit each group every day (eight people), which puts permits at a premium and the waiting list can be long, with booking at least 6 months in advance advised. There is method behind this madness: it’s to prevent overcrowding, reduce contact, save both the gorillas and their habitats and to contribute to both conservation efforts and community development.
Another thing to factor in when deciding whether to go to Rwanda or Uganda for your gorilla trekking trip of a lifetime, is your level of fitness. Remember that you’ll be spending a good amount of time (and energy) trekking through some fairly tough forest with thick undergrowth and plenty of steep slopes (Bwindi is not called Bwindi Impenetrable Forest for nothing!) to get to the gorillas.
A certain level of fitness is required to go gorilla trekking at all but more so if you’re planning on going to Uganda. In Uganda, the trek into the jungle is via a sloped volcanic path that zigzags uphill through thick vegetation to where the gorillas hang out. The walk takes between an hour and three-and-a-half hours, and that’s just one way.
In Rwanda, on the other hand, the gorillas are often found close to the entrance of the park. The gorilla trek often involves a short walk (less than an hour) across farmlands with gorgeous volcano views and then a little trek into the jungle.
Gorilla Trekking Accommodation
Here, too, there are differences between gorilla trekking trips to Uganda and to Rwanda. In Rwanda, accommodation tends to be in the town nearest the Volcanoes National Park, Ruhengeri (now called Musanze). This is a 20-minute drive from Kinigi, where the headquarters of the park are based, permits need to be collected and a short briefing is given by the guides before setting off.
Accommodation in Uganda, near Bwindi Impenetrable Forest National Park tends to be more ‘wild’, with campsites and lodges perched overlooking the emerald rain forests and on the shores of Lake Bunyoni.
On our Gorilla Trekking Overland Camping Safari from Kampala, we spend two nights camping on the shores of Lake Bunyoni while visiting the gorillas and spending time in one of the villages on the shore, which offers a fascinating insight into the culture of the local Pygmy people.
If camping is not your scene, our Gorilla Trekking from Kampala, Accommodated Overland might appeal more, staying in lodges near Masindi while visiting the Murchison Falls National Park – where the Victoria Nile creates the spectacular waterfall after which the park is named – and then visit the chimpanzees of Budongo Forest. You'll see the rhinos at Zia and then head to our lodge on the shores of Lake Bunyoni, from where we’ll go trekking for the gorillas.
Full Safari Experience
Last, but certainly not least, is the difference between Rwanda and Uganda in the ‘full safari’ sense. Rwanda, while being exquisitely beautiful in a tropical, equatorial, way offers just that: rain forest habitat and the animals that live there. It is wild an untamed and offers visitors incredible primate and birdlife viewing. Nyungwe Forest National Park is home to an amazing thirteen primate species including chimpanzees and colobus monkeys.
If you’re looking to combine your gorilla trekking with a more traditional ‘Big Five safari’ and you want it all in one country, though, Uganda is your best bet. The beautiful Queen Elizabeth National Park is home to four of the five – buffalo, elephant, leopard and lion – and a host of other incredible African game.
The endemic Ugandan Kob, featured with the crested crane on Uganda's coat of arms, rare sitatunga, topi, kob, waterbuck, bushbuck and other antelopes are also found in the game park. Crocodiles have recently been spotted in the Kazinga Channel and other inhabitants include giant forest hog, warthogs and thousands of hippos.
Twenty kinds of predator live in the park, including lions and leopards, side-striped jackal, serval cat and spotted hyena.
On our Uganda Gorilla, Chimpanzee & Wildlife Fly-in Safari you’ll go looking for the four of the ‘Big Five’ who live in Queen Elizabeth National Park – and if you’re lucky, you’ll spot them all. The park has a diverse range of habitats, including the grassland savannahs synonymous with African safaris. And that’s combined with the opportunity to trek for gorillas in the Bwindi Impenetrable Forest National Park. Basically, it’s the trip of a lifetime.
Uganda vs Rwanda Gorilla Trekking: What’s the Same?
Firstly, the do’s and don’ts are the same wherever you visit the gorillas, to protect both you and the gorillas. These are:
- Protect the gorillas. If you are sick or have any infectious diseases, don't go. If you don't feel well you need to sit this one out to safeguard the well-being of these endangered animals.
- Remember your manners. If you need to cough or sneeze, turn away and cover your nose and mouth to reduce the chances of transmitting bacteria or viruses to the primates.
- Don't overstay your welcome. Expect to spend only the allotted one hour with the gorillas, departing when the time is up.
- Keep your distance. Stay at least 5-7 metres (21 feet) away from the gorillas, not because they are dangerous but because they are wild and we can transmit diseases to them.
- Behave yourself. Keep the noise levels down (from within 200 m), don't point and don't use your flash when taking photographs.
- Go prepared. Take warm and waterproof gear for the cool mountain conditions in these often wet forests and wear comfortable walking shoes.
- No snacking and smoking. You are not allowed to eat and drink or smoke around the gorillas.
- Clean up. Wash your hands before going gorilla trekking.
- Keep your hands to yourself. You may not touch the gorillas even if they come close to you as these curious apes sometimes do.
- Hang onto your trash. Please don't litter.
- Remain calm. If a gorilla charges, do not run away. Crouch down slowly and avoid direct eye contact, until the gorilla moves off.
- Toilet etiquette. If you need to go then ask for help from your guide to dig a hole in the forest and make sure it gets covered up afterwards.
Secondly, the experience of seeing these huge, but gentle, creatures in their own habitat, and observing their daily goings-on, that are so similar to our own is equally as exhilarating, whether you see them in Uganda or Rwanda. It truly is an experience that’ll leave you awestruck.
Get hold of one of our knowledgeable travel consultants now to book your trip to Rwanda, Uganda, or both!