Gorilla trekking is the world’s most exclusive wildlife experience and is the highlight of most safari trips to Uganda. All gorilla encounters are closely monitored and timed, mostly for the safety of the gorillas themselves that are highly susceptible to human infection.
The experience starts in the early morning when the location of the gorillas to be observed has been ascertained. Only 8 trekkers can follow each family of gorillas and the encounter is for only an hour each day – never more. The trek in the forest and mountains can take anywhere from 40 minutes to 6hours depending on where the gorillas spent the previous night, and how mobile they are. The magical hour only starts when they are in sight.
All gorillas that are tracked are either halfway or fully habituated to humans and can even recognise many of the park rangers and guides that lead the treks. They therefore pose no danger to trekkers, as long as the trekkers follow the simply rules of conduct around them, including never making direct eye contact or loud and sudden movements – gorillas are not known as the ‘gentle giants’ for no reason, after all.
The hour spent watching the gorillas is the most enchanting 60minutes that a trekker will ever spend in the wild; indeed many trekkers have returned from this experience feeling a profound connection with the gorillas. The dominating presence of the silverback is not something that one ever gets used to; observing how much alike baby gorillas and their mothers are to their human counterparts even here in the middle of the wild is intriguing.
Gorilla habituation has been taking place in Uganda since 1991 and in the 26 years since, 12 families have been habituated in Bwindi and one in Mgahinga. The mountain gorilla habituation experience for trekkers introduced in 2016, is a pilot program that is still in its early stages as the Ugandan Wildlife Authority gauges its impact on the gorillas, as well as on on-going research work. It was introduced to give trekkers a more enriching experience with the gorillas and also give them insight into what tracking gorillas really means.
Trekking groups are limited to no more than 4 trekkers that join the rangers and researchers for a maximum of 4hours; the experience only starts once the group arrives at the spot where the gorillas nested the night before. The park trackers do an in-depth inspection of the nests and the paths taken by the gorillas for clues that will help them to better understand the gorillas, and even mimic gorilla sounds to alert them of their presence.
The full purpose of the habituation process is to keep within the eyesight of the gorillas at all times, so it can be a gruelling expedition battling through the jungle keeping up with them as they forage for food. For this reason, the quality of sightings may not be as good as on a regular trek, but without doubt, the habituation experience is just as magical.