- THE HOME OF THE GREAT APE
The gorilla is the largest of the great apes family, which includes the chimpanzee and orang-utan as well, and can be divided in three subspecies:
– Western Lowland Gorilla (gorilla gorilla gorilla); these type of gorillas are mostly seen in zoos. A population of about 50,000 lives in West Central Africa.
– Eastern Lowland Gorilla (gorilla gorilla graueri); about 2,500 live in the wild. They can be found in the eastern Congolese rainforest.
– Mountain Gorilla (gorilla gorilla beringei); the most endangered of all with only 620 remaining. They are living in the afro montane forests in northwest Rwanda, southwest Uganda and eastern DRC.
Obviously, the mountain gorilla is the most endangered specie of the great apes family. And because they can’t survive in captivity, you will never see a mountain gorilla in the zoo.
The mountain gorillas live in the almost impenetrable parts of the tropical forests in East-Africa. The entire world’s population is spread out over only two different places. Approximately 320 individuals inhabit the slopes of the Virunga Volcanoes, stretching out from the border area in Congo to Rwanda. The remaining 300 are found in Bwindi National Park in Uganda, covering an area of about 330 sq kms.
- GORILLAS AND THEIR LIFESTYLE
Gorillas live in groups consisting of about 25 to 35 members. Usually there is one leading male, accompanied by several females with their young.
When a baby gorilla is born it weighs on average 2.5 kg, which is about half the weight of a human baby. However, this baby develops twice as fast! Within 40 weeks it can walk and reaching 3 years it slowly becomes independent. At 6 years they are about 1.20 meter tall and weigh almost 70 kg. At this age the female gorilla matures, though they continue gaining weight for the next 4 years. Males on the other hand don’t reach maturity till they’re 10 years old. When their black back starts turning into grey it is time for them to leave the parental group. They wander alone or join other males for some time, before attracting females who will join them. In this way they form their own family.
Gorillas reproduce slowly, hence the world population doesn’t increase rapidly. Gestation period is approximately 8.5 months and gorilla mothers give birth to a baby once every 4 years. Unfortunately at least 30% doesn’t survive their first year because of diseases and accidents. Another situation that causes death among the baby gorillas is when their father dies and another silverback takes over. This new male often kills all the babies of his predecessor, securing his own genes in the posterity.
- GORILLAS AND HUMANS
Although the chimpanzee is our closest living relative on the planet, the gorilla resembles us in even more aspects. Their hands and feet are like ours, they spend more time on the ground and consequently gorillas are better able to walk. In fact, they share almost 98% of our DNA!
Gorillas have high social qualities and relationships within the family are very important. They express their feelings, varying from loving and hating to shame and jealousy, by at least 20 distinct vocalisations, all with a different meaning. Besides, beating on the chests or on the ground is a common form of communication as well. It is mainly the silverback who does this, in order to show his power and to intimidate others.
Aggression is rarely seen within gorilla families. Despite their impressive looks, they are extremely gentle and peace loving. In case of danger they stand up for each other and defend the weaker ones. Serious fights only might take place when two leaders of different groups meet each other
- DOMINANCE OF THE SILVERBACK
Hierarchy is clear and important within the gorilla family. The dominant silverback enjoys the highest rank and the adult females rule over the younger ones. Like with other species in the animal world, gorilla males achieve the high ranking because of their size. Male mountain gorillas can weigh up to 200 kg and can reach 1.70 meter when they’re standing upright. Besides the strength they also have to prove their experience and abilities. It is their duty to protect their family from danger and intruders.
It is not difficult to figure out where the name silverback comes from. Around the age of 12 years, they develop light grey hair on their back, giving them a ‘silver back’.
· THE GORILLA VISIT
An ordinary day in the life of a mountain gorilla starts at sunrise, around 6 am. They wake up and begin looking for food which covers a great part of the morning. In general, a gorilla spends about 30% of the day with feeding, 30% with travelling and 40% with resting. In contrast to many primates, the gorilla lives mainly on the ground. They travel not more than a kilometre per day within their home range of about 20 square kilometres.
Gorillas are vegetarians, though occasionally they may eat ants and other insects. Their daily meal consists of roots, leaves, stems and pith of herbs, vines and shrub, and some fruits. During certain months of the year bamboo shoots supply a major part in their diet as well. A male adult can even eat up to 20 kg per day! Because the gorillas receive a large quantity of water from its diet, they rarely have to drink.
The afternoons are mainly spent by resting and playing. This last activity is very important in the social life, especially for young gorillas, as it determines their integration into the group. They hug each other, bite, hit or wrestle till one is pulled down on the ground.
At the end of the day, just before dusk, the great apes start constructing a nest where they will spend their night. Every single gorilla has its own nest, except for the infants who sleep next to their mothers. Nests are built on the ground or in trees and are carefully constructed by branches of bushes and other plants.
· PROTECT THE GORILLA
The existence of the gorilla was ‘discovered’ in 1902 by a German explorer. Nearly 60 years later the American scientist George Schaller was the first one to study the gorillas in the Virunga Volcanoes and Bwindi. Later Dian Fossey continued his research and she became famous because of her movie “Gorillas in the Mist”. She worked with the gorillas in Rwanda from 1967 till 1985 and thanks to her dedication the world began to learn about the mysterious beauty of these apes. To this day the Karisoke Research Centre in Rwanda can still be visited.
Even before the research started, an estimated of 450 mountain gorillas were living in the Virungas. Only 20 years later the population was decreased to 250 individuals. Although the gorilla has just a few enemies, the most dangerous one is the human being. Habitats were destroyed through deforestation, they suffered from wars, diseases were transferred and they were commonly hunted for meat or just as a trophy. The number raised again thanks to the conservation efforts of Dian Fossey.
It may be clear that the mountain gorilla is one of the most endangered species in the world. To make people aware and to protect the gorillas, it has been made possible to visit some gorilla families. In this way visitors will learn about the life of the gorilla and revenues will benefit the conservation.
Before gorillas safaris can be made they need to be habituated to the presence of human beings. This is a long and careful process and can take several years. Special trained rangers approach them carefully and spend increasing periods of time with them. The habituation can be risky for both gorillas and humans. Not only there is a chance that silverback will feel threatened, but also the gorillas can easily be infected with diseases. Therefore it is important to maintain strict rules when habituating and visiting the gorillas.
- GORILLA TRACKING RULES
For those are planning to do a mountain gorilla safari in Uganda, the following briefing information would apply (according to the printed leaflet by the Uganda Wildlife Authority ‘Gorilla Rules’):
Before departing on your gorilla tracking:
1) A maximum number of 8 visitors may visit a group of habituated mountain gorillas in a day. This minimizes behavioural disturbance to the gorillas and the risk of their exposure to human-borne diseases.
2) Always wash your hands before you head out to the gorillas.
On the way to the gorillas:
1) Please always keep your voices low. You will also be able to observe the great bird life and other wildlife in the forest.
2) DO NOT leave rubbish in the park. Whatever you bring into the forest should be carried back out with you.
3) You will be taken to where the guides observed the gorillas the day before. From there you will follow the gorilla’s trail to find them. Look out for the gorilla’s nesting sites along the way!
4) When you approach the mountain gorillas, the guides will inform you to get ready.
When you are with the gorillas:
1) A 7 meter (21 feet) distance should tried to be observed at all times from the gorillas. The further back you are, the more relaxed the group will be.
2) You must stay in tight group whey you are near the gorillas.
3) Keep your voices down at all times. However, it is okay to ask the guide questions.
4) Do not smoke, drink or eat when you are near the gorillas. Eating or drinking inevitably will increase the risk of food/drink morsels/droplets falling, which could increase the risk of transmission of diseases.
5) Sometimes the gorillas charge. Follow the guides example (crouch down slowly, do not look the gorillas directly in the eyes and wait for the animals to pass). Do not attempt to run away because that will increase the risk.
6) Flash photography is not permitted! When taking pictures move slowly and carefully.
7) Do not touch the gorillas. They are wild animals.
8) The maximum time you can spend with the gorillas is one hour. However, if the gorillas become agitated or nervous, the guide will finish the visit early.
9) After the visit keep your voices down until you are 200 metres away from the gorillas.
General health rules:
Remember mountain gorillas are very susceptible to human diseases. The following are ways to minimize the risk your visit might poses to them:
1) Respect the limits imposed on the number of visitors allowed with the gorillas each day. This minimizes the risk of disease transmission and stress to the group.
2) If you are feeling ill, or you are carrying a contagious disease, volunteer to stay behind. An alternate visit will be arranged for you, or you will be refunded your money.
3) If you feel the urge to cough or sneeze when you are near the gorillas, please turn your head away and cover your nose and mouth in order to minimize the spread of bacteria or viruses.
4) Always stay 7 meters (21 feet) away form the gorillas. This is to protect them from catching human diseases.
5) Do not leave any rubbish (eg. food wrappers) in the park; foreign items can harbour diseases or other contaminants.
6) If you need to go to the toilet while in the forest, please ask the guide to dig you a hole with his panga. Make sure the hole is 30 cms deep and fill it in when you are finished.
What to bring:
– Wear comfortable hiking shoes suitable for steep muddy slopes.
– Put on ear plugs for those who feel uncomfortable with the jungle sounds.
– Carry a packed lunch and enough drinking water.
– Carry rain gear, sunscreen lotion, a hat (as the weather is unpredictable) and insect repellent.
– Bring a photo of film camera. Using flashlight is not permitted so we recommend to use films of 400-800 ASA.
MOUNTAIN GORILLA SAFARI
Go on gorilla safari in Uganda or Rwanda! Experience an unforgettable meeting with these gentle apes yourself! A gorilla Safari is easy to book and we would be happy to provide you with a suitable itinerary . Please check our sample itineraries to obtain ideas for your safari. For the enthusiastic gorilla trackers we designed a special Gorilla Safari Itinerary.
Sample itineraries that include a visit to the mountain gorillas in Uganda or Rwanda:
- GORILLA PERMIT
To be able to enjoy a gorilla tracking you need to buy a permit which is issued by Uganda Wildlife Authority (UWA). As only 8 people per group per day are allowed, it is necessary to book permits as early as possible. We advise to book at least 3 months in advance to ensure that you can track on the requested date. Gorilla permits cost USD$ 500 per person but prices may increase in the future.
By following these rules and through the purchase of the permit, YOU too are contributing to the conservation of the mountain gorilla. UWA uses the funds generated from the sale of this permit for the management of the national parks. A percentage of the funds raised from park entrance fees are also donated to local communities living adjacent to the parks to contribute to their development and improve natural resource management in the region.
Sale conditions of the gorilla permit:
– Any visitor who shows signs of illness will not be allowed to join the gorilla tour. A visitor shall be declared unfit to track due to illness by a warden-in-charge in the park, 50% of the tracking fee will be refunded. Illness is determined at the discretion of the warden-in-charge. The cancellation policy will apply to visitors who fall sick prior to their travel to the park.
– Permits are non-refundable but visitors who track the whole day and fail to see them for whatever reason will be refunded 75% of the tracking fee.
– The gorilla permit is not a guarantee that the gorilla will be clearly viewed.
– The minimum age limit for visiting the gorillas is 15 years.