Gorilla Tracking Guidelines for Uganda and Rwanda
Our frequently asked questions about gorilla tracking in Uganda and Rwanda. If you have any other questions, please contact your travel designer or concierge.
There are a total of 10 habituated gorilla families in Uganda, all located in Bwindi Impenetrable Forest National Park in the southwest of the country. Each group receives a maximum of 8 visitors per day.
The two sites where gorilla tracking takes place in Northern Bwindi are Buhoma and Ruhija. Currently, the best accommodation is available in Buhoma, so this where our clients will be based overnight. Ruhija is a 40km drive from Buhoma. Buhoma gorilla families include: Mubare, Habinyanja, Rushegura, Orozugo. Ruhija Gorilla families include Bitukura and Kyaguriro.
The two sites where gorilla tracking takes place in southern Bwindi are Nkuringo and Rushaga. Currently, the best accommodation options in the area are all situated in Nkuringo so this is where Jacada clients will be based overnight. Rushaga is a short drive of around 20km from Nkuringo. Southern Bwindi gorilla families include Nkuringo (tracked from Nkuringo), and Mishaya, Nshongi and Kyahungye gorilla families at Rushaga.
In Rwanda there are 10 habituated gorilla groups in Volcanoes National Park, with a maximum of 8 tracking permits per group per day. Permits are not attributed to specific gorilla groups at the time of purchase, but groups are allocated on the day at the Park Headquarters.
The groups in Volcanoes National Park include: Kwitonda, Hirwa, Agashya, Umubano, Amahoro, Sabyinyo, Susa, Karisimbi, Ugenda and Bwenge. They inhabit gentler slopes and more open bush compared to their Ugandan counterparts. However, the altitude here is much greater (2,500-3,000 metres or 8,200-9,800 feet).
A bit of background
For up to five years, each gorilla group has undergone an extremely delicate process which has gradually accustomed them used to the presence of humans, allowing a few privileged visitors to interact with them in the wild. However, the gorillas are by no means tame!
You will be accompanied by an experienced guide on your trek who will carry out a pre-departure brief at the start of the tracking point, informing you of ‘gorilla etiquette’. Gorilla tracking is a year-round activity, whatever the weather. Tracking commences in Uganda every morning from the park headquarters at 8:30am.
In Rwanda, the meeting time at the park headquarters is at the earlier time of 7:00am. The gorillas cover large distances overnight, and they are never constantly in one area. The guides will use their knowledge of the gorillas’ habits and information from the previous day to locate the group’s whereabouts. For this reason, one group cannot be said to be easier to track than another.
The time taken to track the gorillas varies enormously, from as little as half an hour to as much as 9 hours before returning to camp. The terrain can be extremely difficult, with steep slopes, and dense vegetation. In addition, the altitude means participants do need to be physically fit in order to enjoy the hike.
Once the gorillas are located, your group will be allowed a maximum of one hour with them. This is to avoid causing the animals any undue stress or getting them overly used to human interactions. After this, you will return to the park headquarters and your camp.
If for some reason you are unable to complete your excursion to the gorillas, you will either be able to return immediately to the base of the trail with a porter OR you will be asked to remain where you are with a porter until the group returns.
It is not currently compulsory to wear face masks when visiting the gorillas of Uganda and Rwanda.
However, wearing masks can reduce the high risk of infecting gorillas with human diseases – something to which they are highly susceptible.
With this in mind, we kindly ask our travellers to wear a mask when visiting the gorillas.
It is a huge privilege to see these animals in their natural environment, but for this to continue, we must do so responsibly.
Perhaps when you are there, you will inspire other travellers to also wear a mask. If the Ugandan and Rwandan governments can be convinced that it will not negatively affect tourism, they will be more likely to enforce mask-wearing as a rule. It is already compulsory in the Democratic Republic of Congo’s Virunga National Park.
‘Wearing masks is not an inconvenience: it is a simple step to safeguard the health of critically endangered mountain gorillas.’ – Dan Bucknell, Executive Director of Tusk.
‘Wearing masks when visiting the critically endangered gorillas ensures the best protection from our human diseases.’ – Dr. Gladys Kalema Zikusoka, Founder of Conservation Through Public Health.
‘A simple human sneeze travels seven metres, and gorillas have no immunity to the bugs we routinely pick up on the plane over. Wearing a mask is cool – and looks great on your Facebook profile!’ – Jillian Miller, Executive Director at The Gorilla Organization.
You will not be able to track the gorillas if you are unwell, as gorillas are highly susceptible to human illnesses.
If you suspect that you have a contagious illness such as a common cold, influenza or diarrhoea, please report to the guide at the park headquarters. There is a good chance that you will be refunded the cost of your gorilla permit. If you do not disclose your illness, and the guide detects it, you will be barred from tracking, and your permit price will definitely not be refunded.
These can vary greatly according to the location of the gorillas. It is entirely possible that you will find the gorillas quite quickly and be back at your hotel for lunch; or you could face a three or four hour hike (sometimes even longer) each way.
It is important to be in good physical condition, as you are likely to find yourself climbing up steep slopes at high altitudes, scrambling through, over, and under dense undergrowth with nettles, barbed vines, and bamboo thickets and crossing slippery and muddy terrain. Correct footwear and clothing are essential!
A note on fitness levels, and gorilla tracking for people with disabilities
A general level of basic fitness is normally recommended for Gorilla tracking. It is not recommended to go gorilla trekking if you have any kind of heart or back problem. Travellers who are concerned about their general fitness levels, or have certain medical conditions and/or physical disabilities should advise Jacada Travel of their situation at the time of booking (or at the time such a situation occurs should this be after the reservation is made).
We can easily help clients who have certain conditions that would normally prevent participation.
We have a purpose-built ‘off-road’ sedan chair that can be used to transport someone to the location of the gorillas. So please do let us know your requirements and we will do our best to help.
Should you wish to, you will have the opportunity to hire a porter for the duration of your trek. The cost of porters is not included in your tour price.
Porters are members of the local community and provide a valuable income for many families surrounding the park. It is advisable to tip them at the end of your trek – an acceptable tip is US$15 per porter.
Please note that your porter can only carry one bag; any additional items must be carried by you or a second porter (on a one bag per porter basis).
What to expect when tracking
You will be led to the spot where the gorilla family was last seen the previous day. All tracker guides are experienced in looking for signs of the gorillas’ location, for example, footprints, dung, chewed bamboo and celery stalks, as well as abandoned nests. Gorillas soil their nests and then abandon them to build new ones each night, and trackers are able to tell the age of the nests as well as which group made them – though this is more difficult on rainy days.
Trackers generally do allow time to stop and rest along the trail. However, they tend to hike at a steady, somewhat upbeat pace throughout the excursion, for they must be mindful of the time to ensure that you will be able to reach the gorillas, spend a full hour with them, and make it back down the trail before dark. If you occasionally lag behind the group to take photos or are having difficulty negotiating a steep or slippery portion of the trail, your porter will assist you; but the rest of the group will most likely continue on.
Reaching the gorillas
You will probably smell the gorillas before you actually see them. When you reach them, the tracker will move forward, making soft smacking and groaning sounds with his mouth to assure the group that friends are approaching.
Although gorillas make very few vocalizations, this sound of reassurance is one that family members often use with each other.
If your trek to find the gorillas has not been unusually long, you are likely to reach their location during their long midday rest and play period. At this time of day, the dominant male (usually a silverback) generally lounges on the ground or against a tree while youngsters roll in the vegetation and climb on trees, vines, and each other. Females nurse and play with their infants. Occasionally, a curious youngster may approach you or someone in your group. Though it is tempting to touch, this is STRICTLY forbidden.
Your tracking group will be instructed to stay together and crouch down whilst observing the gorillas. This is so the dominant male can see you at all times and the family does not feel threatened, surrounded, or overwhelmed.
Never stare directly into the eyes of a gorilla, for a fixed stare is as aggressive to them as it is to most humans. Although you may find a gorilla looking directly at you, you should maintain a subservient stance and look at it sideways or from a lower height.
Sometimes, as a release of tension or as a display to the rest of the group, a male gorilla may charge and beat his chest, tearing up vegetation and hurling his tremendous frame directly towards you. You must stand your ground, maintain a subordinate, crouching position, and do your best not to flinch. It is likely that the gorilla will stop before actually reaching you and calmly return to his previous location – often with a smug backwards glance at you!
Regulations and rules of conduct
It is important that you familiarize yourself with the following rules of conduct:
• You must always follow the instructions of your guide. He understands the gorillas well and has daily contact with them.
• Always remain in a quiet, compact group behind the guide, who will attempt to position you in such a way that the dominant male of the group can see you at all times.
• If the dominant male gorilla (usually a Silverback) approaches you at close range, or in the unlikely event that he charges, it is very important that you do not move. Remain exactly where you are, look downward, and adopt a submissive, crouched posture. NEVER make any sudden moves or loud noises in the presence of the gorillas.
• If a young gorilla approaches, NEVER (under any circumstances) make any move to touch it. Your guide, in certain instances, may take steps to discourage a youngster from touching you, as this could create a threatening situation with the dominant male.
• Avoid taking an excessive number of photographs, and NEVER use a flash when photographing the gorillas. Familiarise yourself with the workings of your camera before the track to alter the film speed settings, and make sure that your flash is taped over if you cannot switch it off.
• Only visitors in good health AT THE TIME OF THE EXCURSION will be permitted to track gorillas, as gorillas are susceptible to colds and other respiratory diseases transmitted by humans. All visitors must be physically fit and capable of enduring a walk of several hours in difficult terrain (as previously described).
• Each gorilla family may be visited only once each day.
• All gorilla visits are limited to a maximum of eight persons per gorilla family for a maximum length of one hour. It is not possible to do gorilla tracking on a private basis.
• Smoking, eating, and/or drinking are not permitted within 200 metres of a gorilla family.
• It is prohibited to destroy any vegetation unnecessarily and to make open fires in the national parks and reserves. The flora and fauna of national parks and reserves are strictly protected.
• All visitors must carry their own litter with them out of the park or reserve, leaving NOTHING behind.
• Children under the age of 15 cannot be accepted on gorilla tracking excursions.
Clothing and equipment
– A small, lightweight, frameless, waterproof back/day pack
– Light, waterproof hiking boots or shoes with treaded soles
– Thick socks
– For film and digital cameras, bring plenty of high speed film or inform yourself how to alter the speed settings on your equipment – we recommend a minimum of 800 ASA (no flash photography is allowed when tracking)
– Leather or heavy canvas (gardening-style) gloves
– Waterproof rain pants, a rain suit or poncho with hood
– Short sleeved shirt or T-shirt
– Light-weight trekking style long trousers
– A waterproof hat
– A water bottle or canteen (bottled water and a packed lunch will be provided by your camp)
At the camp:
– Long-sleeved shirts and long trousers.
– Short-sleeved shirts and shorts
– A down vest, fleece or pocketed safari jacket
– A travel alarm clock (for early-morning wake-up calls)
– Sweatshirts/sweaters for chilly evenings