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Visiting mountain gorillas in their natural habitat fosters a greater appreciation for the animals — and helps ensure their conservation

by Daniel Noll and Audrey Scott Posted on 24 March 2017

Over the last two and a half decades, the combined mountain gorilla population of Uganda, Rwanda, and the Congo has increased to almost 900 from 620. What impact, if any, has responsible tourism had on this upswing? We offer a few thoughts and tips that draw from our own mountain gorilla-trekking experience in Uganda.

“If the gorillas come out of the forest and cross the stream, the unofficial border with the village, the villagers know to call us — the National Park — to get the gorillas off their land,” our gorilla-trekking guide explained to us. “They know now not to hurt the gorillas. If the gorillas destroy crops, we compensate the villagers. We have a good relationship with the community now.”

In Uganda, the growth of mountain gorilla trekking and tourism has helped protect gorillas through a transparent, multi-step process. As the government receives funding for conservation, it makes an effort to develop policy and processes to protect the animals and their habitat. There is significant economic benefit — for individual locals and the country at large — to protecting the gorillas and the forest national park they call home. The fees travelers pay for gorilla-trekking permits not only help fund staff that patrol the forest and protect gorillas from poachers and hunters, but they also help fund education and development in communities that border the gorilla habitat.

Respectful encounters with mountain gorillas

The bureaucracy and high fees surrounding mountain gorilla-trekking permits help limit the number of people each day at the national park, which thereby limits the daily exposure of the mountain gorillas to eager, camera-toting tourists. The entire process intends to preserve the “wildness” of the gorillas while maintaining an ample revenue stream from a sufficient number of travellers who pay for a gorilla encounter.

In order to manage this, each group of travellers is assigned to a different gorilla family, so as to avoid overwhelming any one family. The group is allowed one hour maximum with the gorilla family and is required to keep a safe and respectful distance. In addition, the National Park facilitates a pre-trek workshop that helps visitors understand how important the protection of mountain gorillas is to the greater ecosystem.

Our experience with mountain gorillas in Uganda

During our mountain gorilla-trek in Uganda, the necessary coordination behind the scenes between guide, trackers, and scouts was clear. Trackers set out in the early morning to track the gorilla family so that, by the time we began our walk, the trackers had located them having their breakfast not too far from the forest’s edge.

How long it takes travellers to locate their assigned gorilla family varies. It only took us about 30 minutes, while other groups out the same day took more than three hours to find theirs. We spoke with others who spent six hours searching. That’s the nature of wild animal encounters — there’s no schedule or guarantee, so expectation management is crucial.

Forest trekking can also take time, with the lush, humid, and damp environment offering no clear paths. We sometimes had to pull ourselves up steep jungle grades by grasping onto branches, plant roots, and bushes. After all, this terrain is made for mountain gorillas, not humans.

Once we neared the gorilla family, our guides silently motioned they were close, and we began to move more slowly and quietly. Despite knowing the family was nearby, we were still shocked to take a turn and come face to face — literally — with a giant male silverback. His calm, deliberate movements belied his size and strength. He ate slowly, watching us as we watched him.

This behaviour, though simple, is stunning. It’s hard not to be mesmerized by your first encounter: you lock eyes for a brief moment, and there’s an undeniable feeling of connection.

Photo credit: jeremyh21 on Visualhunt / CC BY-NC

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