Trekking and Gorilla etiquette:
For up to five years, each gorilla group has undergone an extremely delicate process which has gradually accustomed them 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 nine hours before returning to camp. The terrain can be extremely difficult, with steep slopes, and dense vegetation. In addition, the altitude means participants 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.
Clothing should be about comfort and practicality on safari. Very rarely will visitors be expected to conform to a specific dress code (unless something particular is tabled on their itinerary). Safari wear should be loose fitting and relaxed in style with warm clothing for the colder evenings at Bwindi or early morning game drives on the savannah. Neutral, natural colours are best – to blend into the background for the most unobtrusive wildlife viewing and for practical purposes. If hiking or tracking gorillas or chimpanzees, some good waterproofs and hiking trousers are essential, with a well-fitting pair of walking boots. We also recommend clients bring a sturdy pair of leather or canvas gloves to protect their hands if having to grab onto passing tendrils or branches in unfamiliar terrain.
- 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 around the gorillas)
- Leather or heavy canvas (gardening-style) gloves
- Waterproof rain trousers, 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)
You will not be able to track the gorillas if you are not feeling well, as gorillas are highly susceptible to human illnesses. If you suspect that you have a contagious illness such as a common cold, influenza or if you have diarrhoea, please report to the guide at the park headquarters. There is a good chance that they will refund you the cost of the gorilla permit. If you do not disclose the illness, and the guide detects it, you will be barred from tracking, and your permit price will not be refunded.
GORILLA TRACKING GUIDELINES
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!
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 & RULES OF CONDUCT
- 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 encounter 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.
Plight of the Gorillas
The world's remaining mountain gorillas live within four national parks, split in two regions that are 45 kilometers (28 miles) apart. One population of mountain gorillas inhabits the Bwindi Impenetrable National Park in Uganda. A census in 2006 recorded 302 gorillas here. The second population of mountain gorillas is found in a mountainous region referred to as the Virungas, which includes Mgahinga Gorilla National Park (Uganda), Volcanoes National Park (Rwanda) and Virunga National Park (Democratic Republic of Congo). A census conducted in 2010 showed 480 gorillas live in the Virungas. The primary threat to mountain gorillas comes from forest clearance and degradation, as the region's growing human population struggles to eke out a living.
The African Wildlife Foundation (AWF), in collaboration with Fauna and Flora International and World Wide Fund for Nature, established the International Gorilla Conservation Program (IGCP) to safeguard the last remaining mountain gorillas. IGCP works on three levels: Strengthening gorilla habitat protection through regional collaboration, researching the dynamic between the human population and the natural habitat/wildlife, and working with local communities to develop livelihood strategies that are complementary to conservation objectives. This coalition has been a tremendous success, but support is still greatly needed. The most endangered of the gorilla subspecies, fewer than 800 mountain gorillas remain in the wild.