East Africa in detail

Gorilla Tracking

Nothing quite prepares you for the moment when you come upon a gorilla family in the wild. No bars, no windows – you’re a humble guest in their domain. Coming face to face with mountain gorillas is one of life’s great experiences. And we'll help you make it happen.

Key Information

  • Best for Seeing Gorillas

Bwindi Impenetrable National Park (Uganda)

Volcanoes National Park (Rwanda)

  • Best for Independent Travellers

Mgahinga Gorilla National Park (Uganda)

Parc National des Virunga (DRC)

  • Dry Season

When December to February, June to August

Advantages Generally dry weather

Disadvantages Permits more difficult to obtain

  • Wet Season

When March to May, September to November

Advantages Fewer visitors so permits easier to obtain; permits cheaper at Bwindi Impenetrable National Park; generally easier to track gorillas

Disadvantages Can be extremely wet

  • Cheapest Permits

Bwindi Impenetrable National Park (Uganda) – US$600 (US$450 April, May, October and November)

Parc National des Virunga (DRC) – US$400

  • Most Expensive Permits

Volcanoes National Park (Rwanda) – US$1500

Rules for Gorilla Tracking

  • Anyone with an illness cannot track the gorillas. In Rwanda you’ll get a full refund if you cancel because of illness and produce a doctor’s note, while in Uganda you’ll get back half.
  • Eating and smoking near the gorillas is prohibited.
  • If you have to cough or sneeze, cover your mouth and turn your head.
  • Flash photography is banned; turn off the autoflash.
  • Speak quietly and don’t point at the gorillas or make sudden movements; they may see these as threats.
  • Leave nothing in the park; you shouldn’t even spit.
  • Keep a few metres back from the gorillas and promptly follow your guide’s directions about where to walk.
  • When faced with 200kg of charging silverback, never, ever run away…crouch down until he cools off.
  • Children under 15 years of age aren’t allowed to visit the gorillas.

Planning Your Trip

There's nothing quite like sharing a few long moments with a mountain gorilla family: the first glimpse of black as a juvenile jumps off a nearby branch, a toddler clings to its mother’s back and a giant silverback rises to size you up. To make the most of this life-changing experience, planning ahead is essential.

When to Go?

Any time you can. The experience will be incredible no matter when you go, but there are advantages to going at different times of the year.

It’s generally easier to track gorillas in the rainy seasons (March to May and September to November) because they hang out at lower altitudes. You may also get better photos in the rainy season, assuming it isn’t raining at the time you’re with the gorillas, because they love to sunbathe after getting wet. Then again, you’ll need to be wearing some serious wet-weather gear.

The busiest times on the mountains are December to February and July to August. Scoring permits takes more effort during these months, but that won’t matter if a tour company is handling things for you.

Booking Ahead

Permits are required to visit the gorillas and booking ahead is always a good idea, particularly if you’re planning to visit Uganda’s Bwindi Impenetrable National Park and Rwanda’s Volcanoes National Park from December to February or July to August. If you aren’t travelling in these months and you only have a very small window of opportunity, you should still make a reservation as far in advance as possible to be safe.

To make a phone booking for Rwanda, you need to pay a deposit by bank transfer, while in Uganda you’ll need to provide all the money up front. If you can’t get a permit on your own, you’ll need to go through a tour operator, which is often a good idea anyway. In the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), you can book online.

Required Fitness Levels

With the combination of mud, steep hills and altitude, gorilla tracking is hard work. Although gorillas sometimes wander near the visitor centres and might be found quickly, you’re far more likely to be hiking for two to four hours, and some trackers have wandered across the mountains for an entire day. The authorities sometimes group together visitors of similar age and fitness level, and factor this into which gorilla family they send you out to find, but it can still take hours of hard walking.

What to Bring

For the most part, you don’t need anything special beyond the usual outdoor essentials such as sunscreen, insect repellent, and food and water (enough for the whole day, just in case). Good boots are important. Some people like rubber boots because they keep the mud and fire ants at bay, but they have no ankle support. Plan for rain no matter what month you’re tracking (you’ll be in a rainforest after all). It’s also often chilly in the morning, so you might want a warm top.

You may have to trudge through thorns and stinging nettles, so trousers and long-sleeved shirts with some degree of heft may save you some irritation. For the same reason, garden gloves can come in handy.

Finally, bring your passport with you on tracking day; you’ll need it during registration.

Costs

For most of the year, demand for gorilla-tracking permits far outstrips supply. Permits cost the following:

  • Rwanda US$1500
  • Uganda US$450–600
  • DRC US$400

The price includes park entry, guides and armed escorts, while porters are available for a little extra. These people are paid very little, and work hard, and so they will expect a small tip.

Where to Track Gorillas

Gorilla Locations

CountryLocationDaily Permits AvailableCost (US$)Habituated Gorilla Groups
UgandaBwindi Impenetrable National Park96600 (450 Apr, May, Oct & Nov)12
UgandaMgahinga Gorilla National Park86001
RwandaVolcanoes National Park80150010
the DRCParc National des Virunga264006

Bwindi Impenetrable National Park (Uganda)

Home to around half of the world’s eastern mountain gorilla population, Bwindi Impenetrable National Park remains one of the top spots to track mountain gorillas. The evocatively named park lives up to its name, with stunning scenery comprising dense, steep virgin rainforest. And yes, it means tracking can occasionally be hard work, but with the aid of a good walking stick (or a porter to lend a hand), you’ll get there without too much difficulty. And while visibility often isn’t as good as it is in the open spaces where the Virunga gorillas hang out, in Bwindi you’ll get just as close to them and they’re more likely to be seen swinging from the trees.

Arranging Permits

Even though the number of tracking permits has increased to around 96 per day, it can still be difficult to get them. There are 12 mountain gorilla groups spread across four areas of the park.

Permits, which cost US$600, must be booked at the Uganda Wildlife Authority headquarters in Kampala or through a Ugandan tour operator. It’s theoretically possible to arrange permits online via a bank transfer, but UWA is notoriously tricky to get in touch with via email.

Discount permits are available for US$450 for the low season months of April, May, October and November; whether this remains an ongoing approach is yet to be determined.

Mgahinga Gorilla National Park (Uganda)

Mgahinga Gorilla National Park encompasses Uganda’s share of the Virunga volcanoes, which sit squarely on the tri-nation border. This park is popular with independent travellers because reservations aren’t possible more than two weeks in advance, due to the only habituated gorilla group’s tendency to duck over the border into Rwanda or the DRC. Of course, the downside of this is that it means they can’t always be tracked. It often takes longer to find the gorillas here than in Bwindi, but the walking is usually (but not always) much easier.

Arranging Permits

Reservations for the eight places available daily are only taken at the Mgahinga Gorilla National Park Office in Kisoro. The US$600 fee is paid at the park headquarters on the morning of your tracking.

Volcanoes National Park (Rwanda)

Rwanda’s Volcanoes National Park ranks up there with Uganda’s Bwindi Impenetrable National Park as one of the best places in East Africa to see gorillas, but a recent price hike has somewhat diminished its appeal. Part of its cachet comes from the fact that this is where Dian Fossey was based and where the film about her work was made. Also, the towering volcanoes form a breathtaking backdrop. Tracking here is usually easier than in Bwindi because the mountains offer a more gradual climb, and the visibility is often better too; remember, however, that the trekking here is still extremely strenuous. One other thing to remember is that visitors here, unlike in Bwindi, are assigned gorilla groups on tracking day, not when reservations are made, so those who aren’t in such good shape will get one of the groups requiring the least amount of walking.

Arranging Permits

There are 10 habituated gorilla groups. Eighty tracking permits (US$1500 per person) are available each day.

You can book a permit with the RDB Tourist Office in Kigali or through a tour operator.

Parc National des Virunga (the DRC)

Established in 1925 by the Belgian colonial government as Albert National Park, Parc National des Virunga is the continent's oldest and largest protected area. To put things in perspective, Virunga is contiguous with five different national parks in Uganda, and protects an incredible range of endangered animals, from forest elephants to chimpanzees and mountain gorillas.

The park lies at the centre of a war-torn region, and has been threatened by poaching, land invasions, charcoal producers and rebel factions. The park was forced to close in 2012, but parts of it reopened to tourism in 2014, only for the entire park to be shut to tourism in 2018 following the kidnap of two British nationals. Assuming that the security situation is safe and the park has reopened, the DRC receives far fewer visitors than Uganda’s Bwindi Impenetrable National Park or Rwanda’s Volcanoes National Park making permits easier to come by here (and they are cheaper). It's thus the easiest place for independent travellers to see the gorillas. And the setting is stunning.

The habituated mountain gorillas of the Parc National des Virunga can be seen on a gorilla tracking trip (US$400 to US$600). The other drawcard is the chance to climb, and sleep on the rim of (US$300), the Nyiragongo volcano, whose crater contains the world's largest permanent lava lake.

Bookings for all park activities should be made through the impressively organised Virunga visitor centre in Goma or through its website. While tourist visas for the Congo are extremely difficult to obtain, the park can help arrange what is known as a Virunga Visa, which is valid for the park itself, Goma, Bukavu and the Parc National Kahuzi-Biega (www.kahuzibiega.org), home to habituated groups of eastern lowland gorillas (permits US$400). Visas take around a week to issue and cost US$105.

The security situation in this part of the world changes fast and often. Be sure to double-check the latest before venturing here.

Arranging Permits

You can buy permits (US$400) and arrange transport and accommodation directly through the Institut Congolais pour la Conservation de la Nature.

Understand Mountain Gorillas

Gorillas are the largest of the great apes and share 97% of their biological make-up with humans. Gorillas used to inhabit a swath of land that cut right across central Africa, but the last remaining eastern mountain gorillas number around 880, divided between two 300-plus populations in the forests of Uganda’s Bwindi Impenetrable National Park and on the slopes of the Virunga volcanoes, encompassing Uganda’s Mgahinga Gorilla National Park, Rwanda’s Volcanoes National Park and the DRC’s Parc National des Virunga.

Daily Life

Gorillas spend 30% of their day feeding, 30% moving and foraging, and the remainder resting. They spend most of their time on the ground, moving around on all fours but standing up to reach for food. Gorillas are vegetarians and their diet consists mainly of bamboo shoots, giant thistles and wild celery, all of which contain water and allow the gorillas to survive without drinking for long periods of time. A silverback can eat his way through more than 30kg of bamboo a day.

A group’s dominant silverback dictates movements for the day, and at night each gorilla makes its own nest. Gorillas usually travel about 1km a day, unless they have met another group, in which case they may move further.

Families

Gorillas generally live in family groups of varying sizes, usually including one to two older silverback males, younger blackback males, females and infants. Most groups contain between 10 and 15 gorillas, but they can exceed 40. The largest habituated group in Uganda's Bwindi Impenetrable National Park has 26 members, and in Rwanda's Volcanoes National Park the largest group has 28.

There are strong bonds between individuals, and status is usually linked to age. Silverbacks are at the top of the hierarchy, then females with infants or ties to the silverbacks, then blackbacks and other females. Most gorillas leave the group when they reach maturity, which helps prevent inbreeding among such a small population.

Conflict

Gorillas are relatively placid primates and serious confrontations are rare, although violence can flare up if there’s a challenge for supremacy between silverbacks. Conflicts are mostly kept to shows of strength and vocal disputes.

Conflict between groups is also uncommon, as gorillas aren’t territorial; if two groups meet, there’s usually lots of display and bravado on the part of silverbacks, including mock charges. Often the whole group joins in and it’s at this point that young adult females may choose to switch allegiance.

If gorillas do fight, injuries can be very serious as these animals have long canine teeth and silverbacks pack a punch estimated to be eight times stronger than that of a heavyweight boxer. If a dominant male is driven from a group by another silverback, it’s likely the new leader will kill all the infants to establish his mating rights.

Communication

Gorillas communicate in a variety of ways, including facial expressions, gestures and around two dozen vocalisations. Adult males use barks and roars during confrontations or to coordinate the movement of their groups to a different area. Postures and gestures form an important element of intimidation and it’s possible for a clash to be diffused by a display of teeth-baring, stiff-legging and charging.

Friendly communication is an important part of group bonding and includes grunts of pleasure. Upon finding food, gorillas will grunt or bark to alert other members of the group.

Biology

Gorillas are the largest primates in the world and mountain gorillas are the largest of the three gorilla species; adult male mountain gorillas weigh as much as 200kg (440lb). Females are about half this size.

Males reach maturity between eight and 15 years old, their backs turning silver as they enter their teens, while females enter adulthood at the earlier age of eight. Conception is possible for about three days each month, and once a female has conceived for the first time, she spends most of her life pregnant or nursing.

The duration of a gorilla pregnancy is about 8½ months. Newborn infants are highly dependent on adults, and a young infant will rarely leave its mother’s arms during its first six months. In its second year, a young gorilla begins to interact with other members of the group and starts to feed itself. Infant gorillas and silverbacks often form a bond, and it’s not uncommon for a silverback to adopt an infant if its mother dies. This distinguishes gorillas from other primates, where child-rearing duties are left to females. From about three years, young gorillas become quite independent and build their own nests.

Mountain gorillas are distinguished from their more widespread lowland relatives by longer hair, broader chests and wider jaws. The most obvious thing that sets the gorillas in Bwindi apart from those of the Virungas is that they are less shaggy, most likely due to the lower altitude.