Big in Africa: How to track gorillas in the wild

This month, Big in Japan is on vacation in Africa, and will be bringing you travel news and happenings from around this often misunderstood continent.

Africa abounds with unparalleled wildlife experiences, though few can compare with the experience of staring down a mountain gorilla, especially if it happens to be a male silverback. While these gentle giants have been habituated to human visitors, they are nevertheless a formidable sight in the wild.

Mountain gorillas are largely confined to three national parks spanning three countries: Parq National des Volcans in Rwanda, Bwindi Impenetrable Forest in Uganda and Parq National des Virungas in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC).

However, before you can have a true ‘Gorillas in the Mist’ experience, you’re going to need to jump through all sorts of administrative hurdles, and obtain the necessary tracking permits. While this isn’t exactly the most straightforward process, today’s post should hopefully help you get started.

Gorilla tracking in East Africa is highly regulated, and you must obtain a permit before setting out. In Rwanda, Uganda and DRC, a permit costs a whopping US$500, though this money is used to protect gorillas from poaching. Indeed, populations were brought to the brink of extinction before conservation efforts were stepped up in recent decades.

The most famous place to track gorillas in the wild is Parq National des Volcans in Rwanda, which was made famous by Dian Fossey. The organization responsible for issuing permits is ORTPN, though confirmed bookings must be made months in advance, particularly if you’re planning on visiting Rwanda in the summer months.

Unfortunately, it isn’t always easy to deal with ORTPN by e-mail, though there are plenty of tour operators in East Africa that can help you secure permits. And of course, you can always show up in Kigali and hope for a last minute cancellation, though you’re going to need a little patience and a whole lot of luck as only 56 permits are issued per day.

Once you arrive in Rwanda, you will need to register with the park headquarters in Kinigi at 7am on the day your permit is valid. After being assigned a guide and a group, you will then track the gorillas through the montane forest, and spend exactly one hour observing the largest apes on the planet.

A worthwhile contender to Parq National des Volcans is the awesomely named Bwindi Impenetrable Forest in Uganda. Following the highly publicized murder of several tourists in 1999, gorilla tracking reservations plummeted, though today the national park is back on the tourist map thanks to improved security.

The Ugandan version of ORTPN is called UWA, and similar procedures are in place for obtaining permits. Again, it is necessary to book several months in advance either through UWA or a tour operator, unless of course you’re not adverse to waiting it out in Kampala. And again, once you arrive in Uganda, you will need to register at the park headquarters at 8am on the day your permit is valid.

If you’re having problems getting permits for Rwanda or Uganda, you can always head to Parq National des Virungas in DRC, and do your best to differentiate the park officials from rebel fighters (the difference isn’t as obvious as you’d imagine). With that said, the Democratic Republic of Congo isn’t a democracy, it’s hardly a republic, but it certainly is the Congo!

One that note, be safe, and let us know how it goes…

** All images were taken by the author in Parq National des Volcans, Rwanda **