THE SAFARI SPECIALIST
Gorilla Trekking Guidelines
The Rules and What to Expect
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 allocated to a family on the day and everyone is briefed in one central location at Park HQ. 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). Gorilla tracking was introduced in Rwanda as a form of sustainable wildlife tourism to support the conservation of these critically endangered primates. After its introduction, the population of mountain gorillas in the Virungas has seen significant growth in numbers, and gorilla tourism remains an important foundation for much of the conservation and community development in the area. In order to become habituated to the presence of tourists, each gorilla group has undergone an extremely delicate process for up to five years, gradually becoming accustomed to the presence of humans. This allows a few privileged visitors to interact with them in the wild. However, the gorillas are by no means tame, and care needs to be taken to interact with them and the forest in a responsible way. 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’.
Getting to the Gorillas
The gorillas cover large distances from day to day, 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. 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. The terrain can be difficult, with slopes, and some 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. You will hike 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.
Upon Reaching the Gorillas
You will probably smell the gorillas before you actually see them. When you reach them, the tracker will ask all those not in possession of a permit to stay back, and slowly move forward with only the permit-holders. The tracker may make soft grunting sounds to assure the group that friends are approaching. Although gorillas make very few vocalizations, these sounds are used by the gorilla family members to reassure 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!
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. Familiarize 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.
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.
• 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 diahorrea, please report to the guide at the park headquarters. In certain cases, you may 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.
Hiring a Porter Should you wish to, you will have the opportunity to hire a porter for the duration of your trek. We recommend hiring a porter, whatever your fitness levels. They offer valuable assistance and their payment provides an important stream of income to communities living around the park. The cost of porters is not included in your tour price and is currently US$15 per porter per day. 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).
Regulations & Rules of Conduct