Gorillas in Rwanda

Image - Gorillas in Rwanda

The mountain gorilla (Gorilla beringei beringei) is one of the two most endangered apes in the world (with the Cross River Gorilla, Gorilla gorilla diehli). There are only approximately 350 mountain gorillas alive today, and all of them are found in the wild. They only exist in two small, protected afromontane forest patches in northwest Rwanda, southwest Uganda and eastern Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC).

The beautiful emerald-green Virunga Volcanoes straddling the Rwanda-Uganda border are the stronghold of the celebrated mountain gorilla. This park contains the 'gorillas in the mist' that Dian Fossey lost her life for while trying to protect. Only about 355 mountain gorillas remain alive on the damp forested slopes of these volcanic mountains (not all of which are dormant), and eco-tourism is one way to assist in their survival. The slippery slopes of the Virunga Mountains lie in the north east of Rwanda. The mountain range with peaks up to 14,648 feet (4,507metres), spills over into the neighbouring countries of DRC (Congo - formally Zaire), and Uganda - where mountain gorillas may also be visited.

Having a close encounter with mountain gorillas is a heart-warming experience that you will never forget, neither is trudging through the damp loamy undergrowth, often heavy with mist. None of the hardships enter your head once you make eye contact with your first gorilla and the sensation of kinship is almost overwhelming. There is more meaning and understanding in exchanging a glance with a gorilla than with any other animal you know. There are strict protocols in place and each of the habituated gorilla groups receives a maximum of eight people in one visit a day. Meeting these distant cousins of ours is a real privilege.

Getting There: Ruhengeri, which can easily be reached by public transport from the Rwandan capital of Kigali or the northwestern city of Gisenyi, is the normal base for a visit to the gorillas. There is no public transport from Ruhengeri to the headquarters of Volcanoes National Park, where the gorillas are located, so visitors who aren't on a tour should plan to hire a car with four-wheel drive (and driver). This will cost about $60 a day from Ruhengeri, $150 per day from Kigali, about a 90-minute drive.

Accommodation: The hotels closest to the park entrance are Mountain Gorillas Nest Lodge -- an attractive resort with individual huts around a central garden of fountains and flowering trees and the Kinigi Guest House . The latter is run by ASOFERWA, a charity established to help women and children struggling to recover from the traumas of the genocide; all profits go toward the group's work. The hotel has a Swiss-chalet feel, comfortable public areas and good food.

From these hotels you may be able to hitch a ride to the park, but you'd still have to get to the gorilla starting point and back to your room later.

Seeing the Gorillas: A gorilla permit costs $500 a person, which covers all gorilla trek expenses, plus a park entrance fee of $35.
Additional attractions in the park include viewing the endangered golden monkeys that lurk in bamboo thickets near nature trails ($75 permit required); and climbing the volcanoes, plus nature walks, trekking and birding.

Permits should be purchased far in advance.

Eight permits per day are issued for each group of gorillas, so the maximum number of permits can range from eight to 40, depending on how many families are visible on a given day.
Check with your tour operator to confirm your permit. Payment must be in bills dated 2000 or later. There are no ATMs, and neither credit cards nor traveler's checks are accepted throughout most of Rwanda.

Consider a package tour. A custom-made tour, including a car and driver, from Kigali with a driver that speaks excellent English; the cost will be about $300 per day.

What to bring: During your foray into the park, wear sturdy shoes, layers (two pair of pants or long underwear, as well as two shirts) and garden gloves to protect from the nettles. Bring water, lunch and, of course, your camera. Film is not available at the park office, so pack extra.

Last Updated on Wednesday 3rd March 2010