Gorilla Trekking, East Africa
Very few people are privileged enough ever to track gorilla and chimpanzee in East Africa. Whether in the rainforests of Uganda and Rwanda, the Ol Pejeta Conservancy in Kenya, or on Rubondo Island in Tanzania, encounters with gorilla or chimpanzee are rare and very precious.
A face-to-face encounter with these endangered great apes in their natural habitat is a truly astounding experience. Perhaps it is the fact that they are our closest living relatives that makes getting up close to them so moving and awe-inspiring. Perhaps it is the fact that their very existence is under serious threat. We may be among the last generations ever to have the chance to breathe the same air as these highly intelligent, sociable and elusive animals.
Mountain gorillas remaining in the wild
Average size of gorilla troop
from 5 to 120
Individuals in a chimpanzee community
While 50 years ago millions of chimpanzee lived throughout equatorial Africa, today there are only 170 000 to 300 000 left, and with their habitat under constant threat, their numbers are declining rapidly. Today, the eastern chimpanzee range has been reduced to the Central African Republic and DRC, western Uganda, Rwanda and western Tanzania.
Chimpanzee live predominantly in moist and dry forests extending into savanna woodlands. Their diet is omnivorous – about half of it is fruit, with vegetation, bark, small mammals and even honey making up the rest. What they eat varies according to where they live and the seasons. Interestingly, these highly intelligent great apes eat plants with medicinal properties to self-medicate themselves!
Not only do they have opposable thumbs like ours, they also have opposable big toes so they can grasp things with their hands and feet. A little-known but fascinating fact is that groups of chimpanzees living in different regions have unique behaviours, tools and traditions that are passed down from one generation to the next. They are highly sociable creatures that live in communities that can include as many as 120 individuals. Chimpanzee communicate by using vocalisations, hand gestures and facial expressions.
The Sweetwaters Chimpanzee Sanctuary was established in 1993 with an agreement between the Ol Pejeta Conservancy, the Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS) and the Jane Goodall Institute. Fully incorporated into Ol Pejeta Conservancy in Kenya, Sweetwaters is the only place in Kenya where this highly endangered species can be seen. Over 40 chimps rescued from the bush-meat industry live in troops on either side of the Ewaso Nyiro River. The project aims to provide a safe chimpanzee haven and preserve their habitats through public education. Visitors to the Ol Pejeta Conservancy have free access to the Sweetwaters Chimpanzee Sanctuary, which is open daily from 9:00am to 10:30am and 3pm to 4:30pm.
Our Rubondo Island Camp offers the only accommodation on this wild and wonderful island national park. The park was originally established as a haven for endangered species by Professor Bernhard Grzimek of the Frankfurt Zoological Society. Over a four-year period (1966–1969) he released 16 chimpanzee rescued from European zoos in four cohorts onto the island. This was the first-ever attempt to rehabilitate captive chimpanzees. They have now reverted to an unhabituated state characteristic of wild chimpanzees and remain secretive. From 16 founders the population has now grown to around 35 individuals.
Attempts to habituate these chimpanzee to the presence of humans is a difficult and delicate process that can take up to three years. As a result, sightings of them on guided forest walks at Rubondo Island are exceptionally rare, although you will certainly hear them vocalising and see their treetop nests, which can be from 3 to 45 metres above ground level.
Uganda Chimpanzee Habituation
If you take part in a habituation experience in Murchison Falls or Kibale national parks (Uganda), you will spend a fascinating day observing wild chimpanzee in their natural habitat. This all-day trek is an exceptional experience that is totally unpredictable: the chimpanzee themselves set the day’s pace and programme.
Chimp trekking experiences in the rainforests of Uganda and Rwanda can be arranged. As in gorilla trekking, you will remain with the chimp troop for an hour, after a brisk hike to find them. Chimpanzee cover ground quickly and swing rapidly through the trees, so a chimpanzee trek requires you to move fast through dense forest. Many people find this less well-known experience even more rewarding than gorilla trekking.
Eastern and mountain gorillas are listed as critically endangered on the IUCN red list. The world’s last remaining mountain gorillas live in three countries (Rwanda, Uganda and the Democratic Republic of the Congo) spanning four national parks – Bwindi Impenetrable National Park, Mgahinga Gorilla National Park, Volcanoes National Park and Virunga National Park. These are regions that still feature the tropical or subtropical forests that is the natural habitat of these critically endangered herbivorous apes.
Gorillas live in families usually consisting of one silverback male and many adult females and their offspring. They communicate by vocalising, making up to 25 different sounds. Their family bonds are strong, and they can make and use tools.
They construct nests on the ground or in the trees made up of branches and leaves which they use both during the day and at night. A gorilla family divides its day between periods of rest and travelling or feeding: their home range is three to 15 km² but they often travel only as far as 500 metres on a given day. Good news for gorilla trekkers!
You can track gorillas year round, although the height of the rainy seasons can make the conditions heavy going. The best times are in the drier months from about June to mid-September or December to February.
You don’t have to be especially fit although you should be able to manage a good walk up and down rough-and-ready paths. Because these are wild animals, their movements are unpredictable: while you may encounter your group after a short stroll, you could be looking at a steep hike of a few hours if the gorilla have retreated up the mountain slopes.
Because gorilla are so closely related to humans they are very vulnerable to human infections and diseases, and the common cold that is so uncomfortable for us is potentially deadly for the mountain gorilla. For this reason, if you have any kind of cold or infection you will not be permitted to go gorilla trekking.
You will be required to keep a distance of at least 7 metres from each gorilla – sometimes tricky when these curious and intelligent creatures come up close to investigate you!
Your guide will give you the full low-down on how to behave when you are with your gorilla group. Rules include keeping your movements slow and steady, and your voice down.