Unforgettable encounters: where to see gorillas in Africa

August 15, 2023
Gorillas in Africa

The beating heart of equatorial Africa is home to one of our world’s most majestic and elusive creatures: the gorilla

Coming face to face with these expressive, playful, deeply intelligent, sentient mammals in their natural habitat is an experience like no other. Trekking through untouched nature is always equal parts exhilarating and humbling. But catching a glimpse into the lives of our closest living relatives in the animal kingdom transcends traditional wildlife experiences. Just imagine meeting the milky-eyed gaze of a creature that shares 97% of your DNA? To have the best our humanity reflected back at us is extraordinarily emotional and deeply humbling. 

Today, we are exploring what it’s like to embark on this once-in-a-lifetime expedition. You will learn about where to see gorillas in Africa and expert tips for the best time to travel, where to go and what to expect on your trek. 

Join us as we venture into the depths of Central Africa and discover where unforgettable, immersive luxury experiences meet responsible, sustainable tourism. For we travel not just to move, but to be profoundly moved.

An overview of gorilla species in Africa

The largest of all the great apes, there are two species of gorilla in the world, the eastern gorilla and the western gorilla. However, both species each have a lowland and upland sub-species: the mountain and eastern lowland (also known as the Grauer’s gorilla) and the cross river and western lowland gorilla. And you can witness all of them up-close in Africa. Each gorilla type is delightfully unique, with their own distinguishing characteristics, habits, and personalities. Incredibly, these gentle giants can live up to fifty years.

You’ll find the highest numbers of western gorillas – over 6000. The western lowland gorillas are the smallest while the stocky eastern lowland gorilla is the largest of all the sub-species and, in fact, the largest living primate of all weighing up to an incredible 440 pounds. But don’t assume that there’s an abundance of these creatures or that they’re spread out across the sub-continent. Unfortunately, due to a series of factors including habitat loss, poaching, and conflict, gorillas are endangered. In fact, there are only 1063 of the wild mountain gorilla sub-species left on our planet per the recent census, while Grauer’s gorilla populations have plummeted more than 50% in the last thirty years. 

Gorilla behavior, explained

Given these epic primates share so much genetic code with humans, it’s no surprise that their daily behaviors and social structures mimic ours. All gorillas live in family groups that can span from just a few primates up to 40 members, all led by one dominant silverback male who holds the ultimate authority over the group and is also responsible for their protection. Like any family, the babies are nurtured and carried by their mothers while older siblings play and tumble around like all toddlers. Every night the troop all nestle closely together for warmth in nests they build afresh daily from foliage before falling asleep. 

Gorillas are highly sentient, intelligent creatures who exhibit so many of our human traits like loyalty, love, sadness, grief, anger, jealousy, empathy, and smart problem solving. As gorillas mature most males and some females will leave their family group to join other groups which prevents inbreeding, a critical step in ensuring the health and evolutionary viability of the species.

What do gorillas eat?

Despite their immense size and athleticism, gorillas subsist mostly on a vegetarian diet. They roam miles daily through thick jungle and rainforest feeding for hours on leaves, bamboo shoots and fruit. Some gorillas have a particular appetite for ants and termites and will use ingenious methods to break termite nests open for their larvae. Occasionally hungry gorillas will encroach into farmland and eat crops like bananas and even maize which can have the unfortunate consequence of spurring human-wildlife conflict.

Mountain gorillas in Rwanda | ROAR AFRICA

Where are gorillas found in Africa?

You’ll find these magnificent primates throughout equatorial Africa, mostly in the tropical rainforests that cover the Congo Basin which spans six countries including Cameroon, the Central African Republic, the DRC, Guinea and Gabon. You find the critically endangered wild mountain gorilla further east in the Albertine Rift, a vast nearly 1000-mile-long area that encompasses parts of the DRC, Uganda and Rwanda. However, not all of these areas are easily accessible to tourists. Travel to the DRC and Central African Republic in particular can pose security threats due to escalating political violence. ROAR AFRICA does not operate gorilla treks in any of the countries within West Africa like Gabon, Cameroon or Guinea nor several countries within Central Africa, including the aforementioned Central African Republic.

However, Rwanda and Uganda are spectacular ROAR AFRICA gorilla safari options. Both countries have the infrastructure, top-tier lodges, and conservation measures in place to create a life-changing wild mountain gorilla trek experience, one that respects the local landscape and contributes to the preservation of this extraordinary species.

Volcanoes National Park, Rwanda

Only 1063 mountain gorillas still roam free across the Virunga Massif. And 604 of them live in Rwanda’s Volcanoes National Park, a triumphant symbol of conservation success across Africa and ROAR AFRICA’s top destination for this experience. This storied national park sits right on the border with the DRC and was home to years of game-changing scientific research by primatologist Dian Fossey, who established her Karisoke research center between two of the five volcanoes that make up the park. The sacred energy and history here is incredible to experience. Despite years of conflict and heavy poaching throughout the 1990s, the park today is a roaring success with luxury eco-lodges, spectacular education centers, expert guides and trackers and impact-led conservation that is succeeding in slowly boosting gorilla numbers. 

Then again, it’s no coincidence that this small country – the first nation in the world with a 61% female majority in parliament and 50% of government positions also held by women – is a conservation leader in Africa. A milestone expansion of Volcanoes National Park announced a few years ago is intended to benefit everyone, adding 23% more habitat and a larger buffer zone for the growing gorilla population. It will also create an estimated 1 700 jobs, and all those residing within the current buffer zone will be compensated and relocated to newly constructed “green” villages, complete with health services, schools and green belts for farming. It’s a massive, ambitious undertaking and a game-changer for conservation.

Bwindi Impenetrable Forest, Uganda

With stunning and varied landscapes, unique wildlife opportunities and friendly people, Uganda has a lot to offer.  Home to Africa’s tallest mountain range (the Rwenzoris), the source of the Nile (the world’s longest river) and the continent’s largest lake, Uganda’s most iconic wildlife experience is trekking up to our planet's last mountain gorillas in their misty habitat. Bwindi Impenetrable Forest National Park is located in the country’s southeast on the edge of the Rift Valley. Within the thick forest you’ll find approximately 500 mountain gorillas, with twenty-one family troops habituated for tourist viewing. It’s worth noting the Uganda’s gorilla treks are more affordable than that of Rwanda which intentionally operates a high-cost, low-footprint responsible tourism model. 

Mgahinga National Park, Uganda

The smallest national park in Uganda is also one of the newest in Africa, established in 1991. Like Bwindi Impenetrable Forest National Park, Mgahinga is home wild mountain gorillas, although the number is tiny with just one habituated gorilla family. You’ll also find rare golden monkeys and an incredibly variety of bird species within the park.

Virunga National Park, DRC

The third location of Africa’s wild mountain gorillas is across the border from Rwanda in the DRC’s Virunga National Park, part of the volcano chain that makes up the Virunga Massif. A vast country rich in mineral deposits, wilderness and virgin jungle, Congo is also home to lowland gorillas which you find in Kahuzi Biega National Park and even endangered golden monkeys. ROAR AFRICA does not operate safaris within the DRC due to safety issues and political instability. Gorilla numbers in the Congo are sadly in freefall due to conflict, poaching and disease, although conservation efforts are in effect.

Best time to visit Africa for gorilla trekking

While one can experience primordial paradise and gorilla trek year-round, the dry season runs from mid-December to early February and again from June to September. Many would consider June to September the most optimum time to explore Uganda and the dense rainforests that cover Rwanda’s sacred volcanoes because by day you’ll often find light cloud cover that makes for more comfortable hiking and ambient temperatures. Also, without heavy rain, visibility is often clearer through the forest canopies. 

However, during the rainy season the jungle is incredibly lush, and the air is cooler. Although the terrain is mucky and can be tougher to navigate, with the appropriate gear and level of fitness, gorilla trekking is absolutely doable for people of every ability and still incredibly enjoyable. For those who are struggling, skilled porters and even stretchers are on hand to help you fully immerse in and enjoy this experience of a lifetime. For avid birders, the tail end of the rainy season in late May is also bird breeding season and the skies light up with colorful plumage and incredible opportunities for sightings.

Trekking is a year-round activity

So, in essence, if you don’t mind a bit of muck and a solid trek, embrace the less-busy rainy season when the Land of a Thousand Hills reaches its peak emerald glory. However, for those who aren’t seasoned hikers, the dry season is the ultimate reward. Although it’s important to note as we mentioned before that any and all treks are subject to permits, which can be like gold dust and book up a year in advance. 

Practical tips for gorilla trekking

We furnish our clients with a detailed packing list and all of the information they could possibly need well-ahead of any ROAR AFRICA trip, in this case, a gorilla trek. And of course, all permits, guides and accommodations have been pre-booked. From the second you arrive at Rwanda’s Volcanoes National Park or Uganda’s Bwindi Impenetrable National Park, our specialist on-the-ground team will wrap you in care and love, guiding you through every step of the transformative, awe-inspiring wildlife experience to come. 

What to pack

Most of the top-tier lodges we partner with, like Rwanda’s Singita Kwitonda and One&Only Gorilla’s Nest come with fully equipped gear rooms stocked with gators, walking poles and other trekking aids. However, on our list of guest must-brings are thick gloves to protect your hands from stinging nettles, good, comfortable hiking boots, thick socks, cotton long-sleeve tops and waterproof trousers. A small backpack will hold your water, camera gear and any additional sunscreen for the hike itself. Depending on the weather, a lightweight waterproof jacket and cap or beanie will add to your comfort. 

Safety procedures

Once in close proximity to the habituated gorillas, every member of the hike dons a surgical mask to protect these precious primates from exposure to disease and respiratory infections. Gorilla DNA is so close to that of humans, they they’re just as susceptible as we are to coming down with colds and sicknesses, but they don’t have the exposure and vaccination-based immunity we have to so many illnesses. And of course, prior to your trek, you will receive a full safety briefing and detailed description of the spectacular experience to come from your experienced, specialist guide who will be with you every step of the way toward primordial paradise.

Contributing to gorilla conservation

As discussed previously, there are two main gorilla species and four sub-species –and unfortunately, all are classed as endangered, with wild mountain gorillas being the most at risk of extinction. As the privilege of bearing witness to one of our closest primate cousins, who share 97% of our DNA, washes over you, one’s heart cracks open. The reality of what it would mean to lose this critically endangered species hits home. To borrow the words of Volcanoes National Park Chief Warden, Prosper Uwingeli, you realize that “conservation is life”.  

Responsible Tourism

Conscious, responsible tourism is critical to gorilla conservation and provides the financial capital and social awareness needed to fund protective measures and scientific research. Rwanda, in particular, has seen huge success in this area, and unlike many other nations grappling with an uphill conservation climb, the Rwandan government are heavily involved and deeply committed to protecting the gorilla species that Rwandans consider their national treasure. As a country, they have implemented a collaborative conservation model that includes every facet of society to tackle the complex threats to the survival of these gorillas. Chief among these threats is loss of habitat, snares, and the spread of disease, all of which are caused by the pressures of a rapidly growing population encroaching on the national park. But sensible initiatives are helping to reduce human-animal conflict and foster understanding. These include limited, high-cost trekking permits and a tourism-revenue-sharing model that puts 10% of all profits into the hands of the communities, most of whom are subsistence farmers.

Uganda too has seen conservation successes, and like Rwanda, revenue generated from responsible tourism funnels directly back into its national parks and supports the hundreds of local people, guides, trackers, primatologists and conservationists integral to the fabric of any gorilla trekking experience. 

Conservation challenges

Sadly, gorilla conservation efforts in other Central African countries are under huge duress due to ongoing conflicts, population expansion, habitat loss, and poaching. Without stability, it’s incredibly challenging to ensure the long-term success of a fragile species with a long gestation time, one that also depends on family bonds to thrive and wild space to roam free. 

Our sincere hope is that every visitor realizes we are all part of this ecosystem, not apart from it. Together, we can move mountains. Together, we can save a species from needless extinction.

Discover a world of luxury African destinations and extraordinary experiences with ROAR AFRICA. To learn more about our responsible gorilla trekking safaris in Rwanda and Uganda, contact welcome@roarafrica.com.


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