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Gorilla Trekking in Rwanda, A Memorable Experience That Can Save Endangered Species
Since the Coronavirus outbreak, conservationists are warning that Africa’s endangered mountain gorillas may be susceptible as primates can get some of the same respiratory illnesses as humans, but with much more severe effects. A common cold can be fatal to a mountain gorilla, which is one reason why even in normal times tourists who go on gorilla treks are not allowed to get too close to the apes. A 21-foot space is recommended by most parks and wildlife sanctuaries or even some cases they won’t even allow you to trek at all.
Now stricter measures have been put in place. In response to the outbreak, Congo’s Virunga National Park, which has the world’s largest mountain gorilla population, has barred visitors until June 1. Rwanda, which also has large primate populations, has shut down tourism and research in three national parks indefinitely. The Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund has implemented a range of controls, including limiting research activities that involve close contact with the gorillas, instituting daily health checks for all workers in the field, and enforcing personal hygiene (masks, hand washing, etc.).
This epidemic has had a severe impact on the gorilla trekking industry, unfortunately, but there will be a time when tourists can start going on these life-changing trips once again. Hopefully, that time won’t be too far off, because the industry plays a vital role in conservation efforts for the endangered mountain gorilla species. Millions of dollars are raised through donations to organizations like the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund, and that money is spent on much-needed research and conservation of the gorillas’ habitat.
So if you’ve always wanted to go on a gorilla trek, you can still research it and plan for the day when you are able to see these majestic creatures right in their native habitat.
To help you plan your trip here is some information:
About Mountain Gorillas
Mountain gorillas received some good news recently – reports indicate that global conservation efforts have helped increase the population. However, there’s still cause for alarm. To date, there are only an estimated 1,004 mountain gorillas, a drastic decline from the population numbers first reported when they were discovered in 1902.
Mountain gorillas play a vital role in their environment. They help maintain balance in the food chain; without them, there could be dire consequences for other animal species. Both the Virunga National Park in the Democratic Republic of Congo and the Bwindi Impenetrable National Park in Uganda are home to half of the world’s mountain gorillas. The other major gorilla conservation site is the Volcanoes National Park in Rwanda, which hosts the most well-known gorilla trekking tours and ecotourism efforts.
An impactful partnership
In early 2018, Ellen DeGeneres’ wife Portia de Rossi gave her a meaningful 60th birthday present – the founding of The Ellen Fund and an 11-acre Campus in northern Rwanda, just adjacent to Volcanoes National Park. The Ellen Fund’s mission is to help save mountain gorillas from extinction, and the Ellen DeGeneres Campus is a permanent home for activists to do this important work. The Ellen Fund’s primary partner is The Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund, which will conduct its operation from the Campus.
My Visit to The Dian Fossey Fund International Office
The Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund is committed to the conservation, protection, and study of gorillas and their habitats. The Fund works closely with local governments and communities as well as global partners like The Ellen Fund. Dian Fossey spent decades researching and protecting mountain gorillas; she founded the Karisoke™ Research Center in Rwanda’s Virunga mountains in 1967. She passed away in 1985, but The Gorilla Fund and The Ellen Fund are continuing her mission.
I went to visit the office on a weekend, so no one was working, but it was still open to the public!
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This #GivingTuesday, our teams in Africa and Atlanta are engaging in a friendly competition to see who can raise the most towards our critical $50k goal – and YOU can help! Whether you support Team Africa or Team Atlanta, every dollar raised today is a WIN for gorilla conservation. https://donate.gorillafund.org/team/200611
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A new study based on research at the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund in Rwanda and just published in “Scientific Reports” suggests that male mountain gorillas who are nice to infants have greater success in siring more infants. Read more about this fascinating study: https://dfgfi.org/2RNPr3c
Three ways you can help the gorilla mountains in Rwanda:
Despite their initial financial backing and high profiles, both organizations need our help to keep protecting mountain gorillas, and there are a few key ways we can all chip in.
First, we can share information via our individual platforms – the more people understand about gorillas’ importance and the dangers they face, the greater chance they’ll have of survival. Secondly, we can also donate – both The Ellen Fund and The Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund have official donation pages.
However, the most breathtaking way we can aid mountain gorillas is through gorilla trekking in Rwanda.
Gorilla trekking in Rwanda – what you need to know
Is It Dangerous?
When you see pictures of people standing only a few feet away from a massive gorilla in the bush, it looks dangerous at first glance. It looks like the gorilla could just reach out and swipe the tourist at any time and cause real harm.
This just doesn’t happen.
Under normal circumstances, mountain gorillas are gentle creatures. The trekking guides referred to as rangers are well-trained and they know their gorillas very well — they’ve all been trained for at least 2-years (before becoming an official guide) so they’ve built trust and relationships with the gorillas. Gorilla attacks are almost nonexistent because of this.
(By the way, there is a government regulation set in place, where only one visit per gorilla family per day is allowed, so to be careful not to irritate the gorillas.)
How Much Does It Cost?
The first thing you need is a trekking permit from the Rwandan government (Rwanda is the most popular country for gorilla trekking because the political situation is more stable). These permits can cost in the neighbourhood of $1500 per person. It’s faster and better (in my opinion) to book through a trusted travel tour guide – they will take care of getting you permits and setting up accommodations for you which I highly recommend. You can view some tour options at Gorilla Trek Africa’s official website.
You will, of course, need to also budget for airfare, transportation, hotels, and meals, but aside from the airfare, there are prices available from tour operators approx. between $1800 and $2500 USD per person for a two to three-day trek in Rwanda (and that includes the permit).
Where does the money go?
Gorilla trekking offers visitors a chance to see and interact with mountain gorillas in their natural habitat. Money from gorilla trekking supports the local economy, aids conservation efforts and funds habitat protections, and creates local job opportunities, which discourages illegal poaching.
What should you wear?
You should pack layers of clothing (long safari-style trousers, long-sleeved shirts, waterproof jacket, a hat, hiking pants, hiking socks and some sturdy waterproof hiking shoes are recommended because it rains often in Rwanda and the temperatures in the morning can be chilly but they can warm up during the course of your sometimes 1.5 to 3-hour hike to the gorillas’ habitat. Garden gloves to protect your hands, sunglasses, apply sunscreen, bug repellant and a bottle of water are a good idea too.
And of course a camera! That’s one of the most important items because you’ll want to record this awe-inspiring experience to show friends and family back home. Depending on the size of your group, you’re allowed to spend about an hour or more with the gorillas to take photos.
What does the schedule look like?
Expect your gorilla trekking tour to start early, around 6:30 a.m. Volcanoes National Park opens at 7 a.m., and you’ll be assigned to an official tour group by 7:30 a.m. Each group will focus on a specific gorilla family. Before the tour begins, you’ll receive an official gorilla family briefing, during which you’ll learn about this particular family’s behaviours and all the rules of your tour. Then, you’ll head to the park. Designated gorilla trackers will have already left for the park, so they can locate the families and guide you to the right areas from the closest park entrance.
As you walk through the park, you’ll have the option of using porters, who can assist you through slippery or muddy areas and even hold your belongings. Your guide and the gorilla trackers will communicate continuously through cell phones to stay updated on the gorillas’ location.
When you reach the gorillas, you’ll be briefed once more to check for understanding. You’ll also need to leave your items in a designated spot until the tour is over, to avoid startling the gorillas or attracting unwanted attention. Then, you’ll have an hour or so to observe a family of gorillas. It’s an unparalleled experience, with barriers removed and wildlife moving, eating, and playing right before your eyes!
Are there any strict rules?
There are some rules to observe:
- No flash photography is permitted.
- Visitors must be 15 years old or older.
- Tours are limited to approx. one hour.
- Visitors must stand 7 meters away from gorillas.
- You shouldn’t go on the trek if you’re sick.
What can I expect from the experience?
First, don’t be scared off by the physical nature of gorilla trekking. You don’t have to be 21 years old and in peak physical condition to go on a trek. There are packages available to suit almost every person’s needs and capabilities. You can combine trekking with visits to other parts of Africa, and you can even go on a one-day trek if that’s all you want to do. In addition, gorilla treks are offered year-round, so you don’t have to wait for a certain season.
You’ll drive through the breathtaking country to a point in the mountains where your hike will start. The hike may be less than an hour or as much as three hours, depending on where the gorillas are that day. You’ll hike through the lush jungle that opens up to stunning vistas of the lowlands, and may even see some elephant tracks along the way!
When you’re least expecting it, your ranger will point out a gorilla, or perhaps several of them nearby. To see these majestic animals up close is truly an awesome experience. You will be close enough to see every detail of their faces, and sometimes they may even come close enough that you could reach out and touch them (this is not permitted and you’re be directed to move a few steps away from the gorilla if it’s a baby or just move out of the way if it’s a silverback approaching you).
If you’re lucky you’ll see the silverback male who is the leader of the family group, and although he may appear terrifying at first, he will not threaten you (unless you get too close, but the guides will prevent this from happening and they would have prepped you at this point on what to do).
Overall, gorilla trekking is a remarkable experience you’ll remember for the rest of your life, and in the process, you’ll do your part in protecting a vital endangered species. So, when the coronavirus pandemic settles and it’s safe to do so, consider going on a gorilla trek. It will be a life-changing experience!