Seeing mountain gorillas in the wild isn’t easy, which is exactly what makes it so exciting. Unfortunately, only about 700 of these magnificent creatures still live in their natural environment—in the Virunga range of volcanic mountains
on the borders of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Rwanda, and Uganda, and in the Bwindi Impenetrable National Park in Uganda. In other words, the chance to see one is slim.
But a large number of endangered mountain gorillas reside in northwest Rwanda, often called the land of a thousand hills, and most are found in the Volcanoes National Park. In recent years, the country’s tourism office has made great strides toward protecting its population of apes, but the animals remain at risk from poaching, habitat destruction, and diseases transmitted by humans. While gorilla safaris generate the greatest amount of revenue for Rwanda’s tourism industry, the country’s priority is to maintain responsible travel and conservation efforts. The steep mountainous terrain and dense rainforest acts as somewhat of a deterrent for less intrepid or less active travelers. For others, the country’s location near the DRC, where insurgent groups are still involved in violent conflicts, makes it undesirable. (Although there were no travel restrictions on Rwanda at the time of this writing, it is advisable to check U.S. State Department warnings before booking a trip.) To further limit visitors, permit fees remain expensive at $250 and no more than 56 tourists are allowed to enter the park each day. These obstacles make a gorilla safari one of the world’s most difficult, exclusive, and exhilarating wildlife experiences.
For those who do journey to Rwanda, the Virunga volcanoes—Karisimbi, Bisoke, Sabyniyo, Gahinga, and Muhabura—make a striking backdrop as you travel into the Volcanoes National Park. Conservationist Dian Fossey, who lived in this area for 18 years studying and protecting gorillas, described the Virungas like this: “In the heart of Central Africa, so high up that you shiver more than you sweat, are great, old volcanoes towering up almost 4,500m (15,000 ft.), and nearly covered with rich, green rainforest.” To learn more about Fossey, her work with mountain gorillas, and how you can help protect the endangered species.
Rwanda’s enthralling, lush green landscape is a good distraction during the beginning of what can be an arduous trek. Be prepared to hike for several hours, climbing at altitudes between 2,400 and 3,000m (8,000—10,000 ft.), in wet and muddy conditions, before glimpsing an ape. Trails are often slippery, covered with vines, leaves, and fallen branches. Along the way, you might see golden monkeys, buffalo, and a wide variety of birds. But coming across mountain gorillas is what really makes your efforts worthwhile.
Male silverback gorillas can stand taller than 1.7m (51⁄ ft.) (such as when beating their fists against their chests to show stature or scare off opponents), and weigh more than 181kg (400 lb.). If they feel the need to ward off danger, they can charge, scream, or bare their teeth—so tread carefully. But in general, gorillas are easygoing animals that survive on a mostly vegetarian diet of celery, nettles, bamboo, and thistles. You may see them going about their daily business during the day: eating, grooming, taking care of their young, or resting and hanging out in a group. At first sight, it’s hard to remember that these huge, hairy, human-like creatures are actually gentle and social beings, something like the hippies of the animal kingdom. But after an initial adrenaline rush, it’s easy to feel peaceful in their midst.