Gorilla Habituation Experience in Uganda : Mountain gorillas have over the years been globally recognized as one of the most important wildlife attractions while on an African safari. From all corners of the world, thousands of visitors come to Africa with the sole purpose of searching for this hidden treasure that can only be found in East and Central Africa’s dense, humid and mountainous forests of Bwindi impenetrable national park, Mgahinga national park, Volcanoes national park and the Virunga National Parks. Mountain Gorillas, like any other wild animal naturally have a fear for humans and will flee or become aggressive if approached by humans.
Mountain Gorilla habituation is a process of getting these gracious and adorable creatures used to humans around them and to consider people as any other harmless being living within their environment. The gorilla habituation process usually takes two to three years and can go up to five years. The naming of gorilla members is also done during the stage of habituation process. Gorilla habituation usually involves a group of trackers, guides, and researchers who approach a gorilla family in a non-threatening manner with the purpose of finding the best way to communicate to the gorillas. This is however risky in the sense that Gorillas, especially the dominant silverback would love so much to exert its dominance and some kind of aggressiveness should be expected. The key to gorilla habituation is to win the favour of the dominant male and once this is done, closeness to the group can then followed. Once the gorilla group completes the habituation process, they are tested before opening them up to visitors.
The Gorilla Habituation process started as early as the 1960’s in central Africa led by Dr Dian Fossey who pioneered the gorilla habituation process alongside tracking, identification, range mapping among other research activities that are being implemented to date by Gorilla Conservation authorities. Gorilla habituation is a useful tool for gorilla conservation programs and research in a sense that it allows for easy monitoring of the security, health, population trends, social behaviour and feeding habits of gorilla families.
Through gorilla habituation, it is also possible to estimate the revenue generated to local communities, government and businesses especially tourism related businesses. Gorilla habituation comes with risks and is time consuming. It exposes Gorillas to risks such as diseases as a result of constant contact with people. Furthermore, for habituation to be called a successful one, a lot of time has to be spared.
In Uganda, Mountain Gorilla conservation and habituation started in the early 90`s when Bwindi Impenetrable national park was declared a national park in 1991. This saw a three phase habituation process with the very first involving three guerrilla groups – the Katendegyere and Mubare groups in the Buhoma sector and the Kyagulilo Group in the Ruhiji sector of Bwindi. The first two groups were open to tourism activities in 1993. However, the Katendegyere group that consisted of 11 individuals (reducing to just 3 in 1998) crossed to the Democratic Republic of Congo in the Sarambwe Game Reserve while Mubare Group which was under Ruhondeza who died in 2012 currently has 12 individuals after going through a series of changes. The Kyaguliro, a group has been a victim to a poaching attack losing 4 of their members but with new births currently has 18 individuals.
As gorilla trekking grew more popular in the mid 1990`s, there also grew the need for habituating more Gorilla families because the first group just couldn’t meet all the demands. This saw a further two more groups habituated – the Habinyanja and Nkuringo groups. The Nkuringo group was however only opened to tourism in 2004 as a result of several challenges among which included inadequate infrastructure.
With the need to spread its importance to most sections of Bwindi, the third phase of habituation kick started in 2006 which saw two extra groups habituated and opened up for tourism in 2008. These were; the Nshongi and Bitukura groups. The Nshongi group in the southern sector of the park is the largest guerrilla group ever recorded and consisted of over 30 members at the time. This was a result of dramatic fission in the group that led to its merger with another group. In 2008 two further groups were habituated – the Kahungye Group in the southern part of the Park and the Oruzogo group in the western section of the forest that had 30 and 20 members respectively. The former spitted further by 9 members to form the Busingye Group.
Gorilla habituation experience is a recently introduced activity to mountain Gorilla lovers, in which a chance is given to 4 tourists to experience the fun involved in Gorilla habituation process for four hours under the guidance of researched and trained trackers. This is different from gorilla trekking where 8 people are assigned each gorilla group and can only watch the gorillas for one hour. Pioneered in 2014 by the Uganda Wildlife Authority, gorilla habituation experience is only possible in Uganda – not in Rwanda or the Democratic Republic of Congo.
During the gorilla habituation process, you more time to learn more about their way of life, take more photos, watch them interact, feed, build nests and groom themselves. You will also get to understand the role each individual plays in the family. Gorilla habituation experience including park entry costs US $1500 which is in actual sense much lower than the US $700 paid for 1-hour gorilla trekking. The Uganda Wildlife Authority has set aside two gorilla families in the Rushaga and Nkuringo areas in southern region of Bwindi for habituation experience for 2018-2019. These groups include the Bikyinji family consisting of 22 members, located in the Rushaga area of the park and the Bushaho family which split from the Nkuringo family. This group is composed of a dominant silverback called Bahati (Derived from the place in which the group was first sighted) who controls three adult females, one infant, a juvenile, one sub adult and a black back.
What happens during gorilla habituation experience?
Visitors booked for gorilla habituation habituation experience/process meet at the Bwindi park headquarters in Rushaga for a briefing by officials from the Uganda Wildlife Authority and the research team at 7:30 am before commencing the activity at 8:00am. The minimum age for gorilla habituation process is 15 years of age.
It is recommended that those who wish to be part of the habituation process be fit enough to be able to hike to the steep and dense part of the forests as these mighty apes tend to move too hard to reach terrain and areas of the park. The sick ones are not allowed to take part in the gorilla habituation process. Human diseases like flue are a threat to mountain Gorillas. While with mountain gorillas, do not use flash camera lights. Do not imitate or try to make fun of Gorillas. Keep a distance of at least 7 meters away to avoid provoking them.
The best time for gorilla habituation experience is usually during the high seasons that run from December through to March and June to October. However, you can also come during the low season in the months of April, May, October, or November. These months are however unfavorable as it is characterized by heavy rains which tend to make hiking difficult. Due to the high demand from tourists for the gorilla habituation experience and given the low number of permits per day, you need to make your booking early at least 6 months prior to visit is recommended. Permits can be got through the Uganda Wildlife Authority or directly from your tour operator. Your passport information is important for booking tickets
Parking lists/essentials would include a long sleeved shirts made of synthetic material that dries quickly, gardening gloves, a hut, long trousers, a rain jacket, bottles of drinking water, hiking shoes, a camera, a walking stick and of course insect repellents to protect you against mosquito bites. Ensure you pack along some lunch or snacks as the habituation process usually takes the whole day. It’s also advisable to hire porters who will help you carry your heavy loads and also help you climb steep slopes.
How to get to Rushaga sector for Gorilla habituation
There are three main ways to get to reach Bwindi Impenetrable Forest National Park. One way is to drive from Kampala or Entebbe to the park which is approximately a 10 hours’ drive. The shortest and most convenient method for travellers is the one and a half hours’ flight from Kajjansi flying school in Wakiso district along Kampala/Entebbe highway to Kisoro and then taking a car for a 45 minutes’ drive to your lodge in Rushaga. To avoid the long route from Kampala/Entebbe and the expensive flight from Kajansi, a traveler can choose to arrive from Kigali. It takes only 4 hour of driving from Kigali to reach Rushaga in Bwindi.