Mountain Gorilla Trekking in Volcanoes National Park, Rwanda
Location; Volcanoes national park also known as Parc National Des Volcans 160km2 /62 sq miles, is located in high altitude northwest of Rwanda in the Virungas notable for outstanding dormant volcanic mountains; Karisimbi 4507m, Bisoke 3696m, Muhabura 4127m, Gahinga 3473m and Sabinyo 3669m. The park is an international wildlife expansion that touches and shares international borders with Mgahinga Gorilla National Park, Uganda and Virunga National Park; DR Congo. Volcanoes National Park was formerly part of Albert National Park; the first on African continent in 1925 for protection and conservation of Mountain gorillas, and the habitat.
High amounts of altitudinal rainfall and volcanic soils rich in plant nutrients support growth of luxuriant vegetation dominated with bamboo, lobelia, meadow, thicket and montane forests. Swamp, lilies and wetland vegetation feature predominantly in the lower valleys. These are natural factors favorable for survival and existence of Mountain gorillas. Other permanent wildlife species residents but rare to spot in the park include Golden monkey, elephants, buffalo, bushbuck, bush pig, duiker, forest hogs, spotted hyenas, close 200 bird species, reptiles, insects and other wildlife species.
Mountain gorilla (Gorilla beringei beringei) are close cousins of Lowland gorillas. The two sub species form Eastern Gorillas that roam East and Central African rainforests. International researching teams categorized Mountain gorillas as “Endangered” wildlife species. Mountain gorillas are apes with forward looking head, high sense of reasoning and judgment, shaggy body hair and have no tail on their bodies. Adult male Mountain gorillas weigh average 397- 485 pounds while their female counterparts average 197 pounds-260 pounds. The thick, dark, shaggy body fur help in thermal regulation for Mountain gorillas; absorb heat from the sun and retain warmth in cold temperatures.
Organizational structure: Mountain gorillas are highly social mammals that live in groups or families of related individuals. An adult male; silverback (a whitish band of body fur develops on the back of male gorillas due to old age) leads family. The silverback may not necessarily be the oldest or strongest in the group but rather have high degree of forming coalitions, mobilize the family, influential and accurate in decision-making. Each mountain gorilla family has a well-known home range; an area assumed secure with plenty of survival resources for entire family. The silverback ensures security and discipline of group, determines activity undertakings of the time and course or direction of movement. Rivalries for dominance and succession lead to internal cliques, coalitions, physical confrontations, revolts and family split up. The losing group forms a splinter group, own home range close to mother group and entices some members in old family into the new one. Mountain gorillas; diurnal and inactive in the night may live up to 35 years in the wilderness.
Diet; Mountain gorillas are omnivorous that spend much of day roaming the wilderness browsing on fresh vegetation, bamboo shoots, bananas, moss, ferns, passion fruits, berries, barks of trees, fruits, flowers, seeds, peas, nuts, root tubers. Mountain gorillas supplement their “vegetarian” diet with insects notably termites, harvest honey and feed on bee pupae, mushrooms, rodents, snails, capture fish in ponds and hunt small antelopes, other monkeys, pythons and birds for meat.
Habitat: Mountain gorilla is restricted to tropical Africa natural forested habitat average 2000m-3600m above sea level, with huge amounts of rainfall, cool temperatures and average sunshine. The weather, soil texture and other factors must be appropriate to sustain continuous plant growth and easy regeneration all through year to support mountain gorillas’ huge appetite for food. These natural conditions only exist in the Virunga volcanic massif; Volcanoes National Park, Rwanda, Virunga National Park DR Congo and Mgahinga Gorilla National Park, Uganda. Bwindi Impenetrable National Park, Uganda has similar natural conditions and hosts more than half of Mountain gorillas on the entire globe.
Threats; Humankind remains by far the biggest threat to Mountain gorilla life and survival. Their only habitat faces encroachment for human activities; settlement, cultivation and expansion for commercial agriculture, forest logging and lumbering for timber, infrastructure development like hotels, housing, road construction. Scientific researchers, tourists, rangers tamper with gorillas lifestyle while poachers trade in their body parts, hunt gorillas for game or the gorillas fall in and are maimed by traps set up for other game. The communities in neighborhood unless highly sensitized may hunt or poison mountain gorillas encroaching on their crop gardens, livestock or estates.
Mountain gorilla trek: Field exercise of an entourage of adventurers under ranger guide and porters trekking into the mountains covered in thick rainforest vegetation on the lookout of pre-determined families of Mountain gorillas. 10 Mountain gorilla groups with more than 200 individual members (as at the time of writing this) are open to Mountain gorilla trekking expedition in Rwanda. The rangers locate gorilla sites bases on some factors;
- Home range
- Last sighting
- Last nesting
- Audible calls
- Fresh foot marks, prints and trails
- Fresh fecal and body waste droppings
- Fresh fruit or food droppings
- Broken vegetation
- Fruiting season and repeating seasonal sighting
- Body odor, smell and scent of gorillas
Some Mountain gorilla trek Regulations
- Procure, cross check and confirm your mountain gorilla trekking permit with a trusted travel agency in advance. The permit states travel agency, visitor names, age, gender, residency status, date of trekking, fees paid, health report amongst others
- The interaction with Mountain gorillas is restricted to one group of 8 visitors per day, spending one hour or less depending on the circumstances prevailing at the time.
- Assemble at briefing point an hour to trekking exercise
- Ranger guide is head of gorilla trekking expedition. Mountain gorilla trekking is a group exercise. Keep together
- Declare health status or inabilities to rangers to allocate appropriate group
- Carry only essential items. Porters are on hand at a fee to carry aid visitors unable to carry their packs
- Watch, estimate and keep 8m gap between mountain gorillas
- Deactivate camera flash or GPS on gadgets when in close proximity with gorillas
- Have lunch boxes of light but energetic snacks and average 2 lts of water
- Eating, drinking liquids or smoking in presence of gorillas is prohibited
- Do not imitate, mimic or show unnecessary body signals when with the gorillas
- Stand still when gorillas charge. Calmly give way when gorilla moves in your direction
- Baby gorillas are playful and inquisitive. Keep still when it extends hand or moves towards you
- Keep voices down
- Personal hygiene is very important. Urinating or spitting in un gazetted places is prohibited. Alert the ranger guide for any call of nature to make necessary arrangements
- Do not litter. Pick all food wrappers, packs and bottle lids with you and deposit in gazetted places.
What to wear
- Body fitting safari trousers; khaki, jeans, track suits
- Body fitting long sleeved tops, shirts or blouse in dull eco friendly color
- Water resistant hiking shoes or rubber boots
- Strong stockings
- Poncho or rain gear
- Garden hand gloves
- Round hat, cap or head scarf
- Light warm clothing
What to pack
- Back pack
- Insect repellant
- Sun screen
- Lunch box
- Water bottle
- Simple first aid kit
- Field guide book
- Waist bag
- Change wear
- Walking stick; may improvise at trekking assembly point
Mountain gorilla trekking trends
- Peak Season: January, February, June, July, August, September and December
- Low Season: March, April, May, October, November
Other tourism activities
- Golden monkey tracking: The beautiful Golden monkey, endemic to the Virunga massif, is another primate equally endangered. Less surviving individual than mountain gorillas still exist in the world. The only opportunity to spot the Golden monkey is hiking into their bamboo zone along Virunga volcanoes
- Bird watching; there are close to 200 bird species in Volcanoes National Park. The bird species in the park are a mixture of forest and high altitude species. Note there are high possibilities of spotting visiting water bird species from Lake Kivu 20minutes drive south. The park is an international Important Birding Area and a reputable bird watching safari destination for travelers on visit to Rwanda.
- Hiking safaris; the unique, scenic and dormant volcanic mountains in Volcanoes are eye-catching and very tempting to every adventurer. The park offers hiking services for inquisitive adventurers seeking more ways of exploring and discovering the virgin Africa. 2-day adventure safaris explore the summit of Mt Karisimbi 4,507m; the tallest in the Virunga region. Expeditions on to Mt Bisoke 3,771m summit and back take one day and back. Hiking into the mountains offers adventurers an opportunity to explore the unique wilderness landscapes, interact with different wildlife species, challenge and conquer the rugged African terrain.
- Gorilla Guardians’ village tour; the Mountain gorilla trekking safaris are possible because the indigenous Rwandan communities close to the park have coexisted with and embraced wildlife protection. Visitors on tour of Gorilla Guardians’ village get life experiences of indigenous Rwandan. Through music, dance, drama, the community pass on wildlife protection message onto the entire globe. The community members take pride in and share benefits of coexisting with mountain gorillas. The visitors get brief experiences in basketry, pottery, traditional food, beer brewing, distillery and African craft making.
- Nature walk; the thick forests of Volcanoes National Park have a vibrant wildlife presence and other beautiful natural sightings. This opens up a variety of options for adventurers to make maximum exploration and get exciting wilderness experiences. A good network of trail system leads to alternate directions with different exciting attractions. The underground Musanze Caves 2km long formed in ancient times are testament of strong volcanic action. The caves, modernized with lighting and other beautiful African art walkways and designs are unique and important for social and political history. Another trail Dian Fossey recognizes wildlife research and conservation efforts. Dian Fossey was a primatologist, wildlife expert and researcher at Karisoke Research Centre in the foothills of Bisoke Mtn. She was an advocate of and pioneered mountain gorilla habituation, protection and wildlife conservation. The trail system leads to where Dian Fossey was murdered and buried at the research centre.
- Kwita izina ceremony; Researchers have a bio data bank that captures all habituated gorillas; individual members, age, gender, body deformities, health status amongst others. Birth of new members is easily noticed. Kwita izina is Rwandan national cultural ceremony for giving names to baby and infant gorillas, recognize international celebrities giving support to wildlife protection and conservation. The ceremony is pomp and attracts big political, economic, social local and international personalities. Music, dance, drama, speeches in celebration of wildlife conservation goals and achievements characterize the occasion.
- Batwa community tour; an indigenous Batwa tribe originally lived in the rainforests with Mountain gorillas and other wildlife. The Batwa vacated the wilderness to pave way for wildlife protection and conservation. Tourists visit their homesteads to share their traditional wilderness experiences.
- Boat cruise: Lake Kivu is average 30 minutes drive close. Musanze; a lake shore-town has open urban beach activities. Lake Kivu is an ideal rendez vous to re energize and rejuvenate after tiring Mountain gorilla trekking expedition. Adventurers may opt to sail on lake, picnic, play beach games or relax and shade off fatigue.
Accommodation: areas surrounding Volcanoes National park have a wide collection and options for accommodation. Everything a traveler is looking depending on the quality and budget of client is available. We give some suggestions; One luxury safari camp, Bisate Lodge, Virunga Lodge, Sabyinyo Silverback Lodge, Mountain gorilla view lodge, Gorilla Volcanoes Lodge, Le Palme Hotel, Le Bambou Gorilla Lodge, Muhabura Hotel, Kinigi Guest House, Musanze town with a wide options for urban accommodation is 20 minutes drive from Kinigi while Kisoro town in Uganda is 30 minutes drive north.
Accessibility; smooth road from Kigali International Airport and Kigali City connects northwest to Kinigi, Volcanoes National Park is average 120 km, 2.30 hours’ drive. Private travel is highly recommended. Public transport from Kigali to Musanze town or Kyanika border point to Uganda gets travelers to Kinigi. Charter helicopter flights to Kinigi town are possible for clients not able to use road travel or clients with bigger travel budget.
Mountain gorilla trekking safari in Volcanoes National Park is not a standalone tour activity in Rwanda. Akagyera National Park gives visitors on tour of Rwanda an opportunity to spot Africa Big 5 safari Mammal; rhinos, elephants, buffalos, lion and leopard. Giraffes, elands, waterbucks, hippos and many beautiful birds inhabit Akagyera National Park. Nyungwe National Park further south offers travelers on Rwanda visit an opportunity to track and interact with families of habituated chimpanzees and lots of other resident wildlife.