Uganda is one of the last countries on earth where mountain gorillas live. Today, the threatened species can only be found in the border areas of Rwanda, Uganda and the Democratic Republic of Congo. More than half of all mountain gorillas live in Bwindi Impenetrable Forest in southwestern Uganda. Gorilla trekking is therefore one of the most popular activities for tourists in the region – because only here they have the chance to look these fascinating animals in the eye and observe their natural habitat.
But is this activity ethically correct or does it harm the animals and their habitat? Is the habitat perhaps even further endangered by visitors? After all, in many parts of the world, nature has to give way to tourism, which leads to the destruction of some habitats. During their trip through Uganda, our founders, Alex and Nils, took a closer look at this activity. Today, we explain how gorilla trekking is organised and whether, besides nature conservation, the local population can also benefit from it.
The history of Bwindi
Bwindi Impenetrable Forest was declared a national park in 1991. This decision led to major conflicts, as the local people – who lived mainly from agriculture – no longer had access to the forest and were prohibited from any economic use. Through various initiatives of the government, among others in cooperation with the Integrated Conservation and Development Organization, a concept was developed which, in addition to protecting the gorillas, should also benefit the local community.
Tourism for funding species conservation
One measure of how tourism can contribute to the financing of species conservation is the acquisition of a permit, which grants travellers access to the park. This permit is issued by the Uganda Wildlife Authority (in Rwanda, the Rwanda Development Board) and allows rangers to visit a gorilla family.
Permits should be purchased in advance either directly from the UWA or when booking accommodation. The permits are very limited. Only one group of a maximum of 8 people per day is allowed to visit a gorilla family during the gorilla trekking. The families are visited in rotation, so that some families do not see any people for days. Because of this limitation, it is worth booking early in advance. In our case, one week was enough, but in the high season from July to September, you should plan 6 weeks in advance.
The steep price of the permits also serves as an additional limitation. It currently costs 700 US dollars in Uganda. In Rwanda, the price is even 1,500 US dollars. On site, we were able to see first-hand how the money is used to protect the mountain gorillas. The income is used to finance measures to combat deforestation and poaching, to employ park rangers and veterinarians and to expand protected areas.
In addition, 20 % of the income goes directly to the surrounding communities to prevent poaching. This money is used for investments in education, water and electricity. In addition, numerous community camps have been established – accommodation that is owned and managed by the locals. You can also find some of these accommodations on socialbnb. The development of the populations shows that this strategy has contributed to the protection of the gorillas. At the end of the 1980s, there were around 620 gorillas, but today the total population is more than 1,000 – of which around 460 are in Bwindi National Park in Uganda.
This is how gorilla trekking in Uganda works
- It starts early: Around 6 am Alex and Nils went to the meeting point at the starting point for the trekking. Depending on the location of the accommodation, the driving distance is shorter or longer.
- You will receive information from the rangers about which family you are going to and what the behavior rules are, e.g. mouth-nose protection, maximum stay of one hour with the gorillas, distance rules, no touching, etc.
- Then you start: Depending on the location, the trekking can take between 2-6 hours. Your guide always walks ahead and clears the way with the help of a machete.
- And suddenly you are face to face with the mountain gorillas. The silverback keeps an eye on the group, young animals romp around and, with some luck, the mothers proudly present their offspring. For a whole hour, you can now watch the gorillas go about their daily lives as a silent observer and recognize some parallels to human behavior.
- At the end you will receive a gorilla trekking certificate and an explanation of further conservation measures of the national park.
Alex: Our guide explained to us in detail and transparently how the price paid contributes to conservation, why it is so high and how this income contributes to the protection of the mountain gorillas and the local people. Therefore, we can recommend gorilla trekking as a sustainable activity from which, in addition to species conservation, the local population also benefits enormously.
Nils: Also, when looking for your accommodation, pay attention to where the income goes and bring enough time to try out the many other activities besides trekking that benefit the region, such as cooking classes, bike tours or even workshops to create your own souvenirs are offered, for example, by the great project Ride4awoman. On socialbnb you will soon find some “community-owned” accommodations, from whose revenues local projects contribute to the development of the local community.
If you’re interested in traveling to Uganda in general and are looking to travel in a sustainable and socially responsible way, check out this blog post and get to know one of our Impact Hosts and the great project you could financially support with your overnight stay. Don’t miss news about social travel or our socialbnbs – subscribe to our newsletter: