Take a look into the eyes of Rwanda.
Gorilla trekking safarisTrips to trek to the mountain gorillas in Rwanda's Volcanoes National Park are well-organised and clearly structured, with numbers limited to eight people per group per day. Seven groups of mountain gorillas are currently habituated, so a maximum of 56 trekking permits are available each day. Permits cost US$500 per person per visit, which may seem a lot but don't begrudge it; this money provides Rwanda with a compelling economic reason to conserve the park and, amongst other things, pays for a 24-hour guard for each gorilla group. (Armed teams constantly track each habituated group – like royal bodyguards in the UK!)
Gorilla trekking safaris set off early in the morning to track to the apes from the edge of the forest. After a safety and gorilla-etiquette briefing, you're led in a small group along generally clear paths up into the forest. The altitude is over 2,500m, so although the pace is unhurried, the hike is tiring, taking from 30 minutes to a few hours. Your English-speaking guides are very good, and will be taking you to a specific group of 'habituated' mountain gorillas, which they know well and are used to human visitors.
Most trekkers are a little apprehensive – a large silverback male gorilla can weigh up to 200kg, or three times the weight of the average man, but the apprehension usually vanishes when you see the group. Often the gorillas will be spread around a small area of dense vegetation. They'll continue with their feeding and interactions, nonchalant about their visitors, though watching you with interest. Occasionally one, often a playful youngster, will approach you with curiosity – sometimes coming so close that you'll have to move away. (You're not allowed closer than 7m, to protect the gorillas from catching human diseases.)
Look into the eyes of a large silverback gorilla and he'll stare back. It's a thinking, intelligent gaze, mindful that you're another individual. It's an encounter that transcends any other 'wildlife' experience that we know.
Gorilla groupsThe groups and their locations will obviously vary; mountain gorillas often climb higher in the dry season and descend during the rains. It's possible to request to visit a specific group once you are at the park headquarters, but this can never be guaranteed. Currently the eight accessible groups are:
The Sabyinyo Group has about 11 individuals, including one silverback gorilla, and is usually found relatively close to the edge of the forest (about 20–40-minutes' walk), between Sabyinyo and Gahinga.
Group Thirteen lives close to the Sabyinyo Group and is also a fairly easy walk. It has about 25 individual gorillas, and the silverback here is usually particularly relaxed. This gorilla group crossed the border into the DRC in 2007, but has thankfully returned to Rwanda!
Usually living between the Karisoke and Visoke peaks are the Amahoro Group, with about 16 individuals, and the Umubano Group, which currently has 10 members. Both are usually further away from the headquarters than the Sabyinyo and Thirteen groups, but easier to reach than the old Susa Group (see below for an update on this group).
Originally studied by Dian Fossey, the Susa Group was the largest group – with about 42 individuals, including four silverbacks. However the big news in the gorilla population is that this group, that had split and joined back together again several times over the last year, has now definitely divided into two separate groups. 'Susa-A' has kept the name Susa Group and 'Susa-B' has been renamed the Karisimbi Group, as this family live in the Mt. Karisimbi area of the Volcanoes National Park. The new Susa Group is now usually found relatively low down in the forest, however the 'new' Karisimbi Group is better suited to visits from more serious hikers. It appears that their home range is quite high up on the slopes of the Karisimbi caldera, consequently visiting this group can take the best part of a full days hike.
With the formation of this new gorilla family, the Park authorities have agreed to increase the number of gorilla permits available each day to 64.
The Hirwa Group is new; it has around 11 members including one silverback that came from the Susa Group.
The eighth group, the Kwitonda Group has 14 members which were habituated in the DRC. They crossed the border into Rwanda in 2005, and were carefully tracked' now they are also being visited on a regular basis.