Yes – gorilla trekking is safe both for you and this most majestic animal, provided that certain considerations are made.
With male silverbacks weighing up to 400 pounds and reaching almost 6ft when standing, it’s valid to feel vulnerable when seeing gorillas in the wild. But the reality is that these charismatic animals are peaceful – their gentle nature allows us to view them up close in their natural habitat (though, as always, it’s important to remember they’re wild animals and their privacy should be respected).
They’re also under the threat of extinction. The destruction of their habits for agriculture and widespread poaching have decimated their numbers – less than 1000 mountain gorillas now exist in the wild.
Sustainable tourism is part of the solution to reversing this downward trend. Encountering these magnificent animals in their natural habitat is not only a life-changing experience, but is contributing to their conservation.
The safety of those wishing to see mountain gorillas is in the capable hands of expert trackers and guides. Given how precarious the situation of the mountain gorilla is, it’s a legal requirement to be accompanied by a guide when out on a trek. They ensure that both visitor and gorilla remain safe during an encounter, and enrich the experience with their intimate knowledge of the troop.
The safety of all involved is also bolstered by strict rules regulating visits to the mountain gorillas. Eight permits are issued per troop per day, to avoid causing them too much disruption. Groups are also capped at eight people, and visitors can spend no more than one hour in the gorilla’s presence – more than enough time to get an insight into the lives of these charismatic creatures.
Although your guide will always be on hand to offer guidance when in the vicinity of the gorillas, it’s useful to get clued up on how to behave before you head into the lush greenery of the mountain forests.
Tip 1: If you look into the eyes of a gorilla, take a brief moment to enjoy the experience, but then immediately take your gaze off the gorilla’s eyes and look down. This signals to the gorilla that you are not a threat and that everyone can relax.
Tip 2: Keep a safe distance of seven meters (about 23 feet) away from the gorillas. This prevents spreading any human diseases to the gorillas. If a gorilla moves closer to you, stay still and let him pass by. If you happen to be standing exactly where a gorilla wants to be, just give him the space and let him move as he likes. If the gorilla approaches you and then sits down, slowly move away to resume the seven-meter distance. But don’t worry if you aren’t sure about what to do: your guides will be watching closely and will instruct you as to the best way to move.
Tip 3: If you need to cough, make sure you do so into your arm. This helps to prevent the gorillas catching anything you might have. If you’re ill before the trek, it’s best that you reschedule until you’re feeling better.
Tip 4: When you come across a troop in a mountain forest glade, try to keep quiet and move slowly, according to the instructions of your guide. Gorillas are gentle giants but can be surprised and might feel provoked if you come too close, too fast. You might hear your guide make a belching noise on approaching the gorillas – this isn’t bad manners on their part, it’s just gorilla-language to signal that they’re not a threat.
Gorilla trekking is very safe – accompanied by an expert guide and the right mindset, your experience with the mountain gorillas will be as safe as it is moving. If you behave in a way that’s respectful to the animals and the environment, you’ll be left with an extraordinary encounter with one of the world’s rarest apes.
Governors’ Camp offers an unforgettable 4 day experience in Rwanda, which includes a trek into the mountain forests to sight a gorilla family. With the comfort of Sabyinyo Silverback Lodge as a base, visitors can explore the phenomenal local wildlife with ease.