The broad-shouldered silverback gorilla casually makes its way past our group of hikers, flexing his muscles while he slowly knuckle-walks towards a patch of tangled vegetation. There we stood, completely in awe of the silverback’s robust and powerfully built stature, a mesmerising moment frozen in time. A split second of a connect between human and primate, and there are plenty of similarities. These are the mountain gorillas of the Bwindi Impenetrable Forest, and when you eventually find them after hours of trekking through verdant forest, you will discover that nothing can prepare you for the moment you actually come across them on foot.
Bwindi Impenetrable National Park and the Mgahinga Gorilla National Park are the two main places to track gorillas, with the Bwindi being the most popular of the two because it’s home to half the number of mountain gorillas in the world. The Bwindi Impenetrable National Park gained its upgraded title in 1992, and gained recognition as a World Heritage Site in 1994. In 1942 the Impenetrable Forest Reserve was gazetted and turned into a national park to ensure an increase in gorilla numbers.
The downside was the driving out of the local Pygmy community that called the forest their home. The history of the Batwa Pygmies of Bwindi and their forced removal from the reserve is a story for another day! For now we’ll focus on the gorilla families of the Bwindi Forest, a conservation area straddling the edge of the Albertine Rift Valley.
There are many different gorilla groups to track in the forest, some of which are more habituated than others. You will be briefed beforehand about the individuals or groups that you will be tracking. Locating the gorillas can take anything from a few hours to a full day arduous trek through tricky terrain. The gorillas located high up on the steep slopes are less habituated, and somewhat more burly than the ones on the lower slopes.
We were lucky enough to spot a small family of gorillas after just 2 hours of fairly easy walking through the forest. Admittedly, the ground was moist and carpeted with ferns so there was a constant need to check your footing. Hints of streams cut through the notorious thickets of herbs, vines and shrubs; which meant you couldn’t simply walk in auto-pilot mode. The impenetrable name is derived from the dense Afromontane forest smothering the high altitude slopes, and the fact that the gnarled vegetation twists and coils its way across the landscape.
Gorilla Groups to Track in Bwindi :
- Mubare Group: The originals! This is the first group of gorillas habituated for tracking purposes, and they were discovered on the Mubare slopes over 20 years ago.
- Habinyanja and Rushegura Group: The Habinyanja was a mega-group of gorillas that eventually split. The breakaway group was given an identification of Rushegura Group. The relationship between the two groups that operate in the same area is fairly amicable.
- Bitukura Group: This group is one of the newest groups to track. They dwell within the Ruhija area deep within the verdant forest. Three dominant silverbacks lead the group.
- Nshongi and Mishaya Group: This is the largest group of gorillas in Uganda and when habituated they were 25 members strong. 10 of them split-off to form a breakaway group which we now refer to as the Mishaya Group.
- Nkuringo Group: As the name suggests, this gorilla group is located in the Nkuringo section of Bwindi. It’s a tough trek, but well-worth spotting this wild group of gorillas comprising 19 individuals.