In the misty mountain jungles of Uganda, a small East African country, roams half of the world’s mountain gorilla population. These mountain giants are a fascinating primate species with primitive social structures similar to ours: no wonder their DNA is 98% identical to humans. I spent a day with a silverback and his family within the home range of their natural habitat, and here’s my account of my whole Gorilla Habituation Experience.
Mountain gorillas are one of our closest living relatives, and yet they’re also among the rarest animals on Earth at the brink of extinction. Humans are to blame for their demise. These vulnerable creatures have lost vast expanses of land to human development, illegally harvesting the forest to feed an ever-growing population.
Also, poachers are still trapping and killing mountain gorillas to supply high-end demand for meat in urban centers. The consumption of ape meat is considered prestigious amongst the wealthy elite.
We are pushing a close cousin out of existence. Why should we care? I visited a gorilla family that’s still undergoing the habituation process to make it available for tourism in the Rushaga sector found in the south of Bwindi Impenetrable National Park. Rushaga is currently the only place that offers the gorilla habituation experience. In this activity, tourists can spend at least four hours with researchers and rangers following a wild gorilla family through their daily chores.
I was one of the very lucky few to spend more time with a mountain gorilla silverback leading his family through their daily activities. Join me in this narrative and get to know a typical day for a dominant silverback mountain gorilla and his family.
In legend, the enormous fearsome silverback was something to fear. His maturity is written in the silver fur that adorns his back, which earns him the iconic name “Silverback.” Gorillas, like humans, develop some gray hair with age.
He stands about as tall as an average man but weighs more than twice as much. With a mass of 480 pounds of muscle, the silverback gorilla is the world’s largest living primate. A fully grown silverback mountain gorilla’s strength can trump that of six averagely strong men. But does he throw his weight around? Not so much like we were about to find out.
He uses his incredible power to defend his family against jungle threats and intruders. He’s the dominant animal in a troop of about a dozen. His family members are all females and their offspring, and he fathers each of the babies in this troop.
For their own safety, all of the gorillas in the troop need to know each other. They must learn to recognize one another and help to keep the clan together. The troop we visited had a newborn, getting all the attention from the family, with a very protective mother. The father would growl whenever we seemed closer to the infant than would please him. So we would take a step back.
Like humans, gorillas are slow to mature. They don’t start to breed until they reach their teens. Even when fully grown, the mothers are only half the weight of the silverback.
This little one arrived, like a human baby, after nearly nine months of pregnancy. A newborn can weigh between 3-4 pounds, just half of what human babies weigh. Just like a human infant, it’s entirely dependent on its mother and will stay in physical contact with her for at least its first five months of life. Even after a year, young gorillas are rarely out of the arm’s reach of their mothers.
Most of the other infants in the troop are two or three years old, and the entire time, they hang out together for fun and games. They never played far from the imposing figure of their patriarchal father. The silverback keenly observes their activities. The responsibility for the health and safety of the whole family rests squarely on his broad shoulders. He decides on a plan each day to safely get his family food and water.
The dense jungle can harbor many dangers, which is why the family must stay together. They also keep safe by being aware of their other animal neighbors. If the birds and the monkeys are quiet, the gorillas are safe. If they spot danger, they will sound the alarm.
The gorilla troop‘s home range is about 16 square mi deep in Uganda’s mountain rainforest in Bwindi Impenetrable National Park—a dense, tangled, massive forest, wetland, and a maze to most, but the silverback knows his patch. His intimate knowledge is vital to provide his family with all that they need.
He might lead them over 1,000 meters a day to ensure a fresh supply of food. His ability to plan for the future based on experience from the past is an example of the gorilla’s deep intelligence.
One of the key reasons for keeping on the move is to follow the ripening of fruit trees and fresh plant stalks. This nomadic lifestyle also ensures that no one patch of forest is overused and will be good to return to in the future.
Their homeland is crisscrossed with streams and rivers, one of the outcomes of living in a rainforest. The thought of diving into the fresh stream crept up, but I planned to stay with our foraging hosts. Humans are the only great apes that seem to enjoy a water dunk; others prefer not to paddle if they can help it.
They cautiously test the water, sip a little, and continue across. Gorillas rarely drink. They get plenty of moisture from their plant diet, but the crossing gives them a chance to take a sip.
Balancing my rigid body over the river rocks, I managed to make it across half-drenched with no help from my hosts.
They trust the silverback’s choice to lead them through the shallows. Big Papa delivered us to the promised land, but a troop of drills was already foraging the foreign fruit when we arrived. The “we-were-here-first” were our baboon cousins that specialize in rainforest living.
Like the gorillas, they live in clans of 10 to 20, led by a dominant male. They seemed happy to move on when the silverback led his family into the fruity zone.
Though gorillas spend a lot of time on the ground, they retain good climbing skills, especially the young and adventurous juveniles. Immediately, the youngsters raced up the dump rainforest branches to reach the ripest fruits. Their efforts dislodged plenty of others, so the heavyweight silverback could sit underneath and take his pick.
He sniffs the fruit to check it’s ripe and takes a big bite showing off his fierce fangs. “Gorillas eat a lot of heavy twigs and bark, which requires tough teeth—particularly molars—to grind all that tough plant material. That explains why they have such big fangs.” According to our research guide.
Once all their bellies were full, the family settled down for a siesta. Most of them made a bed before they settled, either in the trees or on the ground. They pulled together leaves and branches to create a comfortable mattress—another example of gorilla tool use.
“Tool use was thought to be a strictly human trait, but wild gorillas have been seen using logs as bridges and placing long sticks in the water to measure its depths.” Narrates Grace from the research team.
While the adults are quick to get their eyes shut for a while, the youngsters seem to have different ideas—they take this time to catch up on lost playing time. It’s not just babies in the group; there are adolescents as well—much bigger and stronger individuals who have not yet reached maturity.
But as they develop and hormones kick in, they can get a bit boisterous. Sometimes their games got a bit out of hand, and papa Silverback had to step in to break the row. The father doesn’t care for the young directly like the mothers but will intervene when necessary to stop them from getting hurt. Gorillas are strong and can be rough, but serious injuries are rare.
The silverback approached the two big boys playing rough and forced them apart, then quickly slapped one in the back just enough to put him in his place. The young male will soon face a difficult choice to leave or stay with his father’s troop, explains Grace.
“Most gorillas leave their family as they reach maturity. Young males have the choice of staying, but only if they’re willing to remain subordinate to the silverback. He’ll keep them around as wingmen to help guard the family as long as they are eager to follow his lead.”
With the fight settled mom pulls her youngster in for a feed. Unfortunately, there was no time to rest. We were up again onto another foraging expedition.
The biggest of primates have huge appetites. The silverback might eat 20 kilos of food a day, so the troop heads out for afternoon tea. This time, the silverback had a different menu in mind, but access depended on other jungle residents, like forest elephants.
Slightly smaller than Africa’s savanna elephant and with distinctive round ears and downward pointing tusks. Though small by elephant standards, at up to four tons apiece, they have a massive impact on the surrounding landscape.
“New science has shown that forest elephants are guardians of the jungle, dispersing seeds and keeping the canopy open. Just one herd on the move is enough to create pathways, thanks to their bulk.”
“By letting light reach the forest floor, they encourage a greater diversity of plants and allow tree roots to get stronger, resulting in a bigger, healthier canopy. The elephants create huge meadows, places where light can fall on the ground, encouraging grasses and other plants to grow. And where water rich in minerals is readily available. The pachyderms created a salad bar rich in the gorilla’s favorite herbs and sedges.” Our guide explained that it was where the silverback was leading us.
“The clearings attract forest buffalo, monkeys, antelope, and a host of other wildlife.”
Fortunately for us, it was only the gorilla family and the gorilla habituation team with a few other jungle friendlies around this time. They immediately dug into their meal of young plant shoots like hungry teenagers, unashamed to hurt their enjoyment.
“Gorillas have been recorded to use more than 25 different sounds to communicate. One of the most endearing is humming. When humans tuck into dessert or a delicious meal, we often make yumm sounds to show our appreciation.” Gorillas hum when they’re enjoying a delicious salad.
And thanks to the silverback’s good leadership skills, soon the whole troop is humming contentedly. With thick stems, they strip off the tough outer layers and chew on the softer pulp within. It’s not long before bellies are bulging.
Suddenly an uneasy tension spreads across the troop. The Silverback heard something. Bearing the responsibility for the group’s safety, it’s hard for him to relax. Thanks to his vigilance, this disturbance hadn’t gone unnoticed.
Unsure of the threat, the females stand on their back legs to get a better view. We couldn’t tell what, but we expected one of those jungle animals that might threaten a gorilla’s life. A quiet signal is given, and the young know to return to their mothers, clinging on if a quick exit is required—our guide signals for everyone to be ready to follow.
The male is ready to fight. He wouldn’t hesitate to risk his own life to protect his troop. But I think the intruder backed out on risking a counterattack from the huge silverback.
Though the danger seemed to have passed, the silverback makes the wise decision to take his troop back into the depths of the forest, away from the elephant swamp.
Our foraging expedition continued for another 20 minutes from the elephant swamps. If you know where to look, there’s still plenty to eat in this massive primeval jungle. And although plants make up nearly all of the gorilla’s diets, they are not averse to a bit of protein. An experienced female knew precisely where to look.
She rips off the bark, knowing termites will be sheltering underneath and a termite mound is exposed. She tears off chunks and eats at her leisure. It’s a bit like eating a wriggling pomegranate.
Instead of picking the delicious seeds from the pith, she must fish out termites from their honeycomb home. Sometimes it seemed easier to shake them out. Her youngster dashes in to see what she’s up to.
Gorillas have long periods with their mothers, up to six years, and this is why. To watch and learn. His furrowed brow in deep concentration, the little one knows if he can master this technique, he’ll be rewarded with a tasty snack like what mother was humming to.
His study pays off, and he quickly pops a few into his mouth with his finger. This is how learning spreads through the troop, watching and copying. But that’s enough for now. It’s been a long day, and it was time for the family to retire.
While the troop was settling down for the afternoon and our team was preparing for silent goodbyes, one of the females started showing off her frisky moves to a very interested silverback.
Rolling on her back to flirt, she solicits the male’s attention, and without wasting precious jungle time (and ours), they adopt the missionary position. Making love face-to-face was once thought to be a strictly human trait. I felt kind of perverted watching this part, but it’s a primate thing.
Then finally, the family could enjoy a peaceful afternoon while our trackers led us to a nice place outside the jungle to have our packed lunches!
Gorillas are like us in so many ways. They have growth rates like humans, where the young need nurturing, and it takes years for them to build their impressive knowledge.
To my observation watching the silverback and his family, extended schooling is a sign of intelligence. They have been shown to be capable of laughter. They have strong emotional relationships, and researchers have observed them grieving for their dead.
We share 98% of the same DNA as gorillas, and that’s not just to throw scientific facts at you. They are not as different from us as you might think. These guardians of the forest are our primitive selves stuck in the past evolution story.
There are four kinds of gorillas living across Africa’s rainforest jungles. The gorilla family we visited are mountain gorillas—a sub-species of the Eastern Gorillas found only in two groups in a small region around the Virunga Mountains in central Africa.
One group lives on the slopes of the Virunga mountains spread along the DRC, Rwanda, and Uganda borders. We visited a wild family that is part of the other half of the total population that roams Uganda’s 331 sq km Bwindi Impenetrable National Park.
There are a little above 1000 mountain gorillas remaining in the world. The International Union for the Conservation of Nature, which sets the conservation status of species, lists mountain gorillas as endangered. Shockingly, we can let our closest relatives reach such dire numbers with little or no concern for generations.
However, a few beautiful souls are trying to make a difference. Dedicated field researchers, rangers, and anti-poaching patrols spend decades in the forest working under challenging conditions to protect and study the last mountain gorillas. Through governments in partnership with organizations like IGCP, WCS, AWF, and Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund, the mountain gorilla silverback is gaining hope for survival and repopulation.
Gorilla trekking and tourism programs like the Gorilla Habituation Experience we had in Uganda are a good reason why the silverback can still roam the protected mountain jungles. These Uganda gorilla safari programs, run through licensed tour operators like Nkuringo Safaris, bring thousands of tourists to witness this conservation miracle and objectively finance the constantly challenging conservation efforts to protect the mountain gorillas.
So many people asked if being allowed to see gorillas in their natural habitat is safe and ethical, given the current situation. Yes, the gorilla habituation experience is safe and ethical, from my personal experience. There are guiding principles to seeing gorillas, like keeping a safe 32 ft away, wearing a mask, and not staying longer than expected. Ultimately, by paying for the permit, tourists are contributing insanely to the conservation coffers.
Suppose you’re wondering how to spend more time with the mountain gorillas other than the one hour on a gorilla trekking safari. In that case, the Habituation experience will give you at least four hours with the gorilla family. However, the gorilla family you spend the day with is not fully used to human presence but is moderately ready for tourism. You go with a few tourists (4 people) accompanied by researchers and armed rangers for protection.
Many small Uganda safari operators can organize this experience for you, but if you prefer to go with a reputable local operator, I would highly recommend Nkuringo Safaris. They’ll process your permits, accommodation, transfers, meals, and any other activity on your safari itinerary. They don’t have one trip design to fit all but will work with you to plan one that suits your style and budget.
The price of gorilla habituation experience in Uganda currently costs USD 1,500 per person. You can make your trip more interesting by adding the one-hour gorilla trekking experience, which permits costs $700 per person. It will allow you to compare how gorillas behave in the two different experiences.
Transport may cost you about $200 per day in a comfortable 4×4 safari cruiser. For accommodation, I paid $230 per day at Nkuringo Bwindi Gorilla Lodge with all meals. A beautiful retreat with dreamy views of the Virungas and Bwindi canopy is an hour’s drive to the trekking trailhead in Rushaga. There are other good accommodation choices cheaper than that or even more expensive. Nonetheless, Nkuringo is highly rated by many tourists to Bwindi Impenetrable.
You come in through Entebbe International Airport, a few kilometers from the capital city. It’s about 310 mi (499 km) from Entebbe to Bwindi; you may want to spend a night in Entebbe. I stayed at Papyrus Guest House, a charming small lodge managed by the same company, for $90 with meals and airport transfers. Entebbe has excellent shopping malls, forex exchange banks, and markets to help you prepare for your journey into the Pearl of Africa’s countryside.
There are stringent COVID-19 operating procedures at the airport and all hotels in Entebbe, so make sure you’re up-to-date with the current situation before you come. Generally, you have to wear a facemask in all public places. You need to have tested negative for the virus irrespective of having fully vaccinated, and travelers from some countries may be held up for another 4-hour test. Uganda is one of the safest destinations to visit in Africa. The best tip is to stay away from the crowds and head straight into the countryside, where the infection is non-existent.
There are two options to getting to where the gorillas live in Uganda. The first is taking a one-hour small light aircraft (scheduled or chartered) for about $350 per person to Kisoro airport and a 2-hour transfer to your bush camp. The other is driving the 310 mi bone-jarring road trip for 10 hours. It also gives you a chance to enjoy the beauty of Uganda’s countryside landscapes which have been thought to look like parts of Nepal.
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