Top 10 places to track Africa’s gorillas or chimps in the wild
Top 10 places to track Africa’s gorillas or chimps in the wild
The great apes are our closest living relatives. Chimpanzees share almost 99% of their DNA with us, and gorillas are only slightly more distantly related, at roughly 98%. Tracking either or both of these magnificent creatures in the wild ranks with the most exciting wildlife encounters the world has to offer. Chimps can come across as astonishingly humanlike in their behavior, while gorillas impress more with their imposing bulk and contrastingly gentle disposition. Here we give you an overview of Africa’s 10 best places gorilla- and chimp-tracking venues.
Volcanoes National Park, Rwanda
It was here, in 1967, on the Rwandan slopes of the Virunga volcanoes, that the American primatologist Dian Fossey initiated the pioneering gorilla research project immortalized in the Oscar-winning movie Gorillas in the Mist. And here too, a dozen years later, Africa’s first official mountain gorilla tourism program was launched. Today, Volcanoes National Park is probably Africa’s premier gorilla destination, thanks to the relatively easy tracking conditions, excellent safety record, and the hefty price tag of US$1,500 for a tracking permit. A total of 96 permits are available daily.
Worth knowing: Other attractions in Volcanoes NP include tracking the endangered golden monkey, the day hike to the 12,126ft summit of Mount Bisoke, and a more relaxed walk to Dian Fossey’s grave at the abandoned Karisoke Research Centre.
Find out more about Rwanda: https://fairtradesafaris.com/news/top-eight-places-to-visit-in-rwanda/
Bwindi Impenetrable National Park, Uganda
Bwindi vies with Volcanoes National Park as Africa’s best all-around gorilla tracking destination. Extending across 124 square miles of densely forested hills, Bwindi is home to roughly 45 percent of the global mountain gorilla population, and 18 different family groups have been habituated to tourists, with more than 100 tracking permits available daily. One clear advantage of Bwindi over Rwanda is that permits are less than half the price at US$700. A disadvantage is that Bwindi’s gorillas are typically encountered in denser forests, so it can be more difficult to obtain clear views. Also, tracking times and conditions are less predictable – some days the hike is very short and easy, but on others it can be quite tough.
Worth knowing: Bwindi is a spectacular destination for birdwatchers. The park checklist of 350 bird species includes 23 Albertine Rift Endemics and numerous other localized forest dwellers. Topping a long list of specials, the African green broadbill, which only otherwise occurs in the DRC, is most easily seen in Bwindi during its nesting season of May to July.
Find out more about tracking gorillas: https://fairtradesafaris.com/news/everything-you-need-to-know-about-tracking-africas-mountain-gorillas/
Virunga National Park, Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC)
Extending for 3,050 square miles along the border with Rwanda and Uganda, Virunga is the oldest and most biodiverse national park anywhere in Africa. Created in 1925 and inscribed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1979, it is home to an astonishing tally of 200 mammals and 700 bird species, including many national and Albertine Rift endemics. It is also, theoretically, the cheapest place to track mountain gorillas, since permits only cost US$400. Unfortunately, however, the park has yet to reopen to visitors since tourist activity was suspended in March 2020, initially for COVID-related reasons but now due to instability and military activity. As and when the park reopens, gorilla tracking is comparable to any other park in the region, but it will still most likely be a riskier destination than its neighbors.
Worth knowing: A highlight of any visit to Virunga National Park is the challenging overnight hike to the 11,385ft summit of Mount Nyiragongo, an active volcano that hosts of the world’s few permanent lava lakes.
Find out more about Virunga National Park: https://virunga.org
Mgahinga Gorilla National Park, Uganda
It is tempting to describe Mgahinga as Uganda’s forgotten gorilla-tracking destination. This is because there is only one habituated gorilla group in the park, and it developed a reputation for unreliability between 2004 and 2012 when it regularly strayed across the border into Rwanda. Since 2012, however, the Nyakagazi Group has maintained a permanent presence in Mgahinga and looks like it’s there to stay. What’s more, if you can secure one of the park’s eight daily permits, this is a great place to track gorillas. Conditions tend not to be too rigorous, the gorillas are generally found in relatively open vegetation, and permits cost the same as they do in Bwindi.
Worth knowing: Mgahinga has a spectacular location below the volcanic Virunga peaks. Popular day activities include golden monkey tracking, and the hike to the ragged 12,050ft peak of Mount Sabyinyo, which forms the three-way border between Uganda, Rwanda and the DRC.
Find out more about Uganda’s national parks: https://ugandawildlife.org
Kahuzi-Biega National Park, Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC)
East Africa’s most underpublicized gorilla-tracking destination, Kahuzi-Biega is an immense UNESCO World Heritage Site situated close to the southern Lake Kivu port of Bukavu. One of the few remaining refuges for the critically endangered eastern lowland gorilla, it is also the only place that offers an opportunity to track this most bulky of gorilla subspecies. Unlike Virunga National Park, Kahuzi-Biega has reopened to tourists post-COVID, and it can be visited on an overnight or day tour from the Rwandan port of Cyangugu. Permits cost US$400.
Worth knowing: Bordering Kahuzi-Biega, the Lwiro Primates Rehabilitation Centre cares for chimps and monkeys that were orphaned by illegal hunting or the bushmeat trade. The spacious enclosures host 16 monkey species, notably the amazing owl-faced guenon.
Find out more about Kahuzi-Biega: https://www.kahuzi-biega.org
Odzala-Kokoua National Park, Congo Republic (Congo-Brazzaville)
This vast but remote national park lies in lies in the heart of the Congo Basin, where it protects part of the world’s second-largest rainforest. Now under the dynamic management of the NGO African Parks, Odzala-Kokoua is the best place to track western lowland gorillas and caters mainly to high-end fly-in tourism.
Worth knowing: A fascinating feature of Odzala-Kokoua is its many bais: mineral-rich, swampy clearings that are regularly visited by forest elephants, bongo antelope, and a variety of primates and birds.
Find out more about Odzala-Kokoua: https://www.africanparks.org/the-parks/odzala-kokoua
Mahale Mountains National Park, Tanzania
Arguably Africa’s most compelling chimp-tracking destination, Mahale Mountains has an unforgettable setting on the mountainous shore of Lake Tanganyika, the longest and probably least polluted freshwater body anywhere in the world. It is home to an estimated 1,000 chimpanzees, and tourists will be taken to visit members of a large and very relaxed community that was first habituated in the 1960s. The location is very remote, so almost everyone who visits Mahale does so by air, and spends three or four nights there, which allows for several chimp-tracking excursions.
Worth knowing: If you’re thinking of doing a fly-in visit to Mahale, it pairs perfectly with Katavi National Park, a more conventional safari destination known for its remote feel and high elephant, buffalo, lion and hippo densities.
Find out more about Tanzania’s western safari circuit: https://fairtradesafaris.com/news/the-top-8-national-parks-on-tanzanias-southern-and-western-safari-circuits/
Kibale National Park, Uganda
Kibale is Uganda’s premier chimp-tracking park, with a success rate of greater than 90%. Racing around the forest looking for Kibale’s chimps can be quite demanding, as they often cover large distances in search of food, but they are very habituated, so when they do settle down, you can expect to see plenty of close-up interaction.
Worth knowing: A guided walk in the community-owned Bigodi Wetland Sanctuary offers a great opportunity to see several monkey species, including the endemic Uganda mangabey, and colorful forest and swamp birds such as great blue turaco, double-toothed barbet and papyrus gonolek.
Find out more about chimp tracking in Africa: https://fairtradesafaris.com/news/everything-you-need-to-know-about-tracking-chimpanzees-in-africa/
Gombe National Park, Tanzania
Like Mahale Mountains, Gombe stands on the forested shore of Lake Tanganyika and is renowned as one of the best places to track chimps anywhere in Africa. Also known as Gombe Stream, this small park is surprisingly low-key and little visited given its strong association with Jane Goodall, the English primatologist who established an ongoing chimp research project there in 1960. Gombe is probably the place where chimps are most often seen hunting, with red colobus monkeys being their favored prey.
Worth knowing: For independent travelers, Gombe is accessible by inexpensive lake taxi from the port of Kigoma, which is connected to Dar es Salaam by flights, trains, and buses.
Find out more about the Jane Goodall Institute: https://janegoodall.org
Kalinzu Forest Reserve, Uganda
This pristine forest reserve in southwest Uganda supports at least 300 chimps, and two different communities have been habituated, one for researchers and the other for tourism. Unlike in national parks, chimp tracking and other forest walks at Kalinzu are run as part of a community project. The success rate is around 90%, which compares well with most other chimp tracking destinations in Uganda, but tracking permits are significantly cheaper than elsewhere.
Worth knowing: Kalinzu borders Queen Elizabeth National Park, a savanna-dominated park known for its tree-climbing lions and plentiful elephants and hippos, and a visit can easily be tagged onto a safari there.
Find out more about Kalinzu Forest: https://www.nfa.org.ug/ecotourism/kalinzu-forest/