Gorilla encounters in Bwindi Impenetrable park have traditionally been limited to one hour: magical yet fleeting. They’re costly, too, at $600 a head – though the fees are ploughed back into conservation in this park that’s home to half the world’s critically endangered mountain gorillas.
But last year, the park introduced something a little different.
“Normally, trackers find the gorillas before the visitors arrive, so the groups can go straight to them, have their hour with them, and go away,” says Pontius Ezuma, Bwindi’s Conservation Manager. “We wanted to offer something more enriching – to show what tracking actually means. Things like gorilla behaviour, what nests look like, finding their trail…”
The new visit, run by Uganda Wildlife Authority in Rushaga, the southern area of the park, is a four-hour ‘gorilla habituation experience’. Groups are limited to just four guests, and permits cost $1500 each.
You don’t necessarily get more time with the gorillas themselves; instead, you join trackers right from the start and find the families with them. Depending on how quickly you find them, however, it's possible to get two, or even three hours with them. As well as providing you with the experience of a lifetime, the visit helps the gorillas too, allowing animals like Rushenya to get used to human presence.
It takes around three years to habituate gorillas. Over 18 months of daily visits, the Bikingi group have become accustomed to their trackers, but are still wary, particularly with new people. “Remember they might charge,” says Geoffrey Twinomuhangi from UWA. “Copy their movements. Crouch down. If they eat grass, pretend to eat grass. But don’t beat your chest: that’s their sign of supremacy. Whatever you do, don’t run.”
The Gorilla Habituation Experience costs $1500 per person, and is likely to continue into 2018, depending on the group’s progress.