In the last several years, “ecotourism” as an industry has grown exponentially, and Gorilla trekking has become the unofficial example of how this conservation method can work. But, what is gorilla trekking? Ranked as one of National Geographic trips of a lifetime, and brought to national attention through films like Virunga, Gorilla trekking is making headlines, changing conservation, and saving gorillas. So what is it, exactly?
The mountain gorillas, a considerably larger cousin to the lowland gorillas, are the largest primate on earth. Through deforestation and development, their habitat has been restricted to two parks: Bwindi Impenetrable National Park in Uganda, and Virunga National Park in Rwanda. There is third, less-visited location in the DRC as well. They are numbered at less than 900 left living.
So what Gorilla trekking is, at its most basic, is a way for travelers to see some of this incredibly rare and beautiful animal in the wild. A permit must be acquired and a guide must accompany the visitors.
But what Gorilla trekking is, as a cultural movement, as viewed within the framework of society is a huge step forward. Africa is home to some of the most iconic, beautiful animals in the world. Lions, gorillas, giraffes, elephants, zebras, hippos, and countless other animals that are cultural touchstones of western film and literature. Think of how many of our iconic stories feature these animals: The Lion King, Dumbo, Fantasia, Planet of the Apes, King Kong, and literally thousands of others. If American filmmakers had to pay royalties to the Animal Kingdom, there would be some very wealthy species in Africa.
The problem is, of course, the especially in Africa where resources and opportunities can be scarce, and repercussions minimal, these animals are often worth more dead than alive. Trophy hunting, while many argue is a form of conservation and brings much-needed money to local economies has been shown to have its claims be dubious, at best.
Gorillas are a prime target for poaching, and the result has been their near-extinction. Their hands are sold as charms and trinkets, their heads as curiosities, and the meat as dinner. For someone that is trying to make ends meet, considering the well-being of a gorilla, or the species as a whole is somewhat unrealistic. But Gorilla trekking in Rwanda and Uganda hopes to try and solve that problem, or at least curb it.
So Gorilla trekking is essentially a 1-2 hour hike to visit these creatures in their habitat. A permit must be obtained in advance and a trained guide will take you in. The vegetation can be dense and the path sometimes muddy, but people that do not consider themselves in shape typically are able to make the trek fairly easily. A maximum of one hour is allotted for guests to watch the gorillas, and of course, maintaining distance is mandatory.
Gorilla trekking is a rare opportunity to help support local economies, deter poaching, save a species, and witness one of the most fascinating animals left on earth.