10th March 2024

Is Mountain Gorilla Trekking Ethical and Safe?

A gorilla staring directly into the camera lens while eating in Bwindi Impenetrable Forest, Uganda.
Disclaimer: This is not a sponsored post (however affiliate links may be used, including Amazon Associates, which mean I earn commissions on purchases at no extra cost to you) and all thoughts are my own.

For most travellers and animal lovers, gorilla trekking in Uganda or Rwanda will feature somewhere on their bucket list. This was certainly the case for me, so when I booked Intrepid’s “Africa Encompassed Northbound” tour (a 64 day Africa overland tour starting in Cape Town and ending in Nairobi), I was delighted to see that gorilla trekking in Uganda was included on the itinerary. 

Wildlife-based activities usually raise concerns for me and I often end up in deep internet rabbit-holes googling whether particular practices/activities/locations are being run ethically before making any bookings. On this occasion, my research never suggested that there would be any issues, with mountain gorilla trekking. To the contrary, I received hundreds of endorsements from the media, friends, fellow travellers, bloggers and my tour company (Intrepid focus on making a positive impact while travelling, so I believed them). Sadly, my experience in July 2023 wasn’t as ethical as I had hoped.

This post is based on my own personal experience and may not be reflective of gorilla trekking as a whole; lots of people I know have had absolutely incredible experiences. I will preface this post by stating that maybe my expectations were too high and I didn’t sufficiently do my research. So, congratulations if you’ve found this article, you’re doing good research! 

A gorilla eating a leaf in Bwindi Impenetrable Forest, Uganda looking down at the ground almost thoughtfully, I wonder if he's also considering whether gorilla trekking is ethical!

The Good – Why Can It Be Argued That Gorilla Trekking is Ethical?

Let’s start with the good stuff… 

Rules and regulations

The Ugandan, Rwandan and Congolese governments have strict rules and regulations that their rangers and tourists must follow to ensure that the livelihoods of the gorillas are not threatened. The full rules and regulations can be found on Bwindi Impenetrable National Park’s website, but examples include:

These regulations are great and if they are followed (which I hope that they are for the most part), then this would be a mostly ethical venture (subject to the argument that wildlife should be left alone completely regardless of regulations). Sadly, a number of these rules were not adhered to during my trip, but I’ll touch on that later.

Funds raised for conservation

Dian Fossey’s early conservation work noted that the governments of Uganda, Rwanda and Congo were not particularly motivated to partake in mountain gorilla conservation work as there were very few benefits to them.

Therefore, tourism generated by gorilla trekking is one of the few ways for these countries to raise the funds required to conserve the once-dwindling population of mountain gorillas. According to the WWF, mountain gorillas were expected to be extinct by the year 2000 but the population is now steadily rising (480 in 2010, 604 in 2015 and over 1,000 in 2019).

This upturn in population is largely credited to the enhanced protection measures enforced by the relevant countries who now profit from the tourism generated in their countries by people wishing to see mountain gorillas. While it is sad that profit is the driving force behind this decision, I certainly prefer this outcome to the untimely extinction of a beautiful species.

While mountain gorilla populations still face issues such as human development, disease, illegal snares and climate change, the funds raised from tourism in the area are clearly having a positive impact on the longevity of the species as well as the communities within Uganda, Rwanda and The Democratic Republic of Congo.

Education

Visiting the gorillas and learning about them in their natural habitat will hopefully encourage more people to be conscious of animal welfare, climate change and other environmental causes which impact the livelihoods of these beautiful animals.

The Bad – What Made Me Wonder “Is Gorilla Trekking Ethical?”

Organisation and tipping culture

On arrival at the entry gate, all trekkers were gathered for a talk about what we can expect from the day ahead. Excitement levels (and nerves in my case) were high and we couldn’t wait to get going. 

We were then ready to be split into smaller groups and meet our rangers. I was in a group of 10 Intrepid travellers and each trekking group is allowed a maximum of 8 people, so we knew we’d need to split up. The local drivers (NOT our Intrepid crew, who were back at the campsite) and gorilla trek guides seemed to completely miss this point until the last minute. 

In a panic, the staff assumed we didn’t want to be split (which wasn’t the case, we always knew the maximum group size was 8 people) and were looking for a way to quickly determine who would leave the larger group. When the staff realised that 2 women in our group were anxious because of recent injuries, the staff led us to believe that there was another group with similar issues who would be taking the hike slowly and be allocated a family of gorillas that were hopefully closer to the start of the trek. This transpired to be a ruse in order to split our group, immediately the two women could see that the rest of their new group were extremely fit and keen for a hike. While they had been duped, thankfully their hike wasn’t too bad! 

After we waved them (and all the other groups) goodbye, the remaining 8 of us were stuck at the meeting point for an extra hour. Our guide was clearly trying to sort an issue, but we were kept in the dark as to what was happening. It later transpired that there was an issue with the permits issued to our Intrepid group, permits that had been booked for months (years in some cases) and should have all been sorted well in advance of our arrival. 

Our guide was then panicking – we were an hour late setting off, meaning the trek would be harder harder (the treks usually set off early in the morning to try and escape as much of the midday/early afternoon sun as possible) and he had a jeep full of confused and potentially disgruntled tourists. I personally think that this is where all of the later issues stemmed from – our guide was suddenly in overdrive trying to win back a tip that he’d never lost (we were always going to tip as we understood that tipping was “expected”, rather than optional) and he completely misread every situation. 

Movement of the gorillas

Myself and some of my fellow travellers had expressed some concerns about our fitness levels and that we were hoping for a short trek (especially after hearing the horror stories of our friends the prior day), but we understood that you can’t control wildlife and we would have to face whatever hand we were dealt. 

Because of the delays, the jeeps apparently drove us a little bit further than usual, so we were closer to the forest when we started walking, which we were appreciative of. This slight change had no adverse impact – the jeep always remained on permitted roads. Our trek started with a gentle 30-ish minute to the edge of the forest, following a beautiful stream. On arrival at the forest, our guide told us that the trackers had found the family of gorillas we were searching for, and they were situated at the top of a mountain that we could see in the distance.

Because of their location, we would need to climb at least two extremely steep passes before we would reach the gorillas. Before I could even mutter an expletive (you can take the girl out of Essex, but you can’t take Essex out of the girl), the guide quickly followed up with “but don’t worry, I have asked the rangers to push the gorillas down the mountain so that you can reach them more easily, as I know some of you are concerned about a long trek and your happiness is important to me”. 

Maybe I’m naive in believing that gorilla trekking is a truly “wild” experience. I thought it was a genuine case of finding gorillas in their natural habitat and observing them going about their day without human interaction. Suddenly my internal alarm bell began to ring, did I really want the gorillas to be pushed (I am not sure of the exact means in which the trackers moved the gorillas) into moving elsewhere for the sake of tourists?

In my eyes, anyone who is privileged enough to witness mountain gorillas in the wild should want to witness them in their most natural habitat with as little human interaction as physically possible.

Destruction of food source and interruption of natural behaviors 

When we eventually reached the gorillas after 1.5 to 2 hours of hiking, we all immediately grabbed our cameras to begin taking photos. It was evident that photography was going to be extremely difficult given the amount of foliage surrounding the animals – our cameras were barely able to make out the gorillas through all the branches and often focused on a nearby leaf rather than the gorilla. That’s no problem, photos are nice but the memory is more important. I was definitely happy to put my camera away and just enjoy the moment. 

The guide and the rangers carry hooked knifes and machetes with them. These are sometimes used while trekking to clear an opening through dense areas of bush. While we were with the gorillas, these knives suddenly became used to move almost all foliage away from the gorillas so that we could see them clearly.

The gorillas we visited were mostly sitting and eating – we visited an extremely relaxed group who were only interested in their lunch. The guides and rangers were tearing down the foliage directly in front of and around the gorilla’s faces (i.e. the food they were eating). I just can’t imagine that these actions don’t disrupt the natural behaviours of the animals.

Proximity to disease

During the walk, one of the members of our group became ill and vomited multiple times. Our lead ranger immediately jumped to the conclusion that he had altitude sickness (i.e., a non-transmittable illness) – in the adrenaline of the moment, none of us particularly questioned his logic but later we realised that we’d been at reasonably high altitudes for a few weeks already and it wouldn’t make sense for altitude sickness to strike now.

The ranger reassured us that everything was fine and our fellow traveller should continue the trek. Looking back, this was without a doubt a way for the ranger to avoid any further issues. The last thing he wanted to do was tell a tourist that he couldn’t continue on a once-in-a-lifetime experience and risk upsetting the group and reducing his tip.

As more members of our group fell ill over the next few days (thankfully, no others became ill on the trek), it became apparent that there was a sickness bug within the group. In hindsight, he should not have been allowed to get so close to the gorillas, especially as the Bwindi Impenetrable National Park’s website suggests that there are regulations in place for refunds or rescheduling in the event of illness.

Proximity to the gorillas

When reading the regulations on Bwindi Impenetrable National Park’s website while writing this post, I was shocked to see that 7m is the distance you should maintain from the gorillas. This figure was never given to us at the time of the trek. At some stages, our group was a maximum of 2m away from the gorillas. Of course, this is partly due to terrain and the movement of the animals, but it certainly wasn’t discouraged by the staff.

Time spent with the gorillas

It’s well known that you are only allowed to spend 1 hour with the gorillas. This is a mandated time to ensure that the animals are not over-exposed to humans.

Our ranger seemingly got his timings mixed up and made us walk away from the family of gorillas after 45-50 minutes. When a member of our group raised this concern, a lengthy conversation was had (approx. 200m away from where we left the gorillas) about whether we’d like to revisit the group for an extra 10 minutes to ensure that everyone was happy.

I was already happy with my sightings of the gorillas, so I and 4 other travellers stayed with some of the rangers in an open clearing where we could sit down and rest. The remaining 3 travellers left with the other rangers to see the gorillas again. After 10 minutes passed, we were expecting them to return shortly. When 20-30 minutes had passed, we were wondering where on earth they’d gone.

When the 3 travellers returned, they looked more disgruntled than when they’d left (which definitely wasn’t the guide’s intention)! The gorilla family we’d previously visited were on the move and the guide essentially led them on a “chase” cutting down whatever foliage he needed to in order to “please” these tourists. The travellers ended up begging him to stop chasing the gorillas as it wasn’t a pleasant experience (for them or the gorillas) before being allowed to rejoin the group.

Porters

Aside from the treatment of the wildlife, I felt uncomfortable with the treatment of the porters. Tourists can rent a porter from 20 USD (at the time of my trek, July 2023) to help carry their bags and to give a helping hand when facing challenging terrain. 

The 8 people on my Intrepid tour who trekked the day prior to me had an extremely challenging experience, trekking for over 2 hours each way up and down extremely steep hills with slippery and difficult footing. They highly recommended that I hired a porter for my trek the following day and I’m extremely glad I did. 

While my trek was considerably easier than my friends had experienced on the prior day and I could have managed on my own, we learnt that some of the porters had walked considerable distances from their homes to reach the entrance gate with no guarantee that they’d have a job that day. My porter had walked 3+ km over hilly and rough terrain.

Tourists are given the option to hire porters on the day (with no pre-booking available), so a large number of people show up in the morning without any guarantee that there will be enough work for them. Those who aren’t selected have to turn around and walk back home with no income for the day – wasting time which could be spent sourcing income via other means. Many of these porters have young families to support and are lucky to work once a week. 

Maybe it’s wishful British thinking, but I can’t believe that a “booking” system would be too difficult to run (although my time in Uganda proved that “admin” isn’t the country’s forte…). If tourists could pre-book a porter, this would reduce the number of porters who are denied work every day and create additional jobs for those running the process. A small pool of “standby” porters could then be on hand to cover last minute bookings or porter’s sick leave etc. 

Money matters

We were asked to tip multiple times throughout the day – a tip for the trackers when we left them in the forest, a tip for the guides and armed rangers when we got to our vehicle and a tip for the drivers once they had had safely returned us to the meeting point.

Friends in another group were quoted extremely high “minimum/standard” tipping amounts by their guide (e.g. $25pp for the trackers, $25pp for the guides, $25pp for the armed rangers and $25pp for the drivers – an additional minimum $100pp in tips for the day). These figures are much higher than the ballpark amount given to us by internet recommendations/Intrepid/the owner of our campsite in Kisoro who had all told us to give one tip to the guide and ask him to split the amount between the crew. 

It was abundantly clear that “client satisfaction” and “making sure my customers are happy” was the highest item on our guide’s agenda, so as not to negatively impact his tip. Unfortunately, our guide seemed to have very little understanding about what would “satisfy” our group and his methods were often detrimental to the gorillas. I do believe that most of the issues we faced during the day are a direct result of this.

I’m sure that the guides face extremely challenging and demanding travellers in the course of their job who want to see the gorillas from all angles with no regard for the welfare of the animals, they just want the best photos/bragging rights. I therefore completely understand why the guide acted in the way he did.

I hope that education (both for the tourists and the guides) will lead to more environmentally positive experiences going forwards, with the main aim of the day being to observe creatures in their natural habitat, learn more about the mountain gorillas and positively contribute to their wellbeing and population numbers.

A ranger spotting gorillas in Bwindi Impenetrable Forest in Uganda.

Other Articles About Africa Overland Tours

If you’re considering booking an Africa overland tour, you should read my other posts too (especially if you’re looking to book with Intrepid!):

  • My experience and review of an Intrepid Africa overland tour – CLICK HERE
  • Is an Africa overland tour right for you? CLICK HERE
  • Everything you need to know about an Africa overland tour [COMING SOON]
  • What to pack for an Africa overland tour CLICK HERE
  • How much does an Africa overland tour actually cost? CLICK HERE
  • What can go wrong on an Africa overland tour? CLICK HERE
  • My Africa Overland Tour Diaries – Cape Town to Victoria Falls [COMING SOON]
  • My Africa Overland Tour Diaries – Victoria Falls to Zanzibar [COMING SOON]
  • My Africa Overland Tour Diaries – Zanzibar to Nairobi [COMING SOON]
  • My Africa Overland Tour Diaries – Kenya and Uganda [COMING SOON]
  • Is gorilla trekking in Uganda ethical? CLICK HERE
  • Where is the best place in East Africa to take a hot air balloon ride? [COMING SOON]

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2 responses to “Is Mountain Gorilla Trekking Ethical and Safe?”

  1. Tony says:

    Very interesting.

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