Virunga National Park is home to approximately 200 of the world’s remaining 790 Mountain Gorillas. The park’s gorillas live in the Mikeno Sector, an area of forest situated on the flanks of a range of mostly dormant volcanoes.
A Mountain Gorilla family, which can number from four to fifty individuals, is led by a single dominant adult male known as the “Silverback”, a name derived from the grey hair that develops on a male’s back as it reaches adulthood. The Silverback is responsible for protecting the family from predators or other threats, including solitary Silverbacks intent on claiming females as their own.
Some families contain more than one Silverback, but only one is dominant and that male alone is responsible for mating with the adult females of the group.
Despite all the lore about the ferocity of the mountain gorilla, in general they are very peaceful creatures. Most days are spent foraging for food, playing, and grooming. Aside from mock fighting amongst juveniles, displays of aggression are reserved for challenges to the Silverback’s dominance or direct threats to the family’s well being.
The Mountain Gorilla as a species has long been close to extinction. Poaching and wars have killed many of these animals, and illegal charcoal production has destroyed much of their habitat. Many conservationists have dedicated their professional lives to furthering our understanding of this species and raising awareness of its plight.
Dian Fossey, whose work was immortalized in the movie Gorillas in the Mist, is perhaps the most famous of these. More recently influential journalists have brought the world’s attention to Virunga’s Mountain Gorilla population. In 2007 Brent Stirton won the World Press Photo competition with a picture of the aftermath of a gorilla massacre, which National Geographic ran as its cover story.
Visiting the gorillas
Visiting the gorillas is an incredible experience. The animals are truly enormous, but they are also good-natured and playful, living up to their reputation as “gentle giants.”
You will have the opportunity to observe the gorillas for up to an hour. Gorillas may surround you while playing and eating in the trees, or the family may be at rest in an open grassy area. As you walk through the family you must keep a distance of at least seven meters. If a gorilla family consists of more than ten individuals, then we allow a group of six tourists to visit. We have five families that can be visited and have a maximum capacity of 26 tourists per day.
The treks leave from one of three patrol posts, with several rangers and trackers to accompany you. Bukima post, the most popular with tourists and closest to Goma, has a basic tented camp for overnight stays. Treks can take from 30 minutes to 2.5 hours to reach a gorilla family, often moving through dense forest and across steep hills, so a reasonable level of fitness is required. Weather conditions can range from sunny and warm to cold and rainy, so come prepared for both.
Because Mountain Gorillas share 98% of our DNA, they are highly susceptible to human disease. Any person can unknowingly transmit dangerous bacteria or a virus, including the common cold. For this reason, visitors represent a potential threat and are required to wear a surgical mask provided for you when you reach the gorilla family. If you don’t feel well, have a fever, diarrhea, or a persistent sore throat, please do not visit the gorillas.
Bukima Tented Camp
Bukima is one of the sites where we start our gorilla treks. Just outside the perimeter of the park a tented camp has been established catering for up to 16 people at a time. What used to be a base for Gorilla researchers (the original paillote still stands) is now a basic but comfortable tented camp. It provides all necessary requirements for a comfortable night out in the wilderness, with a magnificent view of the Mikeno volcano draped in tropical forest and the Nyiragongo volcano, of which the glow from the lava lake can be clearly seen at night.
Prices for the camp are based on two people sharing a tent (twin beds). From the start of June 2011 the price will also include a basic evening meal and breakfast (drinks can be bought on site). There is also the possibility to bring your own camping equipment and food and stay for a reduced price.
Spending the night at Bukima Tented Camp ensures that you can leave for the gorillas at a leisurely time in the morning and will ensure that you will be back at your destination of choice with time to spare after your encounter with the Mountain Gorillas of Virunga.