Uganda Wildlife Authority conducts gorilla habituation experiences in the Rushaga region of Bwindi Impenetrable National Park. Tourists can trek with researchers to experience how mountain gorillas are habituated. The price for mountain gorilla habituation experience is now at USD1500, and one can stay for up to four hours.
Introduced in 2015 and available for a minimal duration of only 2-3 years is the gorilla habituation experience in Uganda’s Bwindi Impenetrable National Park. To become habituated to tourists’ presence, each gorilla group has undergone an extremely delicate process, lasting around five years, gradually getting accustomed to the presence of humans.
Park rangers start by spending a short period with the gorillas every day, at a certain distance that represents the limit of the gorillas’ comfort zone. As the years go by, they gradually increase the time and reduce the distance until they deem the gorillas ready for paying clients to visit them.
The gorilla habituation experience for the first time allows paying clients to participate in this process. It is limited to two gorilla families in the southern part of Bwindi Impenetrable National Park, Bukingyi and Bushaho, in the park’s Rushaga sector. Due to the steep terrain, dense vegetation, and high altitudes, a high level of fitness is required.
Gorilla habituation is the process through which a gorilla family gets used to human visits. When there were plans to introduce gorilla tourism in Bwindi Impenetrable Forest, the remaining task was to ensure that the mountain gorillas get used to tourists’ visits. Remember, the gorillas were living in the forest and were not used to human visits.
A gorilla habituation process takes 2-3 years, and it involves an advanced team from the Uganda Wildlife Authority making frequent visits to the gorilla family. Upon establishing that the group is used and welcoming to tourists, the gorilla family becomes ready for tourists’ visits.
The habituation of wild gorillas has long been a useful tool for research and conservation programs. Decisions to habituate gorillas typically reflect a balance of the benefits gained and the costs/risks. In general, the benefits include that it: generates revenue through tourism for governments, local communities, and businesses; enables detailed research on feeding ecology and social behaviour; provides daily protection for the groups monitored; enables gorilla health monitoring; provides a mechanism for examining trends in population dynamics by monitoring births, death and dispersal patterns.
In contrast, the costs of habituation are that it: increases the risk of disease through exposure to humans in close proximity; increases risk of poaching due to loss of fear of humans; requires financial resources and staff to monitor habituated gorillas as a lifelong commitment.
Both the costs and benefits can be illustrated in all locations where gorillas have been habituated. For example, several habituated Grauer’s gorillas were killed during the political instability in Kahuzi-Biega National Park, Democratic Republic of the Congo (Yamagiwa 2003), and evidence of a virus transmitted from humans was found in Virunga mountain gorillas suffering from respiratory disease (Palacios et al. 2011).
The economic benefits derived from gorilla tourism can be enormous. Still, they may come to a halt due to political instability, which is the current situation in Dzanga-Sangha National Park, Central African Republic.
Conservation and research efforts in Bwindi Impenetrable National Park, Uganda, which contains about half of the remaining mountain gorillas globally, did not begin in earnest until the early 1990s following its being gazetted as a national park in 1991. This is in contrast to the Virunga Massif’s mountain gorillas, which have been the focus of intense efforts since the last 1960s.
Over the past two decades, Bwindi Impenetrable National Park has experienced many changes, notably increasing the number of habituated groups from 3 to 12, which we describe here. Among the many conservation strategies that have been developed, Bwindi opens external link in new window.
Uganda Wildlife Authority (UWA), gorilla tourism was at the top of the list for generating funds for conservation activities and creating alternative sources of income for local communities, a move intended to create a win-win situation for conservation and development. Overall, gorilla habituation in Bwindi can be viewed as occurring in three phases.
The first phase of habituation occurred in the early 1990s with the Katendegyere Group and Mubare Group, both ranging around Buhoma. The habituation of both groups started in 1991 and they were opened for tourism in 1993. The Katendegyere Group initially contained 11 gorillas, but by 1998 it had decreased to only 3 gorillas.
At this time, the group crossed into the Sarambwe Game Reserve in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (contiguous with Bwindi), and UWA could no longer monitor the group. There are reports of mountain gorilla groups in this area, but the Katendegyere group’s fate is unknown. The Mubare Group initially contained 13 gorillas and had only 5 gorillas at one point. When first contacted, the silverback that led the group, Ruhondeza, had an impressively long tenure of more than 20 years and died in 2012. The group has gone through a variety of changes in recent years and currently contains 10 members.
Concurrent to gorilla habituation for tourism, one group was habituated for research purposes. Habituation of the Kyagurilo Group began in the early 1990s in the Ruhija area of Bwindi as part of the Institute of Tropical Forest Conservation efforts. In 1995 this group suffered a poaching attack, resulting in the death of 4 group members. Intense research efforts on this group by the Max Planck Institute of Evolutionary Anthropology have been ongoing since 1998. The group size dipped as low as ten members in 2010, but it currently contains 18 individuals. Since 2012 this group also has been used for tourism during times of peak demand.
The second phase of gorilla habituation occurred in the mid-1990s, following a growth in the tourism market. Since the Katendegyere Group had become so small, another group was habituated in the Buhoma area. The Habinyanja group contained more than 25 gorillas in 1997, and it fissioned into two groups in 2002. The smaller group initially consisted of only 8 gorillas and was named the Rushegura Group.
Additionally, to spread gorilla tourism’s growing benefits and improve conservation efforts in other regions of the park, gorilla tourism would be expanded outside Buhoma. As a result, the Nkuringo Group’s habituation in the southern region of Bwindi began in 1997. However, due to various challenges, including infrastructure development, the group was only opened for tourism in 2004.
The third phase of gorilla habituation resulted from continued growth in demand for gorilla tourism and the urge to introduce gorilla tourism elsewhere around the park as a means of enhancing conservation and development. Gorilla tourism continues as a significant revenue earner and notable employer of numerous local people.
Thus, initiatives to equitably distribute such opportunities around the entire protected area took center stage. More gorilla groups are going through the gorilla habituation process in various sectors of the park.
Bitukura Group’s habituation (in the northeastern region around Ruhija) and Nshongi Group (in the southern sector of the park) began in 2006, and both groups were opened for tourism in 2008. Based on the 2006 park-wide gorilla census results, the Nshongi Group was the largest in the park, with more than 30 members.
However, in 2014 it contains only 8 gorillas. The dramatic change in group size is largely the result of two fission events. First, in 2010 the silverback Mishaya moved out with 8 other group members. In 2012, the silverback Bweza separated from the group with 9 individuals. Both resulting groups go by the names of these silverbacks. Mishaya died suddenly in early 2014, and according to UWA, a new silverback took over the group.
The habituation of two additional groups began in 2008, and both were opened for tourism in 2010. The Kahungye Group ranges in the southern sector of the park, near the Nshongi Group. It also was initially a very large group containing nearly 30 gorillas. In March 2012, the group fissioned with 9 members splitting off to form the Busingye Group. The Oruzogo, ranging to the west of the Ruhija area, initially contained about 20 gorillas but was slightly reduced due to emigrations.
The group fissions, births, deaths, emigrations, and immigrations observed in the habituated groups all reflect natural demographic processes typical for a species that lives in social groups. Gorillas are one of only a few primate genera in which both males and females may either remain in or disperse from the group in which they were born.
Males seek to attain the dominant silverback position by either queuing for alpha status in the natal group or becoming solitary to attempt to attract females to form a new group. As a result, we see both one-male and multimale groups, with the latter sometimes fissioning into two groups. Understanding these demographic processes is possible mainly by monitoring habituated groups.
By regularly collecting data on the habituated gorillas, we have also been able to determine that Bwindi gorillas had a lower birth rate and a longer interbirth interval than the Virunga gorillas (5 years compared to 4 years), which suggests that the overall growth rate of the population is likely lower in Bwindi (Robbins et al. 2009). Such information can be used concurrently with studies on gorilla health and ecological conditions to understand this species’ biology best and contribute to conservation management strategies.
A new census – carried out by the Greater Virunga Transboundary Collaboration (a coalition of governments, non-profits and conservationists) in 2018 – shows that the population of mountain gorillas in Uganda’s Bwindi Impenetrable Forest National Park is now at 459, up from 400 in 2011. At that time, researchers collected samples from 451 individuals (192 males, 259 females), reflecting 50 groups (17 monitored, 33 unmonitored) and 13 solitary (unmonitored) individuals (12 male, 1 female). In contrast, that value is much lower than the 349 habituated gorillas out of 480 detected (73% of the population; 24 of 36 social groups) found at the 2010 census in the Virunga Massif (Gray et al. 2013).
Most of the remaining unhabituated Bwindi gorilla groups live in the park’s interior that is not accessible as a day trip and, therefore, would be unsuitable for tourism. The number of tourists viewing gorillas in Bwindi has increased from approximately 3000 per year in the 1990s to more than 15,000 in recent years.
Dian Fossey’s original focus was on the study of mountain gorillas. She pioneered gorilla habituation, identification, tracking, range mapping, and other primate research techniques in use today. However, she soon realized that if the gorillas were to survive, they would require protection. Among the threats were poachers who set snares in the forest, cattle grazing, and human encroachment into the forest.
She initiated “active conservation” practices in the form of armed anti-poaching patrols. After one of her favorite gorillas — Digit — was killed by poachers, Fossey established the “Digit Fund” to support the gorillas’ active conservation. After her death, the Digit Fund was renamed the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund International (Fossey Fund), which operates Karisoke today.
a permit for Gorilla Habituation Experience in Uganda costs USD 1,500 per person. Only 8 habituation permits are issued out per day and there are currently two gorilla families available for habituation experience.
After trekking through the jungle, the lead guide will allow you only four hours with the gorillas and the habituation team.
Unlike gorilla trekking which starts at 8:30 am, gorilla habituation experience starts at 7:30am and briefing is at the trailhead before the trek into the jungle.
Gorilla habituation experience is currently possible in Rushaga, located on the southern part of Bwindi Impenetrable Forest National Park. It is thus not possible in the Buhoma or Ruhija southern side of the forest.
Only Rushaga has the two gorilla groups available for the habituation experience. Those interested in this experience should be ready to go to the south and book accommodation in Nkuringo or Rushaga since this activity requires an early start.
This includes rangers, researchers, and spending four hours with mountain gorillas under habituation. It also includes park entrance fees for Bwindi Impenetrable National Park.
Gorilla trekking costs USD 700, and you get to spend only one hour with habituated mountain gorillas. Gorilla habituation experience costs USD 1500, allowing you to spend at least four hours with mountain gorillas still under the habituation process. Habituation only takes place in regions with mountain gorillas under habituation, and as of now, it’s only in Rushaga Section.
The minimum age for gorilla habituation is 15 years and above and all the book guidelines are same as those for gorilla trekking. In terms of numbers, gorilla habituation is limited to only six people