For many travellers to Uganda or Tanzania, gorilla and chimp trekking are two of the most sought after wildlife experiences there is. While chimpanzees and gorillas are both part of the broader ‘great ape’ classification and form part of the hominids family, the trekking experiences are vastly different from one another given the different social structures and habitats of gorillas and chimpanzees.
Habitat Extent of Gorillas and Chimpanzees
Gorillas can be classified into three subspecies, primarily based on their habitat range in Africa:
- Western Lowland Gorillas are found in the forests of Nigeria, Cameroon, Gabon, Congo, Central African Republic (CAR) and the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC).
- Eastern Lowland Gorillas are found in the eastern forest lowlands of the DRC.
- Mountain Gorillas are found in the rain forests of Rwanda, Uganda and the DRC; along the Virunga Mountain Chain.
Chimpanzees are distributed across Africa’s dense forests; from Guinea in West Africa to Tanzania and Uganda. The best countries to trek for chimpanzees comfortably and securely are Uganda and Tanzania.
The vast majority of these great apes (approximately 80%) live outside protected areas. This does put their numbers under threat because they are at the mercy of illegal loggers and poachers. This is why there has been a great effort (from conservationists, researchers and wildlife authorities) since the early 2000s for increased protection of gorillas and chimpanzees.
Habituated gorilla trekking can be done in Bwindi Impenetrable Forest National Park (Uganda), Mgahinga National Park (Uganda), Volcanoes National Park (Rwanda) and Virunga National Park (DRC). Gorilla trekking is considered more organised and the chances of seeing gorillas is above 90%. Gorillas live in distinct families, which are well studied, and are headed by a dominant silverback. In Bwindi and Mgahinga rangers do early morning patrols of the parks to search for the gorilla families. Once the gorillas have been found, the rangers radio back the location of the families. Family locations are mapped reliably so that it makes it easier for rangers and travellers to locate the gorillas.
Gorilla trekking in Virunga National Park (DRC) has been suspended as of May 2018 for safety and security reasons. For the latest updates please visit the Virunga National Park website (https://virunga.org/).
Although the rangers are well experienced and make every effort to keep track of the gorilla families, the dense forests of East Africa does add to the challenge of spotting them (the forests of Bwindi aren’t called impenetrable for nothing). The trekking terrain is challenging because mountain gorillas stick to the middle and upper tiers of mountains making for steep inclines, including wet conditions. Mountain gorillas stick to the forest floor given their size and weight and aren’t as agile as their lowland counterparts. This does make it easier for trekkers to spot them and it means you won’t have to swivel your neck from branch to branch looking at the forest canopy above you. Treks can last from anywhere between two to four hours. Once your guides have found the gorillas, you will have one hour to spend with them. If you still have some lingering questions on gorilla trekking be sure to have a look at our article on frequently asked questions about gorilla trekking.
Chimpanzee trekking can be done in Uganda at Murchison Falls National Park (Kyambura Gorge and Budongo Forest) and Kibale National Park. There is also the option to visit Ngamba Island on Lake Victoria. Ngamba Island was set up as a sanctuary for orphaned chimpanzees and for this reason it does not offer chimp trekking, but it still provides you an opportunity to get up close to chimpanzees. In Tanzania you can chimp trek in Mahale Mountains National Park and Gombe Stream National Park.
Authorities (a combination of rangers and researchers) in each of the national parks apply the same tracking procedures as gorilla trekking. Chimp movements are tracked and mapped consistently making it easier for guides and trekkers to locate the chimps. Chimpanzees can live in communities of around 30 to 80 individuals and these individuals break up into smaller parties to reduce food competition. Given their agility and small size, chimps tend to stick to the treeline. Apart from the rustling of trees which will give their position away, chimps are highly social animals and call to one another across the extent of the forest which will make it easier for you to spot them. Some trekkers who have trekked for gorillas and chimps remarked that chimp trekking is easier. This is largely due to the fact that chimps are often found on flatter terrain and don’t frequent the upper tiers of mountain areas. The size of chimp families and in some cases easier terrain to navigate mean chimp trekking may not take as long as gorilla trekking. Some trekkers would say chimp trekking is not as intimate as a gorilla trek, given that chimps stick to the trees more as opposed to the forest floor. That being said, chimp trekking isn’t any less rewarding than a gorilla trek.
There’s no battle between gorilla trekking and chimp trekking in an effort to see which experience is the best. Each experience is unique in itself. From the animals, to their habitats and social structures, gorilla and chimp trekking each have their own merits to stand on. Few wildlife experiences can match up to the intimacy gorilla and chimp trekking provide. By stepping into their world you are spending your day (or at least an hour) with two extraordinary animals and getting a special insight into their life – something few people get the chance to see.