When considering an adventure such as mountain gorilla trekking, the subject of safety inevitably comes up in the conversation. The reality is that close contact with mountain gorillas is considered very safe, in comparison with other wild animals. Of course, in order to ensure one’s safety, rules have to be followed, and there are a number of important dos and don’ts.
Before one is allowed to venture off into the forests of East Africa in search of the rare and endangered mountain gorillas, each and every tracker is subjected to a briefing at the park headquarters outlining how they should behave. Mountain gorillas in the wild are not considered dangerous, as long as they are comfortable and relaxed. Recently there have been attacks by gorillas that were in captivity because in small compounds the gorillas are neither comfortable nor relaxed and as such can be hostile under such circumstances.
The park rangers are very specific with regards to the critical distance of 7 metres – this is the closest the trackers are permitted to be when observing the gorillas. No food or drinks are permitted to be consumed in the presence of the silverbacks and their families. Staring into the eyes of the gorillas is not permitted as it may be misunderstood as an act of hostility. If a gorilla comes close up to someone, the person must not run, but sit very still until the gorilla has moved away, crouching and acting in a submissive way is your best course of action. Speaking quietly while tracking gorillas is a must, as well as not making any sudden moves, these can be seen as a threat to the gorillas. When taking pictures, one is not permitted to use a flash, since that will most probably startle the gorillas, who may charge.
These are strict rules that must be followed, with no exceptions. If these rules are followed there is very little chance of any hostile behaviour on the part of the gorillas. They are known as the ‘gentle giants’ of the forest and for very good reason. The gorilla families that trackers are permitted to search for have been habituated, which means they are used to human encounters and as such do not pose any danger. The habituation of the gorillas takes a minimum of two years and has been very successful.
Park Officials are vigilant and constantly on the watch for any dangers, such as human guerrillas, in the national parks, as are the UN Peacekeepers that are in these areas specifically on the lookout for guerrillas. Tour guides and travel agents update their information on security concerns for travellers daily and both wildlife authorities and police departments are alerted immediately there are any dangers for visiting travellers.
In Bwindi and Mgahinga National Parks in Uganda and Volcanoes National Park in Rwanda, there are no guerrillas, just gorillas. These two countries have made security and safety a prime directive and as such there have been no incidents against visitors in the national parks of Uganda and Rwanda.
It is therefore worthwhile for every traveller on an African Safari to engage in the adventurous activity of mountain gorilla trekking in Rwanda, Uganda or the Democratic republic of Congo.