Bwindi impenetrable forest national park is located in southwestern Uganda at the edge of the Albertine rift valley covering about 321 sq km. The forest is believed to have survived the ice age about 25,000 years ago and such a pristine, unspoiled forest lying at low altitudes between 1,160 to 2,607 meters above sea level is an important area for biodiversity conservation. Estimates say that there are about 880 mountain gorillas left on the planet earth and interestingly about 400 mountain gorillas live in the Bwindi forest which is a half of the world’s mountain gorilla population. The other gorillas live in Rwanda and DRC’s virunga mountains region.
Bwindi impenetrable Forest became a UNESCO world heritage site in 1994 in recognition of its unmatched biodiversity providing home to a variety of wildlife including 120 mammals, 350 species of birds, 24 being Albertine rift endemics, 400 species of plants. Note that this is the only place in the whole world where two great apes both gorillas and chimpanzees live together in harmony with man.
Mountain gorilla habituation
Mountain gorilla habituation in itself is a process of training wild gorillas to be accustomed to human presence without altering or changing their behaviors. This can be achieved over a period of 3 years or more depending on the pace at which gorillas are getting used to humans. The process is done by experienced researchers, trackers and few lucky tourists who know how gorillas behave and closely follow them on a daily basis by imitating their actions such as picking and chewing on the vegetation with non threatening body language. With time researchers will first put the gorillas on test to see if they are ready for normal trekking. Therefore declaring gorillas ready for normal trekking largely depends on the readiness of gorillas during habituation, if not then the process of habituation continues until they become ready for human interaction.
However, when it comes to gorilla habituation experience as a tourist product, it is where the tourists visit the already habituated gorilla family and will stay with the gorillas for a maximum of four hours observing their day’s activities and behavior. This gorilla habituation experience differs from gorilla tracking in that with the later, a maximum of one hour is allowed to stay in the presence of the gorillas, which is a short period to have learnt the behavior of the gorillas.
Uganda Wildlife Authority, a top body managing all national parks of Uganda recently introduced gorilla habituation experience product for tourists in Rushaga sector found in the southern section of Bwindi impenetrable forest national park, a product that is not found anywhere else in the world. Currently there are two gorilla groups that are being visited for habituation experience. These two gorilla habituation groups in Bwindi impenetrable Forest national park are Bukingyi and Bushaho.
A maximum number of 4 people can be allowed to participate in habituation experience contrary to the 8 people for allowed on gorilla tracking. Gorilla habituation experience costs 1500 USD per tourist.
Normally tourists are briefed very early in the morning about the rules and conduct before gorillas and of course reminding you to dress properly for the impenetrable thickets by experienced Uganda wildlife authority guides, then slowly you enter the forests to look for the designated two gorilla groups under habituation, the four hours excludes time spent when searching for gorillas meaning that tourists spend real four hours observing gorillas in their natural habitats. It means that a total of 8 permits are given out daily depending on availability of tourists interested in habituation experience.
Booking for gorilla habituation permits need done in advance due to limited number of permits per day, yet the demand for the activity is high.
Gorilla habituation experience was acknowledged to be good for conservation of the whole gorilla population and their habitats because the proceeds from the experience partly go to conservation and supporting of local community development and educating the locals living around the park about the importance of gorillas and other wildlife. It’s well known that gorillas are prone to contracting human infectious diseases hence training gorillas to be used to humans puts them at risk but good enough the rangers have a ranger based monitoring system they use to closely monitor gorillas every day and obviously there are other threats to gorillas such as poaching, encroachment which must be dealt with besides human diseases.
Accessibility of Rushaga sector in the southern part of Bwindi national park is possible by public transport or by direct scheduled charter flights from Entebbe international airport or Kigali in Rwanda.
From Entebbe to Bwindi takes approximately 9-10 hours about 550 km of driving in a safari vehicle on tarmac roads that pass through beautiful terraced green rolling hills giving you insight into the rural Uganda lifestyle. There are several routes but your guide knows a relatively short route. The most popular is the route that passes through Queen Elizabeth national park via Ishasha sector where you might stop for the rare tree climbing lions.
It becomes easy to get to Rushaga in Bwindi when you are already in Lake Mburo or Queen Elizabeth national park because from these parks it takes less than 6 hours to reach Bwindi.
Alternatively tourists can fly direct from Entebbe airport or kajjansi airfield along the Entebbe – Kampala highway using Aerolink or eagle air charter planes to kisoro airstrip and there after drive for a short distance to Rushaga area.