Planning a gorilla safari in Africa? It is important to be acquainted with information about the several gorilla species found on the continent and where exactly to find them.
Native to tropical forests of Africa, gorillas fall under two large sub groups namely; the eastern gorilla and the western gorilla. Each group has got two subspecies of gorilla. The eastern gorilla is sub-divided into the eastern lowland and mountain gorilla. Western gorilla includes the western lowland and the cross-river gorilla.
All four gorilla subspecies are on the endangered or critically endangered list of the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN). The main threats to gorillas include habitat destruction, diseases, poaching, civil conflicts and illegal animal trade.
Gorilla trekking safaris provide a chance for visitors to see gorillas in their natural habitat and most importantly generate funds for their conservation. For instance, eco-tourism has enabled mountain gorilla population to recover from the verge of extinction. Funds from gorilla tourism also help to sustain other wildlife and and the communities around these protected areas.
Gorillas share 98% of their DNA with humans and their exhibition of human-like behaviour in the wild makes them even more attractive to visit. However, this also means that they are highly susceptible to human viruses like influenza and Covid-19 thus guests are cautiously guided while visiting them.
Social structure and behaviour
Gorillas are great apes and the largest primates in the world. They have a large body size with an average height of 1.8m and weight of 180kg. Generally, the social structure of all gorilla subspecies is almost identical, though distinguished by factors including appearance, composition, vocalisations and home range. Gorillas live in communities known as troops or families. On average a single gorilla family may consist of 2 or over 30 individuals including young males, females and their infants. A family is led by a dominant male known as ‘silverback’ for his silver hair that grows on the back.
The silverback is responsible for determining the troop’s home range and day’s activities such as feeding, resting and nesting. Gorillas predominantly stay on ground moving on four legs, though, they often stand upright on two legs and have the ability to climb trees looking for tropical fruits. They are omnivores and their vegetarian diet mainly consists of roots, shoots, fruit, wild celery, pulp and tree barks, though, occasionally gorillas are known to eat snails and ants as a source of sodium.
The Eastern gorilla
The eastern gorilla is the largest of all gorillas and divided into two subspecies namely; the eastern lowland gorilla also known as Grauer’s gorilla and the mountain gorilla.
As their name suggests mountain gorillas (gorilla beringei beringei) are endangered and live in tropical and mixed bamboo forested highlands between 2438m – 3964m (8000 – 13000 feet). Unlike other species, mountain gorillas cannot survive in captivity and are endemic to Virunga Mountains which span across three protected areas in Rwanda, Uganda and Democratic Republic of Congo including Volcanoes, Mgahinga Gorilla and Virunga National Parks. Bwindi Impenetrable Forest National Park in Uganda, also, boasts of harboring half of the world population of mountain gorilla (over 400 individuals) which is almost half of the total 1063 world’s mountain gorilla population. Nicknamed as ‘gentle giants’ mountain gorillas have thick and longer hair as a mechanism to keep warm in montane tropical forests where temperatures can drop to 7 °C from 27 °C. A mature adult male known as ‘silverback’ can weigh between 300 – 485 pounds (130 to 220 kg) and stand at a height measuring 4 to 6 feet while the mass of a female is between 90 to 100 kg. Their average a lifespan is 35 years in the wild.
Once near extinction, mountain gorilla population is increasing due to good conservation practices and the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) which sets the conservation status of species changed their status in 2018 from critically endangered to ‘endangered’
Despite the earliest discovery of mountain gorillas in 1902 by Robert Von Beringe, the primates remained under the radar until 1963 when George B Schaller gave the first scientific description in his book “The Mountain Gorilla” while Dian Fossey is famous for establishing Karisoke research center 1967 in Rwanda which is now Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund International the world’s leading organization on gorilla research and conservation in Africa. At the time, gorilla numbers were estimated to be fewer than 500 individuals left in the wild. But Fossey introduced active conservation strategies which help to fight poaching and habitat destruction thereby saving gorillas which have tripled ever since. Despite the success, many conservationists believe mountain gorillas could easily slip back to the verge of extinction without upholding responsible gorilla tourism.
Eastern lowland gorilla (Grauer’s gorilla)
Eastern lowland gorilla also known as Grauer’s gorilla is critically endangered and the largest of the gorilla species distinguished by its stocky body, large hands and short nose. A mature adult male Grauer’s gorilla can weigh between 210 to 250 kg on average and is heavier than the mountain and western gorilla. Grauer’s gorillas are only found in the tropical forests of eastern Democratic Republic of Congo including Kahuzi-Beiga National Park and unprotected Maiko Forest Reserve located in Bukavu region South Kivu Province. The current population is estimated to be 3,800 individuals which have declined by more than 50% from 16900 individuals in the 1990’s as indicated by Flora and Fauna International (FFI). As a result, the Grauer’s gorilla is listed as critically endangered on the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List of threatened species facing extinction. The main threats to their survival including habitat loss, illegal mining and civil unrest in South Kivu have relatively controlled with opening of lowland gorilla trekking safaris in Kahuzi-Beiga National Park and establishment of Nkuba-Biruwe research station in 2012 by Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund International (DFGFI). The station is responsible for tracking unhabituated three groups of Grauer’s gorilla that live in non-protected forests covering about 700 sq.km between Maiko and Kahuzi-Beiga National parks.
Kahuzi-Beiga National Park is home to 250 individuals and offers eastern lowland gorilla trekking tours in DR Congo. The park has three gorilla families habituated for tourism including Pungwe with 23, Chimanuka with 19 and Anne with 8 individuals. The lowland gorilla trekking permit cost is $400 per person which is available for booking through a trusted tour operator. Tracking begin at 9:00am at Tshivanga the park visitor center. Lowland gorilla tracking offers visitors a chance to spend 1 hour with Grauer’s gorillas in their natural habitat.
Besides gorillas, the park is rich in biodiversity and was designated a UNESCO world heritage center and Endemic Bird Area (EBA) 1979. The protected covers 6000 sq.km stretching from the Albertine Rift Valley to Congo basin forests and includes two extinct volcanoes namely; Mt. Kahuzi (3308m) and Mt. Beiga (2790m). The terrain is characterized by lowland tropical, bamboo and montane forests and sub-alpine vegetation containing a variety of flora and fauna including over 349 species of birds of which 42 are Albertine Rift and Congo basin Endemics including Grauer’s green broadbill, handsome francolin, Archer’s robin chat; 136 mammal species including bongo, bush buffalo and elephant, giant forest and aquatic genet; 13 primate species including chimpanzees, Hamlyn’s monkeys, L’hoest monkeys and 1173 plant species including senecio kahuzicus.
Apart from tracking Grauer’s gorillas, other activities to do in Kahuzi-Beiga National Park including hikes to Kahuzi volcano and Tshibati waterfalls offer a chance to explore nature in the Albertine Rift and Congo basin forests. The park is located in Bukavu region south-Kivu province accessible by air through Kigali capital city and Goma town. The park is 194 km (6-hour drive) from Goma city, 258 km from Kigali city and 219 km from Rubavu (Gisenyi) town on the northern shores of Lake Kivu. A ferry operates twice daily on Lake Kivu from Goma to Bukavu town which is 34km to the Tshivanga the park visitor center.
Western gorilla is divided into two subspecies including the cross-river gorilla and the western lowland gorilla which are the smallest of all gorilla types. Besides living in the wild they also survive in captivity and are found in several zoos around the world including San Diego Wildlife Alliance, Zoo Atlanta, St Louis Zoo, Houston Zoo, Franklin Zoo, Smithsonian Zoo etc.
Cross River Gorilla
Cross-river gorilla (Gorilla gorilla diehli) is on the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List of critically endangered species with almost 250 to 300 individuals left in the wild. By appearance, the cross river gorilla has a protruding skull and tend to have greyer and red hair. The primates are only found along the banks of the cross river between Nigeria and Cameroon. The habitat range of cross river gorillas is fragmented and spreads over 12000 sq.km in remote mountainous tropical forests including Cross-River and Takamanda National Parks with limited accessibility and infrastructure development, making their conservation a challenge.
The major threats to their survival including poaching and loss of habitat due to illegal logging and agriculture is critical to conservation for both states given that some of the gorillas live in unprotected forest reserves across borders. The Cross River Gorilla Conservation partnership has designated new protected areas by joining different reserves together into Lebialem Highlands Conservation Complex. Found Cameroon, the area includes Tofala Hill Wildlife and Kagwene Gorilla Sanctuaries home to 60 cross river gorillas which are part of Takamanda National Park. This park stretches across the Cameroon border and connects to Cross River National Park which also includes two forest reserves including Mbe and Afi mountains wildlife sanctuaries.
The conservation partnership with support from Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) and World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) is aiming at habituating cross-river gorillas in Nigeria and Cameroon for tourism and turn both parks into a Trans-boundary Biosphere Reserve and World Heritage Site. Tourism facilities, also, have been established including the Obudu Mountain Resort (formerly Obudu Cattle Ranch) in Cross River State Nigeria. The resort is 45 miles from the border with Cameroon and offers accommodation for travelers of all budgets and cable car adventures. Visitors can also explore the beautiful mountain scenery on foot on marked trails that offer a chance to encounter a variety of wildlife in Mbe and Afi mountains wildlife sanctuaries including Cross-River gorillas, chimpanzees, Preuss’s monkeys, grey-necked rockfowl, the drill and mammal species such as forest elephant and buffalo.
Western lowland gorilla
Western lowland gorilla (gorilla gorilla gorilla) are the most widespread with an estimated population of 350 000 individuals. Found in Congo Basin famous for harboring the world’s second largest tropical forest, the territory of western gorillas is extensive covering about 270 000 sq. miles in west and central African countries including Equatorial Guinea, Angola, Gabon, Cameroon, Central African Republic, Republic of Congo (Brazzaville) and Democratic Republic of Congo (Kinshasa). Having a huge territory, tracking western lowland gorillas is challenging in Odzala Kokoua and Langoue Bai national parks but offers an opportunity to spot central African mammal species including Bongo a spiral-horned antelope. The western lowland gorilla is the smallest of all gorilla species and its facial features are marked by pointed head, pronounced brow ridge and small ears. They have short gray-black to brownish hair that cover almost their entire body minus the face. Females, also, grow gray hair below their ears, neck and forehead as they age.
Places to see western lowland gorillas
Odzala Kokoua National Park
The protected area of Odzala Kokoua National Park (Parc National Odzala Kokoua) is located in Western Cuvette department of Republic of Congo Brazzaville. The park covers 13500 sq.km (1.3 m hectares) and is part of the Congo basin famous for harboring the second largest tropical forest in the world. Established in 1935, the park is now managed by African Parks Network (AP) and is Important Bird Area (IBA) and one of the best places to visit for lowland gorilla safari. The park contains the largest population of western lowland gorillas estimated to be 250 000 individuals of which three groups have been habituated for tourism.
Mambili and Lekoli Rivers flow through the southern part of the park creating several channels which offer a chance for visitors to go on kayaking trips. In the dense forest, kayaking is the best activity to spot wildlife in Odzala Kokoua National Park comprising of 100 mammal species including forest elephants and buffaloes, Bongo (spiral-horned antelope), forest leopard, giant forest hog; 440 species of birds most of which are Congo Biome Endemics including Nkulengu rail, piping hornbill, purple heron, Congo serpent eagle, African fin foot, African gray parrot among other notable birds of Odzala Kokoua such as spot-breasted Ibis, palm-nut vulture, Pel’s and African fishing owls, Narina tragon, guinea and great blue turaco, Eurasian, swamp, Bate’s and long-tailed nightjars, red-necked, scaly and Latham’s francolins, grey-necked rockfowl, Hartlaub’s duck, black and plumed guinea fowls, Zenker’s honey guide, yellow-capped weaver, black-eared ground thrush among others such as 10 different species of kingfishers. Oldzala, also, boats of harboring 11 primate species including chimpanzee, western lowland gorillas, Debrazza monkey, black and white colobus monkeys, grey-cheeked mangabays, among others.
In addition to the primary lowland tropical forests, the park contains 4500 species of plants including salines – natural forest plains known as ‘bais’ which look like swamps and savannah grasslands in the middle of the dense forest. Rich in mineral salts, salines attract forest elephants and buffaloes, Bongo and Bate’s pygmy antelope, giant forest and red river hogs, gorillas, sitatunga which regularly come out of the forest to graze in the open.
Activities to do in Odzala Kokoua National Park
Odzala is a destination for nature and adventure lovers and offers Lowland gorilla trekking, kayaking, bird watching and night forest walks. Those intending to visit the park can book their safari through a tour operator or Discovery Camps which offer luxury accommodation including Ngaga concession – a tree house retreat and base for gorilla research, Mbako and Lango Camp on the banks of Lekoli River. The camps offers night walks, kayaking and visits to the local community of Congo forest pygmies. The best time to visit the park for lowland gorilla tour is in the dry season from June to August and during December to February. The wet season occurs in March to May and September to November. Odzala Kokoua National Park can be accessed by air through Mbandaka airport which is a trading port on the Congo River in Equateur district DR Congo. The park is 565 sq.km from Brazzaville the capital city which takes 10-hour drive.
Western lowland gorillas in Gabon
Gabon is located in central Africa and its border touches the Atlantic Ocean in the west. With a population of 2.2 million people, Gabon is one of the least populated French-speaking countries in the world and 85% of its total land area about 267667 sq.km (103347 sq. miles) is covered by tropical forests in the Congo basin.
Having both the tropical forests and more than 885 sq.km of coastline along the Atlantic Ocean, Gabon is an emerging travel destination and a must visit hidden gem in Africa. Famous for her 35000 population of western lowland gorillas which are found in 4 of 13 protected areas in Gabon including Langoue Bai, Lope, Loango and Moukalaba Doudan National Parks. In addition to gorillas, Gabon has a variety of flora and fauna including 50000 forest elephants, 46000 eastern chimpanzees among others such as hippos, marine wildlife such as whales and dolphins which dwell along the Atlantic Ocean coastline.
Tourism in Gabon despite being under the radar is largely nature based and western lowland gorilla safaris are gaining momentum. With support from Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS), Zoological Society in London and Max Planck Institute, the Mikongo research center was established in Lope National Park to aid gorilla tourism. Travelers intending to see western lowland gorillas can visit the park and stay at Mikongo research and participate in daily research programs. Visitors are led by French-speaking tour guides while focusing on behavior of gorillas, treks through the forests offer an opportunity to spot wildlife including gorillas, forest elephants, buffaloes and leopards among other primate species such as mandrills and mangabays. The gorilla tracking is off the beaten path experience with low visitor numbers. Gorilla visits are limited to an hour and each family is visited twice daily.
Lope National Park was established in 1947 and became a UNESCO world heritage center in 2007. The protected area covers 4910 sq.km with a variety of habitats including savannah grasslands known to have been created in the middle of the Congo basin forest during the last ice age about 15000 years ago. In addition to Lope, visitors can also take part in research programs in Ivindo (UNESCO World Heritage Site), Loango and Moukalaba National Parks. Langoue Bai, also, boasts of harboring gorillas, 90 forest elephants and large aquatic wildlife species including hippos, whales and dolphins which can be spotted. Bai contains a viewing platform (Langoue bai platform) where visitors can spend a night in a tree-house to view sunset/sunrise and listen to the sounds of elephants. Loango safari and wildlife lodge and Albert Schweitzer hospital Guest House offer accommodation for those intending to visit Gabon for lowland gorilla safari.
Western gorillas in Angola are found Maiombe Forest Reserve located in Cabinda enclave along the coast of the Atlantic Ocean and banks of Bele River. Covering about 250 000 sq.km Maiombe is one of the largest protected areas in Africa shared by Angola, Republic of Congo and Democratic Republic of Congo.
The part of Maiombe in Angola includes Cacongo Forest Reserve established in 1930 to protect two species of great apes including western lowland gorillas estimated to be 1652 individuals and over 1700 chimpanzees among other mammal species such as forest elephants. Given that the gorillas live across borders, it is challenging for a single country to manage their conservation. As one of the range states of western lowland gorillas, Angola joined the Gorilla Agreement in 2021 focusing on tourism development in Maiombe Forest Reserve.
The agreement is part of the Convention on the Conservation of Migratory Species (CMS) bringing together all 10 gorilla range states including Angola, Gabon, Equatorial Guinea, Republic of Congo (Brazzaville), Democratic Republic of Congo (Kinshasa), Cameroon, Nigeria, Central African Republic, Uganda and Rwanda to conserve all gorillas. Although there are no habituated gorillas, the reserve has been opened for tourism and offers nature walks an opportunity for visitors to encounter wildlife including western lowland gorillas, chimpanzees and forest elephants.
Central African Republic
Central African Republic has one of the successful western lowland gorilla tourism and research program in Dzanga-Ndoki National Park located on the northern edge of the Congo basin south-west of Bangui the capital city.
Established in 1990, the park is at low altitude 340m to 615 meters above sea level and contains tropical lowland tropical forests, marshy depressions and rivers including Sangha River which form an important area biodiversity. Wildlife in Dzanga-Ndoki National Park includes 11 primate species including western lowland gorillas, chimpanzees among others such as De Brazza’s monkeys, Angola colobus monkey, and mandrills.
Several forest mammal species including forest elephant and buffaloes, Bongo, leopard among six species of duikers such as red river hog, Sitatunga, blue, red and yellow-backed duikers and 350 species of birds including Sangha forest robin.
Western lowland gorillas which are the main attractions are found in southern sector of the park called Dzanga Bai where a Primate Habituation Program was established in 1997 by World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) working along with the government. The program has successfully habituated three gorilla families including two that are under habituation which has attracted gorilla tracking safaris in Dzanga-Ndoki National Park.
Western lowland gorilla tourism and research play a significant role in generating funding for WWF conservation activities to combat poaching and habitat destruction including anti-poaching patrols and primate habituation program; rural tourism development including working with Baaka pygmies, supporting health and education.
Tourism in Dzanga bai sector, also, boasts of harboring Bai Hokou known as a “village of elephants” there are over 4000 forest elephants that graze in the marshy depressions (bai). Elephants, gorillas and Bongos are easy to see anytime of the year with March and April, December to February being the dry season and best time to visit Dzanga-Ndoki while August to October is great time for bird watching.
Covering 1143.26 sq.km, Dzanga-Ndoki National Park along with Nouabale-Ndoki and Lobeke National Park in Cameroon form the Sangha Tri-national Complex a three country trans-boundary protected area for conservation of western lowland gorillas, chimpanzees and elephants was inscribed on the list of UNESCO world heritage centers in 2012.
Equatorial Guinea is the only Spanish-speaking country located in central Africa consisting of two off-shore islands including Bioko and Annobon. Rio Muni the mainland covering 26017 sq.km is an important area for wildlife conservation in Equatorial Guinea including western lowland gorillas estimated to be 3800 individuals in Monte Alen National Park.
There are 105 mammal species including forest elephants, 16 primate species including gorillas, chimpanzees, mandrills and 265 species of birds. These include Guinea-Congo biome forest species such as black-capped woodland warbler, grey-necked rockfowl, Pink-footed puff back, spot-breasted ibis, African fin-foot, forest swallow, Rachel’s malimbe, among others.
The protected area of Monte Alen in Rio Muni is the largest in Equatorial Guinea and covers 2000 sq.km that contains a series of lakes and waterfalls, rock kopjes, lowland evergreen forested hills including Montre Mitra ranging from 250 m to 1140 meters above sea level.
With a population 3800 gorillas, there are guided treks that offers visitors a chance to spot the great apes including chimpanzees, mammal species including forest elephant and aquatic wildlife species such as hippos, crocodiles, goliath frog etc. Accommodation is limited and a trip requires that you plan to stay in Rio Muni and make day trips to the park.
Before the park was gazetted in 1990, the area was granted for logging and agro-forestry activities. Levels of poaching animals for bush meat and habitat loss were high and in 2005 it was estimated the gorilla numbers decline from 3800 to 2000 individuals as indicated by the Bristol Zoological Society working along the Biodiversity Institute and the Ministry of Forests and Environment in Equatorial Guinea and across central Africa gorilla range states since 2003.
Wildlife conservation projects are a new occurrence in the country including the Integrated Development and Conservation of Monte Alen and Elephant Conservation Plan were established in 2002 along with a proposal for creation of 13 protected areas including Altos de Nsork, Monte Alen, Pico Basile, Malabo, Orango, Badiar, Cacheu River, Haunt Niger, Joao Viera and Poilao national parks. The country is looking forward into setting up a national institute for protected areas as an autonomous agency to improve tourism and wildlife conservation in Equatorial Guinea.
With the best places to see gorillas in Africa explained, choosing a gorilla tour should be easier. The first step is knowing the gorilla species you want to see and the country they are found in. For those intending to visit mountain gorillas, Uganda, Rwanda and DR Congo’s Virunga National Park offer the best gorilla trekking safaris; for eastern lowland (Grauer’s gorillas) go to Kahuzi-Beiga National Park in DR Congo and for western lowland gorillas, choose Odzala-Kokoua in Republic of Congo and Dzanga-Sangha National parks in Central African Republic.