There are currently less than 900 mountain gorillas in the world and they can only be found in Uganda, Rwanda and the Congo. They do not survive in captivity, so it is not even possible to see a mountain gorilla in a zoo. The parks take the conservation of the gorillas very seriously and the permit to go into the park is ridiculously expensive (but at least is supposedly used to fund the protection and conservation of the gorillas). Once you find the gorillas, you are only allowed approximately one hour to observe them and take pictures before you have to leave, so as not to disrupt them too much.
To say the park is remote would be an understatement. It is an 11 hour drive from the airport in Kampala, the last few hours of which are up a makeshift dirt road up a mountain. Then to get to the park itself, it is another hour plus hike up the mountain. On our scheduled permit day, we arrived at the park and were split into small tracking groups...we were placed into a group of four. Each group is assigned a different family of gorillas to find (each family ranges from about 9-20 gorillas). The rangers know where the gorillas were the previous day, but they can move 10+miles in a day, so they need to be found again. A group of professional trackers get out into the jungle early to try to find each family. It can take anywhere from 1-6 hours after we enter the jungle to find them. Fortunately for us, after about an hour and a half of us hiking through the woods, we got the call that our family had been spotted.
They don't call it the “impenetrable” forest for nothing. Our guides led the way, slashing branches and vines with machetes, but that didn't help much as we tripped and stumbled over VERY dense brush. It is hard to describe, but basically it felt like you were right smack dab in the middle of a giant shrub at every moment. Everyone slipped and fell at least once and fortunately did not fall over one of the giant cliffs that dotted the landscape. When we finally arrived, we were immediately greeted by a giant, 550lb silverback gorilla in a tree. The silverback is the adult male and there is usually 1 or 2 per family. He was an impressive thing to watch. The jungle was so dense though, that when he climbed down from the trees, we couldn't see much. During our hour, in addition to the giant silverback, we also were treated to a tiny baby gorilla struggling to climb a tree, a juvenile having some fun pounding his chest at us (apparently they really do do that) and got to see 4-5 other members of the family. It was great watching these rare, gigantic animals in nature.
Here are some photos of the gorillas. Click on any picture to bring up a larger photo gallery:
This was supposed to be the appetizer of the trip because the chimpanzees are not as rare as the mountain gorillas and often are skittish and hide way up in the trees, but actually this ended up being an even better experience than seeing the gorillas. We had heard from past stories that it can take several hours and hiking for many miles to see the chimps, and even then you might only get to see 1 or 2 chimps from a distance, but we really lucked out on our trek. As soon as we entered the jungle, the chimps could be heard hollering loudly. The sounds the chimps make was really quite overwhelming... and slightly intimidating. As we approached the raucous group, we found a few that were hanging out on the ground and let us get within a few feet of them. Then the leader of the group arrived with a few of his friends and the place went nuts. There were over 40 chimps around us, screaming their heads off, running back and forth past us, climbing up and down trees and swinging from branch to branch. You really felt like you were a part of their community with all the noise and commotion going on around you. One of the guides that is with us has a heavy duty machine gun, as the chimps are much stronger than us (5-6 times stronger), so they make sure things don't get too out of hand.
Here are some pictures of the chimps...click to enlarge: