Drawing comparison in gorilla trekking within Uganda, Rwanda and Congo is one of the most challenging tasks, given the fact that the activity involves the same process, the same number of visitors trekking each gorilla group, the same amount of time spent with the Giant Apes, same natural habitat occupied by the mountain gorillas (mountainous slopes and dense forests). However, there are dissimilarities in gorilla trekking in these three countries based on gorilla permit prices, the number of permits, safety, accessibility of the Parks, and other places to explore besides gorilla trekking.
Mountain Gorilla Population and number of gorilla permits
The 2018 Mountain Gorilla Census put the total number of these Giant Apes at 1063, and the highest population is found in Uganda and sheltered within Bwindi Impenetrable Forest and Mgahinga Gorilla National Park while the remaining population is shared among Rwanda’s Volcanoes National Park and Congo’s Virunga National Park. Of the total 20 gorilla families habituated for tourism in Uganda, 19 are found in Bwindi National Park and the remaining one is in Mgahinga National Park. Therefore, a total of 176 gorilla permits are issued by Uganda Wildlife Authority (UWA) on a daily basis
Rwanda’s Volcanoes National Park boasts of the second-highest concentration of mountain gorillas as well as gorilla families. There are 12 families that are fully habituated to Rwanda gorilla trekking. With these available gorilla families, the country offers a total of 96 gorilla permits. Rwanda’s great apes were made popular by Dian Fossey’s Research and studies from 1967 until 1985 with the establishment of Karisoke Research Center.
The Virunga National Park of the Democratic Republic of Congo has the least number of mountain gorillas and obviously habituated Gorilla Families as well. A total of 8 gorilla families have been habituated for trekking by 8 visitors each group per day and this means that only 64 gorilla permits are sold every day.
Cost of Gorilla Trekking Permits
Another factor in the comparison of gorilla trekking in Uganda, Rwanda, and Congo is the cost of Gorilla Trekking Permits. A gorilla permit is simply a document that allows you to enter into the forest to search for the mountain gorillas and given the endangered status of these Giant Ape, only 8 permits are issued every day for a habituated gorilla group. Gorilla permits for Rwanda are so far the most costly, owing to the country’s focus on high-end and low-impact tourism, and were doubled in 2017 to the current $1500. The country, however, offers a 30% discount for travelers that spend 3 days in Nyungwe or Akagera National Park (pre or post-gorilla safari) thus travelers will pay $1050 per person.
Gorilla trekking permit costs for Uganda (Bwindi and Mgahinga National Parks) are cheaper (when compared to Rwanda) and include $700 per person for the foreign non-resident visitors, $600 for the foreign resident visitors, and Shs. 250,000 for the East African visitors.
Congo Gorilla Permits are so far the cheapest at $400 per person for the foreign residents and this also applies to the permits for trekking lowland gorillas in Kahuzi-Biega National Park, in the same country.
Variety of Places to lodge
Travelers preferring more intimate and luxurious Gorilla trekking experiences are invited to try out the stunning Volcanoes National Park of Rwanda. This is because of the country’s positioning and branding as a high-end gorilla trekking destination. Interestingly, the popular brands in luxury accommodation are found in Volcanoes and they include One & Only Gorilla’s Nest, Bisate Lodge, Virunga Lodge, Singita Kwitonda Lodge, and many others. However, budget and midrange travelers are also catered for in this Park.
Uganda’s gorilla tourism destinations (Bwindi and Mgahinga) mostly provide midrange and budget places of lodging, although the luxury travelers are also sorted. Therefore, the commonest and most frequently booked accommodation options are Mahogany Springs Camp, Buhoma Lodge, Clouds Mountain Gorilla Lodge, Engagi Lodge, Bakiga Lodge, Gorilla Safari Lodge and so much more. One thing you need to know is that there is something for every traveler.
The Virunga National Park offers few accommodation options in different categories (budget, midrange, and luxury) that include Tchegera Island Camp, Mikeno Lodge, Kibumba Tented Camp, Lulimbi Tented Camp, to mention but a few.
Entebbe International Airport is the main entry point for travelers into Uganda and is over 8-10 hours’ drive to Bwindi Impenetrable and Mgahinga Gorilla National parks through smooth, straight, and tarred roads until Kabale/Kisoro then bumpy as well as winding roads afterward. This makes Uganda’s gorilla destinations the most difficult-to-access but chartered and scheduled flights can be arranged to the nearby airstrips of Kihihi and Kisoro. However, one of the most exciting things about the long journeys to Bwindi Impenetrable and Mgahinga is that travelers can visit other destinations along the way such as Lake Mburo, Queen Elizabeth, and Kibale Forest National Parks.
Much as Goma Town is the nearest Town to Congo’s Virunga National Park, it is very rare for gorilla treks to begin from there but instead start from Kigali City, then crossing via the Gisenyi-Goma Border point. This makes the journey about 3-4 hours thus easier to reach than Uganda’s National Parks.
Rwanda’s Volcanoes National Park is the most accessible, approximately two and a half hours from its main entry point (Kigali International Airport) via a wonderfully paved road. For this reason, it is possible for travelers to undertake short gorilla excursions (as short as one or two day/s.
Safety and Security
As far as safety is concerned, Rwanda is said to be the safest and better managed with limited cases of crimes and corruption. Surprisingly, this country is said to be the second safest country in the African Continent.
Uganda’s destinations for gorilla tourism are also safe, but high rates of crime are recorded outside these Parks. Congo’s Virunga National Park is considered unstable for gorilla trekking, owing to the constant rebel activities within the Eastern Democratic Republic of Congo. For this reason, many Governments issue Travel Advisory to their Citizens planning to explore the country regardless of Virunga National Park is a biodiversity hot spot. The recent killing of Park Rangers in 2018 led to the indefinite closure of the Park but it has since been opened for tourism.