The mountain gorillas of the Virungas are highly endangered African ape subspecies, with a total estimated population of 880 existing only in the Virunga Conservation Area shared amongst the 3 Africa countries of Rwanda, Democratic Republic of Congo and Uganda.
African mountain gorillas distribution in the Virunga Volcanic mountain ranges is limited to an approximate area of 447 km2, which encompasses the Mgahinga Gorilla National Park in south western Uganda, the Parc National des Volcans of Rwanda and the Mikeno sector of the Virunga National Park of the Democratic Republic of Congo.
Map Showing the Distribution of Mountain Gorillas in Africa
Volcanoes National Park comprises of about 160 km2 of montane forest which, until Rwanda’s independence in 1962, was part of Africa’s first national park (the Parc National Albert). This was created in 1925 with an intention of protecting the great apes.
Safari packages are organized to see wild mountain gorilla groups since 1955 with the first attempts at habituation for this purpose occurring as early as 1966. Today, gorilla tourism is Rwanda’s number one foreign exchange earner, and very many tour and travel companies in Kampala and Kigali are organizing different gorilla safaris in Rwanda and Uganda. However, gorilla tourism in DRC is hindered by some political unrest, but sometimes tourists go there and enjoy the trek in DR Congo.
The number of visitors per gorilla group is limited to 8 persons per day as a way to conserve their habitat.
Virunga’s first official mountain gorilla tourism program was launched in 1979 by Bill Webber and
Amy Vedder. This was funded by conservation organizations such as African Wildlife Foundation (AWF), World Wide Fund for Nature and Fauna among others.
This Mountain Gorilla Project aimed at enforcing anti-poaching and education programs as well as providing the Rwandan government and park authorities an incentive to conserve the mountain gorilla habitat, promoting sustainable tourism and generating local employment in tourism industry.
This program later-on evolved into today’s International Gorilla Conservation Program (IGCP), responsible to protecting this endangered specie and its habitat.
Two wild gorilla families were at first habituated for tourism purposes (gorilla tracking), and the number of visitors per day was limited to 8 persons (in a group) per day, and the length of stay was limited to 60 minutes (Maximum). The combination of quality control and international interest in Dian Fossey’s highly publicized mountain gorilla studies resulted increased number of tourists to Rwanda to see gorillas in the wild throughout the 1980s, peaking close to 70.000 in 1989.
The presence of mountain gorilla tourism attracted almost 22.000 tourists into Rwanda to its 3 national parks of Nyungwe forest, Akagera and Volcanoes National Park in 1990.
This trend was encouraging as the world was seriously picking interest in gorilla tours in Rwanda. However in 1994, Rwanda gorilla tourism collapsed because of the genocide. The parks were closed until 1999. Tourist arrivals have rebounded from 417 park visit that year 1999 to almost 20.000 tourists in the year 2008, of which 17.000 came purposely to see the critically endangered mountain gorillas in Volcanoes National park.
The high seasons for Rwanda gorilla tourism are between June and September, Mid December to Mid march. The demand for gorilla permits is high in such seasons and they are sold out quickly most of the time. Low seasons are from Mid March to May, October up to Mid December.