By Jonathan Benaiah (The Ugandan Tourist)

Gorilla tracking is in the greatest simplicity, the activity of pursuing a family of habituated mountain gorillas in their natural habitat on foot in a group of utmost 8 tourists, with the help of ranger guides offering an opportunity to spend a full hour with the gorilla family on sight.

A whole lot has been written and said about mountain gorillas and the coveted activity of mountain gorilla tracking; from articles in newspapers, magazines and stories on National Geographic and CNN International to blogs on websites of Tourism Boards, Tour Operators and Travel Agents, not forgetting the narration of personal stories by tourists who’ve been fortunate enough to take selfies with the gorillas. So the discussion on the mountain gorilla species (Gorilla Beringei Beringei) is not a new one.

A tourist takes a photo of a mountain gorilla in Rwanda. Unknown photographer

A few days ago (on 6th May 2017) some of the most surprising news surfaced about a decision by Rwanda Development Board (RDB) to double the price of mountain gorillas from US$750 to US$1500 with immediate effect and without consultation or prior notice.

In their statement, RDB informed the public that this was a sober decision made on the notion that with a higher price, Rwanda would be able to increase the percentage of revenue sharing directly ploughed back to the local communities, to increase revenue to government for facilitating improvement in infrastructure, to position Rwanda as a luxury (high-end) destination; and a green destination.

A gorilla monument at the entrance tie headquarters of Volcanoes National Park in Rwanda

Several people have gone to social media mainly Twitter to either praise or rubbish the unexpected move by the fast developing African nation. Other commentaries have marked Rwanda’s decision as one with a long term view while other statements including a media release by the Rwanda Tourism and Travel Association (RTTA) have signaled worry for the tourism industry in the young East African country.

A statement dated 8th May 2017 was also issued by AUTO (Association of Uganda Tour Operators) in which tour operators in Uganda advised the Uganda Wildlife Authority not to follow suit, but maintain the permit at an affordable rate for all tourists to enjoy this special once in a lifetime experience regardless of whether they are a budget, midrange or luxury traveler.

Quite a number of people have said that Rwanda’s price hike was done irrespective of the competitor’s price (who is about 2 hours away) whose gorilla permit is only US$600 for Foreign Non Residents, US$500 for Foreign Residents and Uganda Shillings 250,000 for East Africans during the high season. We have been reliably informed that Uganda will maintain the price of the gorilla permit at the current rate and will maintain the discounted low season permits at the prevailing rates of US$450, US$400 and Uganda Shillings 150,000 for Foreign Non Residents, Foreign Residents and East Africans respectively. This blankly makes Uganda’s permit more than US$800 cheaper than the Rwandan permit to see the same species of gentle giant apes.

Uganda Wildlife Authority, the body responsible for conserving and promoting Uganda’s wildlife also offers a gorilla habituation experience where a tourist only pays US$1500 and gets up to 4 hours with a gorilla family that is undergoing habituation; offering an opportunity for tourists to see more than what any other tourist sees in the confines of the 60 minutes’ window of the normal gorilla tracking activity.

A female mountain gorilla with her baby photographed in Bwindi Impenetrable National Park, Uganda

Another commentary mainly by economists suggests that Rwanda is trying to reap as much money from gorilla tourism as possible before gorilla tourism seizes to be a cash cow. This school of thought suggests that all products have a lifespan beyond which they cease to attract a huge fraction of buyers.

The world has about 880 mountain gorillas protected by 3 countries; Rwanda, Democratic Republic of Congo and Uganda. The gorillas reside in 4 national parks, Volcanoes National Park in Rwanda, Virunga National Park in Congo DR, and Uganda’s Mgahinga Gorilla National Park and Bwindi Impenetrable National Park.

A female mountain gorilla caught on camera

Bwindi, a World Heritage Site (WHS) in her singularity shelters close to half of the world’s gorilla population, about 448 mountain gorillas. The remaining estimated 432 gorillas are found within the greater Virunga Conservation Area that stretches from Volcanoes National Park in Rwanda to Virunga National Park in Congo DR and Mgahinga Gorilla National Park.

Rwanda claims to protect about 62% of the gorillas in the Virunga massif, which would in the literal imply approximately 268 mountain gorillas with the remnant Virunga population being shared between Uganda’s Mgahinga Gorilla National Park and Congo DR’s Virunga National Park.

With the abrupt increment in price of Rwanda’s gorilla permit, some observers have been asking pertinent questions and mounting concerns about how the move is projected to suffocate smaller tour operators and budget or down-market accommodations because in the literal, luxury travelers (who Rwanda is visibly targeting) will not book the cheaper budget accommodations. The smaller lodges are therefore expected to close and the smaller Rwandan tour Operators will either divert to flying clients into Kigali and then transferring them to the more affordable parks in Uganda’s Mgahinga Gorilla National Park and Bwindi, or if not they’ll simply close shop.

For the past couple of years; 3 East African countries; Rwanda, Kenya and Uganda have fashioned a Joint Marketing approach dubbed “Destination East Africa” under the tagline “Seamless borders”, championed by the East African Tourism Platform (EATP). Efforts are already visible through a single tourist visa accessible at US$100 permitting travel among the 3 countries as well as joint running of expos under a single destination stand “Destination East Africa”.

Engagements among the 3 Nation States have suggested uniform standards across the board, and preferably similar rates for “Destination East Africa” especially where products are entirely or closely identical. Whether Rwanda dishonored the spirit of regional integration by hiking the gorilla permit fee or not, the public can only ponder while EATP thinks through the possibilities and impossibilities of integration.

In a television debate hosted by Rwanda Broadcasting Agency, Ms. Carmen Nibigira, the coordinator of East African Tourism Platform advised that Rwanda should not kill the goose that has been laying the golden egg, referring to gorilla tourism. During the same debate Mr. David Mugisha a tour operator and member of the lobbyist committee of Rwanda Tours and Travel Association (RTTA) stated that the price hike has already placed drastic challenges on Rwandan tour operators with many of them shifting to smaller offices and laying-off workers in an effort to realistically meet operational costs. David mentioned that the abrupt price hike will not only impact on Tour Operators but lodges, as well as local communities that have been supported by many of the smaller tour operators and down-market accommodation faculties through philanthropy.

Tour operators in Uganda have been cited making behind the curtain communications about how an unusual upsurge of bookings and snowing of enquiries for gorilla safaris has increased, while some intending tourists are diverting travel plans from Rwanda to the more affordable neighbor, the famed “Pearl of Africa”. Whether Rwanda’s decision was a genius or off-targeted move, the contemporary statement is time will tell, and the laws of the market will continue to dictate.

Our message from The Uganda Safari News is that Gorilla tracking is a special activity and many travelers have narrated how unique and magical the experience of looking into the eyes of a giant silverback mountain gorilla, or how heartwarming the sight of younger cute little gorillas playing among themselves is. Some tourists have called this the very best wildlife experience ever!

A juvenile mountain gorilla doing his thing. Unknown photographer

We hope that all tourists get an opportunity to see these remarkable and invaluable species at least once in a lifetime given that the activity is run within the confines of ecosystem carrying capacity, with a sense of sustainability and with tangibly visible benefits to the local communities.

A few insights on gorilla tracking right here

What you want to know about Uganda right here 

Written by 

My old folks call me Jonathan Benaiah but I prefer to go by as “The Ugandan Tourist“. I love to travel, write, take photos (of nature mostly). Ask me my best kind of trips and I'll tell you that it's those moments which allow me enough time in the African bush.