For any wildlife fanatic, witnessing gorillas in their natural habitat is usually high up on the list of once-in-a-lifetime experiences. The Republic of the Congo has long been known as one of the best places in the world for spotting these beautiful creatures, despite the fact that they can be elusive without an expert guide by your side.
All species of gorillas are currently classified as endangered. Some—such as the mountain gorillas of Rwanda and Uganda—have dwindled in population numbers to less than 1,000 over the past few decades.
These facts make seeing gorillas in the Congo one of those experiences that only a lucky few in the world will ever undertake. With expert leaders, however, seeing these majestic creatures is easier than ever. You just have to be willing to get off the beaten path and into the thick, dense forests of Africa in order to find them!
The Rich and Varied Congo Basin
The Congo Basin is a vast expanse of biodiverse land—the second largest tropical rainforest in the world. It stretches across the Republic of the Congo (a.k.a. Congo-Brazzaville), Cameroon, the Central African Republic, Equatorial Guinea, the Democratic Republic of Congo, and Gabon.
The habitat here is a mixture of rivers, swamps, forests, and savannahs, making it a fertile paradise for creatures of all shapes and sizes. This area of central Africa is teeming with life, and is home to endangered species of elephants, chimpanzees, monkeys, more than 1,000 species of birds, and, of course, both mountain and western lowland gorillas. People travel here from all across the globe to discover a gigantic array of wildlife that is found in few other corners of the world.
There are also around 80 million people living in this region. Historians believe that humans have been present in the Congo Basin for some 50,000 years now. Around 250 different ethnic groups are recognized here, with the Baka (a.k.a. Bayaka, the semi-nomadic hunter-gatherers formerly referred to as pygmies) being among the most well-known.
Spotting Gorillas in Odzala-Kokoua
The critically endangered western lowland gorilla ranks among the most populous and widespread of all gorilla species. They are smaller than other gorillas, with brown coats as opposed to that iconic sooty black color, and can weigh up to 440 pounds. Poaching and disease (including the Ebola virus) have become their biggest threats, with numbers declining by 60% in the last 25 years.
Odzala-Kokoua National Park is one of the best places in the Republic of the Congo to spot groups of western lowland gorillas in their natural surroundings. This park’s size cannot be underestimated. It’s larger than the island of Jamaica, and it’s thought it would take six months to circumnavigate the entire thing on foot. Having been dedicated as a national park in 1935, it is one of the oldest national parks on the continent.
Western lowland gorillas tend to live deep in the heart of this rich habitat. Unlike the mountain gorillas in Rwanda or Uganda, which visitors will often see resting, the western lowland gorilla usually takes its downtime in well-covered areas. So they’re best spotted when they’re active. With the help of experienced trackers, guests to Odzala-Kokoua National Park can see families of western lowland gorillas playing, feeding, and climbing through the trees.
Discover It For Yourself
Zegrahm’s new Gorillas of the Congo expedition is the perfect experience for connecting travelers with these gentle giants. Guests are initially set up at Ngaga Camp, a base just outside Odzala-Kokoua National Park’s boundaries, with balconies situated high up in the rainforest canopies.
The most alluring aspect of this accommodation for wildlife lovers is that it sits within viewing range of western lowland gorilla families, each of which has up to 25 individuals. The surrounding foliage— marantaceae (a.k.a. arrowroot, or prayer plants)—is what attracts these groups. It grows on the forest floor, and the gorillas use it for making nests and creating cover.
Guests are taken out in small groups of four with an expert tracker and guide to observe these gorilla families. Getting relatively close to these amazing animals, you’ll learn more about their mannerisms and behavioral patterns, which can differ between certain groups. Since there are so few guests on each excursion, there are plenty of opportunities to ask questions. Or you can simply savor your time in the peaceful surroundings, blending in with the forest while observing the gorillas on their home turf.
And it’s not just gorillas that you can see in this abundant rainforest environment. On these treks to find the notorious primates, it’s also common to spot chimpanzees, putty-nosed and colobus monkeys, and gray-cheeked mangabeys, plus a wide array of bird life and insects scurrying across the forest floor. Scattered throughout the area are hides that you can tuck yourself away into, leaving yourself unknown to the animals. It’s perfect for watching elephants or buffalo wander by without disturbing them.
Guests will then head off to the park’s Mboko Camp. It’s set on the banks of the Lekoli River, in a savannah environment that gives visitors a different feel of the Congo Basin. You’ll take boat rides on the river, offering a chance to spot hippos and crocodiles. There’s also a sunrise trek to Mbouebe Bai, a common gathering spot for elephants, buffalo, and hyenas, with birds wheeling overhead.
Following this, guests will be transferred via kayak to Lango Camp, where the rooms look out over marshy surroundings that attract lots of bushbuck and buffalo. There will be guided walks in the local area, connecting guests to the curiosities of the forest. You can sling on your boots and wade through saline marshes to discover their swamp life, and spend your evenings gazing up at pristine skies saturated with a million stars.
There’s no doubt that seeing western lowland gorillas in the Congo is an unbeatable wildlife experience. But when that is enveloped alongside these other inspiring wildlife encounters, it makes for an adventure that will stay with you for a lifetime. With the endangered classification of numerous species found in the Congo, it’s more important than ever that we use this kind of tourism to help protect these delicate habitats, learning more about the basin and its cacophony of life along the way.
Emma Higgins is a travel writer who’s been working in the industry since 2010. Her website, Gotta Keep Movin’, documents her travel across the globe through online content, a podcast, and an annual print journal. Her latest book, A Year in Portugal, is out now.