POST UPDATED: May 17, 2024

Remember this viral YouTube video showing a tourist being touched by wild mountain gorillas? It no doubt inspired thousands to go and visit mountain gorillas in a search to recreate this experience ever since.

Now that gorilla trekking tourism has fully rebounded after the recent COVID-19 pandemic, unfortunately many videos of near or direct contact are still being shared across social media with well-intentioned visitors likely having no idea they may be putting the gorillas at serious risk (even if they are wearing a mask)!

Mountain gorilla family.

Mountain gorilla family. © Skyler Bishop for Gorilla Doctors

We understand the innate desire to connect with one of our closest relatives – it is why we do the work we do! But such close contact with this endangered species is not in the best interest of its conservation. Disease transmission due to contact with humans is a very real problem for eastern gorillas. In fact, our research has shown that human-borne pathogens can cause severe illness in mountain gorillas. Respiratory diseases, some of which are human in origin, are the second leading cause of death in eastern gorillas.

And of course, since the COVID-19 pandemic, we now intimately understand the interconnected, global village we share. Whether you go to see the gorillas or are far away, you can play a positive role in helping to keep them healthy!

Here are 10 ways in which you can help:

1. Trek to see eastern gorillas in Rwanda, DR Congo, or Uganda

Without gorilla tourism and extreme conservation efforts including veterinary care and close monitoring of individual animals, mountain gorillas might have gone extinct. And Grauer’s gorillas are still in serious decline. The regions where both mountain and Grauer’s gorillas live are home to the densest human populations in Africa. Park staff, researchers, veterinarians, conservationists and tourists from around the world enter gorilla habitat daily, increasing the potential risk of disease transmission. But we also know that these human activities have directly contributed to the recovery of mountain gorillas – the only great ape in the wild whose numbers are increasing.

Additionally, a portion of trekking permit fees are reinvested into active conservation and community development projects that help support the well-being of the humans who live in close proximity to the national parks. So, not only will you spend a life-changing hour with the extraordinary gorillas, your time in country creates economic incentives for the continued protection of gorillas and their habitat.

Visit the tourism websites for gorilla trekking in RwandaDR Congo, and Uganda to learn more. You can also trek to see critically endangered Grauer’s gorillas at Kahuzi-Biega National Park in DR Congo.

Finally, before you trek be sure to sign the Gorilla Friendly Pledge from the International Gorilla Conservation Programme.

Silverback Grauer's gorilla.

Nabanga, a silverback Grauer’s gorilla, Kahuzi-Biega National Park, DR Congo. © Gorilla Doctors

2. Do not trek to see gorillas if you are sick

Due to the genetic similarity between humans and mountain gorillas, gorillas are susceptible to many of the same infectious diseases that affect people. Mountain gorillas are also immunologically naïve to some diseases, meaning they are particularly susceptible to certain human diseases because of their historic isolation from people. So, while it may just seem like a simple head cold to you, it could be deadly to a gorilla.

To protect gorillas from such infections, the national park authorities ask that anyone feeling sick or running a fever to not trek gorillas. Even with the mask mandate implemented during the COVID-19 pandemic, do not trek to see the gorillas. Masks play a very significant role in minimizing the risk of transmission but they are not a guarantee. Pathogens transmission can occur in other ways.

We understand that after investing time and resources into traveling to see gorillas, it would be nearly impossible to stay behind, but it simply is not worth risking the health and lives of one of our closest cousins – especially since they are already endangered! Please, put the best interest of the gorillas first.

3. Stay at least 7 meters away from the gorillas + other important safety measures

It is critically important that you always follow the safety measures and instructions of your guide. They are in place for your protection as well as the gorillas’. In order to reduce the risk of disease transmission and to avoid changing or disturbing the gorillas’ natural behavior, Gorilla Doctors have worked with national park authorities to establish the rule of staying 7 meters (21 feet) or more from the gorillas at all times. The gorillas themselves, especially youngsters, don’t know the rules and may approach humans, but tourists should make the effort to back away and avoid touching the animal if possible. The 7-meter rule should be observed at all times, even when gorillas leave the national park and venture on to property owned by tourist lodges and camps.

Masks are one of the most powerful ways you can protect the gorillas from the risk of disease transmission.

Make sure to wear your approved mask properly at all times while in the presence of the gorillas. This means keeping your nose and mouth covered. Do not pull your mask down to take photos. If you have to sneeze, even with your mask on, turn away from the gorillas and bury your face into the crook of your arm. Finally, do not leave any trash or food remains in the forest. Gorillas are curious and may pick up these items. If any trash or food has even trace amounts of bodily fluids, disease transmission can occur.

Tourists visiting a mountain gorilla family. Photo by Skyler Bishop for Gorilla Doctors.

4. Donate to conservation organizations working to protect mountain gorillas

One of the most effective ways to help mountain gorillas is to donate money to organizations working on the ground to conserve the species. Numerous organizations including Gorilla Doctors have spent decades finding effective methods for protecting mountain gorillas, and most rely on grants and donations to fund their work.

When donating your money to support any cause, it is important to evaluate the organization you are considering to determine how successful the group is in carrying out its mission. Look for the answers to questions like, “What methods does the organization use to accomplish its stated goals?” and “Does the organization have any data or statistics to show that its methods are having an impact?” Check out an organization’s website, annual reports, newsletters, and social media. Are they being specific and transparent?

Gorilla Doctors is proud to be the only organization providing direct life-saving medical care to eastern gorillas in the wild. For a long-lived, slowly reproducing species, every single life we save has a tangible impact with population-level consequences.

Research has shown that the work of the Gorilla Doctors and the anti-poaching efforts of the park rangers and trackers we work with is responsible for up to 40% of the annual growth of the human-habituated mountain gorilla population in the Virunga Massif. In 2018, mountain gorillas were down-listed by the IUCN from critically endangered to endangered – a rare conservation win!

Support Gorilla Doctors continued impact by making a donation

 Want to impact the health of eastern gorillas today and tomorrow? Learn more about our planned giving options at:

Gorilla Doctors conduct snare rescue on infant mountain gorilla

Gorilla Doctors conduct a snare rescue on infant mountain gorilla, Volcanoes National Park, Rwanda, 2020. © Gorilla Doctors

5. When visiting the region, do other activities in the parks in addition to gorilla trekking

The vast majority of tourists who visit the national parks where gorillas live spend a day or two trekking gorillas and then leave. However, all of the gorilla parks offer other amazing wilderness experiences. As with gorilla trekking, the revenue earned through these activities further incentivizes the governments and local people to protect mountain gorilla habitat. In DR Congo, you can take a beautiful boat cruise on Lake Kivu the world’s largest lava lake. Or, hike extinct volcanoes in Rwanda and Uganda, such as the snow-covered Mt. Karismibi or the fluted peaks of Mt. Sabyinyo. Both Rwanda and Uganda offer treks to see golden monkeys (another highly endangered primate), and in Rwanda you may also visit the gravesite and former research station of Dian Fossey. Ask your tour provider about the options available.

Golden monkey in Volcanoes National Park, Rwanda. © Skyler Bishop for Gorilla Doctors

Golden monkey in Volcanoes National Park, Rwanda. © Skyler Bishop for Gorilla Doctors

6. Support local businesses and community projects around the national parks

As much effort as the governments and conservation organizations put into protecting the gorillas, the support of the local people surrounding the parks is vital to ensure the preservation of gorilla habitat and the conservation of mountain gorillas. The more that local people share in tourism revenue and benefit from nonprofit and community efforts in the area, the more likely they are to want to protect the mountain gorillas. Tourists can help by frequenting local restaurants, shops, and other businesses, or by making contributions to community projects around the park. And of course, tourists can visit Gorilla Doctors regional headquarters in Musanze, Rwanda to learn more about our work and tour our state-of-the-art diagnostics laboratory. Contact Us for details.

Dr. Noel gives tour of histopathology lab room

Dr. Noel gives a tour of the histopathology room in Gorilla Doctors lab. © Skyler Bishop for Gorilla Doctors

7. Don’t buy products made with wild animal parts

While mountain gorillas are very rarely targeted by poachers, other animals living in the national parks where gorillas live are actively hunted. Poachers mostly set snares to catch small antelopes to bring home to their families for food but occasionally larger animals such as buffalo or elephants may be targeted. Gorillas often get caught in poachers’ snares set for other animals.

Furthermore, poachers’ very presence in the forest disturbs the environment and increases the risk of disease transmission. While the main purpose of poaching is to obtain bush meat, wild animal skins, bones, and ivory may be used in crafts and other items sold to tourists. If you have any doubt about a product’s origins, don’t buy it. And certainly, in the rare instance you may see or hear of someone selling a live wild animal, report it to your tour guide or the national park authorities.

8 . Trek with a tour provider that donates a portion of the trip cost towards conservation efforts

When researching tour packages to see gorillas, consider booking with a provider that directs a portion of their profits to support conservation projects. Many travel companies today have adopted sustainable tourism practices and are working hard to minimize the impact of travel. Just like when you are vetting conservation organizations to support, make sure to ask questions such as: “What organizations do you donate to?”, “How much of my trip price is being contributed to on-the-ground projects?”, “What concrete actions do you take to minimize the impact of our travel?”

Can’t go see the gorillas? Here are a few more ways to get involved:

9. Find creative ways to raise funds

Here are a few ideas to get you started:

1) Organize or participate in a fundraiser to help raise money for mountain gorilla conservation. If you are on Facebook, you can host a birthday fundraiser!

2) And of course, the classics can still be effective – bake sales, fun runs, art sales, and school projects are just a few of the ways people have raised funds for Gorilla Doctors in the past.

3) One creative donor found a consignment shop that gave sellers the option to donate their sales to the nonprofit of their choice! Ask around your community, people are always looking for ways to take action – you might be surprised how supportive people are with your ‘crazy’ ideas!

4) Double your impact with employer matching! Check HERE to see if your employer is participating (and if they aren’t, lead a campaign at your company to get it started!).

5) Do you have a product company and want to donate a portion of sales to Gorilla Doctors? Another creative idea for raising awareness and funds? Contact Us to discuss!

10. Spread the word about mountain gorilla conservation

Anyone can make a difference for the gorillas by telling their friends, family, and colleagues about the mountain gorillas and the efforts being made to save them.

1) Follow Gorilla Doctors on Facebook, Instagram, X, YouTube and LinkedIn. Help raise awareness by sharing our posts. Encourage your followers to donate and provide a link:

2) Sign up to receive our email newsletter and pass it along to anyone you think might be interested. SIGN UP HERE (we won’t flood your inbox or share your info)

3) Are you part of a community group that has events and guest speakers? Arrange for a Gorilla Doctor to give a virtual talk – we guarantee you’ll be the coolest person in your group! Contact Us to inquire.

Infant mountain gorilla, Bwindi Impenetrable National Park, Uganda.

Infant mountain gorilla, Bwindi Impenetrable National Park, Uganda. © Gorilla Doctors