Gorilla tracking in Rwanda in Volcanoes National Park the Virungas is a peerless wildlife experience, and one of Africa’s indisputable travel highlights Rwanda Mountain Gorilla Families in Volcanoes National Park. It is difficult to describe the simple exhilaration attached to first setting eyes on a wild mountain gorilla. These are enormous animals: the silverbacks weigh about three times as much as the average man and their bulk is exaggerated by a shaggily luxuriant coat. And yet despite their fearsome size and appearance, gorillas are remarkably peaceful creatures, certainly by comparison with most primates – gorilla tracking would be a considerably more dangerous pursuit if these gentle giants had the temperament of vervet monkeys, say, baboons [or for that matter, humans].
GORILLA TREKKING IN RWANDA
More impressive even than the gorilla’s size and bearing is their unfathomable attitude to their daily human visitors, which differs greatly from that of any other wild animal. Anthropomorphic as it might sound, almost everybody who visits the gorillas experiences an almost mystical sense of recognition: we regularly had one of the gorillas break off from chomping on bamboo to study us, its soft brown eyes staring deeply into ours, as is seeking out some sort of connection.
Equally fascinating is the extent to which the gorillas try to interact with their visitors, often approaching them, and occasionally touching one of the guides in apparent greeting as they walk past. A photographic tripod raised considerable curiosity with several of the youngsters and a couple of the adults – one large female walked up to the tripod, stared ponderously into the lens, then wondered back off evidently satisfied. It is almost as if the gorilla recognize their daily visitors as a troop of fellow mates, but one too passive to pose any threat – often a youngster would put on a chest-beating display as it walked past us, safe in the knowledge that we’d accept its dominance, something it would never do to an adult gorilla. It should be here that close contact humans can expose gorillas to fatal diseases, for which reason the guides try to keep the tourists at least five meters away – but the reality is that there is little anybody can do can stop the gorillas from flouting rules of which they are unaware.]
The magical hour with the gorillas is relatively expensive and getting there – have no illusions – can be hard work. The hike up to the mountain gorillas’ preferred habitat of bamboo forest involves a combination of steep slopes, dense vegetation, slippery underfoot conditions after rain, and high altitude. For all that, the more accessible gorilla groups can be visited by reasonably fit adults of any age, and in 15 years of African travel, we have yet to meet anybody who has gone gorilla tracking and regretted the financial or physical expenses.
GUIDELINES FOR VISITORS WHILE TRACKING GORILLAS IN RWANDA
Rules and guidelines have been carefully developed to try to protect the mountain gorillas’ health and safety. As mentioned previously, Gorillas are extremely susceptible to human diseases and infections and become stressed if too many visitors arrive or approach too closely. Remember that they are wild individuals, and very protective of their young. To remain healthy and survive these apes need to be undisturbed by visitors and allowed to eat, rest and socialize with their own species.
RULE 1: If a tourist is ill, the park Staff has the right to refuse a visit to gorillas.
RULE 2: Only one visit is allowed per day and the number of tourists is limited to eight or six per group.
RULE 3: Visitors must be at least fifteen years old.
RULE 4: The time spent with great Apes is limited to one hour.
RULE 5: Flash photographic is not permitted.
RULE 6: All visitors must remain at least seven meters away from Gorillas at times. If the great apes approach to two or three meters (as curious juveniles sometimes do) then visitors should slowly retreat back to five meters. If this is not possible, then the visitors will be asked to remain where they are. The guide’s instructions should be followed at all times. Keep your backpack and other items in places where young Gorillas can’t approach and investigate them.
RULE 7: Tourists should remain in a tight group, without spreading out or surrounding the great apes.
RULE 8: Where possible, visitors should sit or crouch whilst watching the Gorillas.
RULE 9: Body language is important, and visitors should not raise hands or arms, or point, nor stare at them.
RULE 10: Visitors should not clear vegetation close to Gorillas so that they get a better view.
RULE 11: If a silverback gorilla beat his chest, displays or charges at you, do not run away. Tourist guides are asked to stop tourists from moving or running.
RULE 12: Eating, drinking and smoking are not permitted near the Gorillas, or within 200 meters of them.
RULE 13: Visitors should be as quiet as possible, and whisper. If bitten by Safari ants or struck by stinging nettle, do not scream.
RULE 14: If you, the tourist, need to sneeze or cough, turn away from the great apes and try to cover your nose and mouth.
RULE 15: All faucal materials must be buried. A machete may be borrowed from guides, a thirty centimeter (ten inches) hole dug and then the hole filled.
RULE 16: All rubbish must be removed from the park, and visitors are asked to be particularly careful not to drop small items, such as, film boxes/canisters, tissues or handkerchiefs.
There are ten groups of mountain gorillas in Rwanda and these are (below information is based on the 2011 gorilla census in terms of numbers in families, and has probably changed slightly at time of writing). Rwanda Mountain Gorilla Families in Volcanoes National Park
• Susa – 28 gorillas.
This is was the second largest group of mountain gorillas with over 40 gorillas but split remaining with just 28 gorillas. It has 3 silverbacks. It was originally studied by Dian Fossey and lives on the slopes of mountain Karisimbi. The most particularity of this group is having rare twin gorilla born twice in the same group. The last event was on 19.05.2004 when 12 years old female Nyabitondore gave birth to twins male and female. She has been successfully raising these twins. Now they are three years old and these might be the first ever twins to survive in the history of Mountain gorillas. The distance from the park entrance is 3-4 hours walking.
• Sabyinyo- 9 gorillas
This group has 8 gorillas with 1 silverback,2 females,2 juveniles. It was formed after the death of the leading silverback of the group thirteen in 1992. At first, the group was known as Amavubi meaning wasps due to the hard time during the period of habituation. It was only composed of three silverbacks: Guhonda, Ryango and Ruhennyi. After the death of the leading silverback of the group thirteen, some of them took the females from group thirteen: Ijisho, Gukunda, Kampanga and later on, Safari, other females from group eleven. Thus, a new group was formed with four females and two silverbacks. The name of the group was then changed to Sabyinyo. Sabyinyo being the mountain where the group was first localized. As the group composition keeps on changing depending on the rate of birth, death, emigration and migration, new members can be found in the group as well as others left the group. This group has a particularity of its kindness and the hugest silverback in the world. This silverback likes to beat his chest showing that he is powerful. N.B Mountain gorillas leave their groups for two reasons: to avoid inbreeding or to make their own groups. The distance from the park entrance is 1 – 1 ½ hrs walking Rwanda Mountain Gorilla Families in Volcanoes National Park
• Amahoro – 17 gorillas
This group has 17 gorillas with 1 silverbacks, 2 black backs, 2 sub adults, 5 adult females, 5 babies and 2 Juveniles. The Amahoro group was opened for tourism in 2000. It is the latest group to join the group for tourism in 2000. Amahoro meaning peace, this name was chosen as a symbol of peace also due to the personality. This silverback is more relaxed and approachable. The Amahoro Group has 16 members, including several young gorillas. The distance from the park entrance is 1 – 1 ½ hrs walking
• Group 13 – 26 gorillas.
This group has 26 gorillas with 1 silverback, 11 females, 4 Juveniles and 2 babies. Contrary to the popular beliefs, group thirteen has more than thirteen individuals. This group came to be thirteen to the order in which it has been localized. At that time groups could be named according to the order in which contacted. Method initiated by Dian Fossey. This group has never had more than one silverback in its history and that is why after the death of the leading silverback Murith in 1992 it led to the loss of all adult females to other silverback forming Sabyinyo group and leaving Group thirteen with only three young males that could not lead the group. However, these young males: Munani, Nyakarima and Kwirinda stayed together until the older one named Munani turned to silverback but then Nyakarima left the group and Kwirinda died of injuries due to interaction with another group. Munani, being a silverback who wanted to form his group at any cost, had an interaction with group Sabyinyo and obtained Safari one female which was also a member of group eleven before being Sabyinyo member. He also obtained two other females Gukunda and Cyuzuzo. In 2002 the silverback died of a natural death leaving seven members with a blackback which together with the oldest female (Safari) led the group for five months until when a new silverback came to take over the group. The new Silverback which is named Agashya came with three members with him increasing the group to ten individuals. However, the blackback he met in the group refused to submit to the new silverback and left the group to a solitary life. After Agashya gained power he has increased the group for 21 individuals in only three years with nine adult females. The name Agashya meaning something special is related to ability to lead such a big group of 21 gorillas. The distance from the Park entrance is 35 – 45 minutes walking
• Umbano – 11 gorillas.
This group has 9 gorillas with 1 silverback, 1sub adult male, 3 females, 5 Juvenile and 1 infant. This was part of Amahoro group, but later split into two groups creating Umubano. In normal conditions in a group of more than one silverback, when the leader dies the group is taken by then next to him. This was not the case with Charles the leader of Umubano. After the death of the leading silverback. Charles refused to submit to the next silverback, instead left the group with two females to form his group. Ambitious and being a young silverback he has been successful in maintaining his group and gaining more females in a short time. In this group, the silverback is the happiest and the strongest of them all.
• Hirwa – 12 gorillas.
This group has 12 gorillas with 1 silverback, 6 females and juveniles. This is a new group formed by one silverback. All its members came from other formed and habituated groups. It is until now composed of nine individuals. Its particular character is that it is more peaceful
• Kwitonda – 17 gorillas
This group has 17 gorillas with 3 silverback, 4 females, 3 black backs and 3 juveniles. This group is from Democratic Republic of Congo. It arrived in 2005 with sixteen members all habituated and it was frequently visited by different tourists. The group is comprised of one silverback and two black backs, females and young ones. The leading silverback is very shy.
• Bwenge Group- 11 gorilla
This family has 11 individuals with 1 silverback called Bwenge. The group has seen the death of 6 infants in the past years however it has been consoled by the birth of two more infants. The trek to find these gorillas is quite strenuous as you hike up the steep slippery slopes of about 600m. It is the special family that featured in the famous movie “Gorillas in the mist”.
• Ugenda Group-11 gorillas
This is also called the nomadic family because of its regular movements. It is composed of 11 individuals with 2 silverbacks. Trekking this group requires more patience because you have to search for the gorillas whose location is not definite.
The above trekking times are a guideline only and as gorillas have a very large area and can move quite fast, it may take longer to locate them and visitors often walk longer than then detailed above.
The information on the gorilla group individuals changes all the time and whilst we try to keep this information as up-to-date as possible since printing some details may have changed, please check with your guides.
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