“In the heart of Central Africa, so high up that you shiver more than you sweat,” wrote the eminent primatologist Dian Fossey, “are great, old volcanoes towering up almost 15,000 feet, and nearly covered with rich, green rain forest – the Virunga Mountains.
Rwanda is well known for its mountain gorillas. First brought to international attention by the conservation efforts of Dian Fossey in the 1960s and 70s, Rwanda’s gorillas have featured in numerous documentaries and have in the recent past been visited, for example, by Bill Gates, Natalie Portman and Ted Turner, who have all participated in the annual gorilla naming ceremony.
Mountain gorillas are the best known inhabitants of Volcanoes National Park. These great apes are the true stars of the Virunga Mountains and have made the park famous around the world. Over 380 mountain gorillas live in Parc Nationale des Volcanoes and gorilla trekking is the ultimate wildlife experience that you cannot miss within the park.
Gorillas are the largest living primates. They are spread across much of the equatorial African rain forest. Broadly speaking, the species is split into lowland gorillas and mountain gorillas.
The volcanic ranges which spans Rwanda, Uganda and the Democratic Republic of the Congo is home to the endangered mountain gorilla. Tracking gorillas in Rwanda is safe and relatively accessible.
Most of the Virunga gorillas live in the central area of Volcanoes National Park and in the triangles area formed by Mt. Visoke, Mt.Karisimbi, and Mt. Mikeno. Among the habituated groups for tourism, a few have their home range to the slopes of Mt. Sabyinyo and Mt. Gahinga.
According to the latest gorilla census, there are about 1060 mountain gorillas left in the the whole world. The last Virunga Census put the population of the mountain gorillas at 604 individuals. The population is slowly increasing, thanks to concerted efforts between our governments, communities and NGOs.
There are twelve gorilla families living in the Volcanoes National Park that are fully habituated for tourism. A few others are habituated solely for scientific research. The groups or troops, consist of at least one silverback along with several females and youngsters.
The troops are somewhat fluid in composition, but tend to stick to a preferred area. They are constantly monitored and protected by park rangers, with each group coming into contact with tourists for a strict maximum of one hour per day.
Eight gorilla permits are issued per troop per day, meaning the encounter is as intimate and as unobtrusive as possible. With only 96 permits available each day in Rwanda, it is highly recommended to book in advance, either online or via a reputable tour operator.
History of the Mountain Gorillas in Rwanda
“Between the 23th and 24th October 1899, I passed a wonderful primeval forest, where the natives claim a big human like ape lives.” Thus, wrote Robert von Beringe in his report on the expedition he took from Bukoba (one of the ports on the shores of Lake Victoria) to Lake Edward, skirting the north west edge of today’s Bwindi Impenetrable Forest. After three years, on 17th October 1902, Robert Von came face to face with the mountain gorillas on a diplomatic visit to the King of Rwanda and the German outposts. He saw these great apes on the slopes of the Sabinyo Volcano. He became the first white man to see a troop of mountain gorillas. Reports indicate that he shot two and the photographs and remains of the apes led to the identification of the primates as Gorilla Gorilla Beringei by the Berlin Natural Science Museum.
Robert von Beringe (1865 – 1940), was among the small elite of white professional officers of the German East Africa Protectorate Force. This force was created in 1891 and the Germans had started penetrating into Tanzania in the mid 1880. The Germans consolidated their position in the 1890’s and traveled into the inland of Africa along caravan routes. By 1896 Germany had set up an outpost in Usumbura (Bujumbura). This outpost was in charge of both Burundi and Rwanda. Robert Von Beringe was resident at the outpost as a captain from August 1902 to February 1904.
During his time, he took several expeditions to establish German ascendancy over the traditional rulers. The Germans were trying to make several territorial claims against the Belgians who were pushing east from the Zaire (current Democratic Republic of Congo). Beringe also had interests in geographical discoveries within this area and he is credited for contributing to the detailed mapping out of the volcanoes region. He also “discovered” Lake Bunyonyi of Uganda in 1899.
There are two mountain populations in the world. One population live within the Virunga Massif, an area that spreads over the Democratic Republic of Congo, Uganda and Rwanda. The other population resides within the Bwindi National Park in Uganda. The mountain gorilla is a subspecies of the Eastern group and its scientific name is the Gorilla Beringei Beringei.
After chimpanzees, gorillas are the closest relatives of humans. The mountain gorillas share about 97.7% of our DNA.
Mountain gorillas are only found in Africa and do not survive in captivity. This is the best reason as to why are not found in zoos.
There are ten families living in the Volcanoes National Park that are fully habituated and available for visits by the public (whilst others are habituated for scientific research purposes only) . Each family consists of at least one Silverback (but sometimes as many and four), along with several females and a group of youngsters.
- Susa — The largest group with 38 gorillas. They’re hardest to trek as they tend to range high into the mountains. They have rare 5 year old twins named Byishimo and Impano.
- Sabinyo— 17 members Sabyinyo is an easily accessible group led by the powerful silverback Guhonda.
- Amahoro — 19 gorillas, led by teh calm and easy going Ubumwe. To reach Amahoro it’s usually a fairly steep climb but it is well worth it!
- Agashya — (formerly known as Group 13) today it has 22 members – a very positive sign for conservation.
- Kwitonda— 23 members led by Akarevuro, originally habituated in DRC so they tend to range quite far making it a moderately difficult trek.
- Umubano —a family of 13, who broke off from Amahoro with leader, Charles,
- Hirwa —this group has 18 members and only fairly recently formed from former Group 13 and Sabyinyo family members. They are led by Munyinya.