Mountain gorillas live in families and show a high level of socialization. Within the Volcanoes National Park, there are several families that roam the park. Of these, several families have been habituated for tourism and research.
Currently, there are currently 18 gorilla families that are habituated for both tourism and scientific research. The families consist of at least one silverback along with several females and youngsters.
There are 12 gorilla families that have been habituated for tourism within the park. These families can be visited by a maximum of eight tourists per day and the Rwanda Development Board ensures that the carrying capacity is not exceeded.
Are the Gorilla Families Safe for Tourist Visits?
The groups that have been allocated for tourism undergo a habituation process conducted by researcher to make the family get used to human presence. Of about 18 gorilla groups in Volcanoes National Park Rwanda, 12 of them are fully habituated and ready for tracking each day. The Volcanoes National Park gorilla groups include Karisimbi gorilla family, Agashya, Sabyinyo, Susa A, Kwitonda, Hirwa, Amahoro gorilla family, Titus, Ugenda, Bwenge, Umubano, etc.
Please note that a maximum of only 8 visitors is allocated the gorilla family to be tracked. This is done on the day of the actual gorilla trek at the park headquarters.
Here is a list of the twelve gorilla families that have been habituated for tourism in the Volcanoes National Park;
Formely called Group 13, this is the oldest of the habituated gorilla families for tourism. This family was first visited by tourists in 1970”s. The family is made up of over twenty members. It is know to range in the saddle between Mount Bisoke and Mount Sabyinyo .
The Agashya group got its name from its leader, the commanding silver back who was named Agashya. Agashya is a Kinyarwanda name that means ‘News”. Agasha took over the family from Nyakarima. Agashya did a good studying of Nyakarima before challenging him and defeating him to lead the group.
Amahoro is a medium-size group made up of over twenty gorillas. Amahoro means peace, and the family is known to be among the peaceful in the park. Its leader Ubumwe is very calm and that is why Charles took advantage of his calmness to steal some females and start off the Umubano family. The family ranges with the lower slopes of Mount Visoke and close to the Lake Ngezi.
This is another medium-size group, with about twenty individuals. It roams between Mount Sabyinyo and Mount Gahinga. This group at times roam to Mgahinga National Park of South Western Uganda.
Kwitonda group was the second family of gorillas to be habituated for tourism. It is known to live within the Mount Gahinga area. This group has over twenty individuals that live within the park.
This medium size troop made up of abut 10 mountain gorillas. It is led by Guhonda, a silverback gorilla that weighs about 220kg. It is believed that Guhonda is the largest mountain gorilla in the wild.
This gorilla family is loved due to the prescence of several mature silverback gorillas. It is historical since it was the very first family to be studied by the late Dian Fossey. The family roams around the Mount Karisimbi area.
This medium size family roams around Mount Karisimbi. It is known to be always on the move and thus its name “ugenda”. It is made up of 11 members that include two silverback males that ensure its safety.
This is a splitter group from the Susa Gorilla Family. Susa was once the largest gorilla family in the whole world. It split in 2009 and two sub families were formed; Susa A and Susa B. Both families continued to join and split again. Later Susa B established its own home range and it was renamed the “Karisimbi“ group . This family also ranges around Mount Karisimbi.
This is a popular gorilla family with some of its members being featured in the movie “Gorillas in the Mist”. It was formed in 2007 when Bwenge split from the family where he was born and started off his own family with several females. The family has 12 members and roams around the Karisoke volcano.
This is a splitter group from Kwitonda. This is one of the newly formed gorilla families. The group split into two and what is unique is that Kwisanga has the same number of members with Kwitonda. Since Kwisanga and Kwitonda were formed, the groups have met a number of times without any aggressive interactions, allowing members from the two families to meet and socialise. Kwisanga was given this name by Sauti Sol a kenyan music banda at the Kwita Izina 2022.
This is another medium size gorilla family. Umubano is a kinyarwanda word meaning living together. This family is a splitter group from Amahoro. Led by Charles, Umubano broke away from Ubumwe’s leadership, a silverback gorilla that was leading Amahoro Family. Umubano ranges along the slopes of Mount Visoke.
Pablo Gorilla Family
Pablo is one of the large gorilla families in the Volcanoes National Park. By 2010 while still undergoing research, the gorilla family had 44 members. It is now open to tourists who go gorilla trekking in the Volcanoes National Park of Rwanda. This group is known to have attained the highest number of members. It reached the record breaking size of 65 gorillas in 2006. It was named after Pablo, a silverback gorilla who first led the family.
Gorilla Families for Research
The Volcanoes National Park has several gorilla families that have been habituated for scientific research. Several of these gorilla families were habituated by the late Dr. Dian Fossey and her teams. Research groups are normally not open to tourists and they are followed on a daily basis by researchers and trackers of the Karisoke Research Centre. The researchers spend more time with the mountain gorillas but they do not ordinarily approach the great apes as close as tourists do. The monitoring of these mountain gorillas helps alot in conservation. The researchers conduct a long term study of the gentle giants and today the Virunga Massif brags as one of the best studied area in the world.
The research groups in the Volcanoes National Park are :
- Muhoza Gorilla Family
- Igisha Gorilla Family
- Kureba Gorilla Family
- Ntambara Gorilla Family
- Noheli Gorilla Family
- Mutobo Gorilla Family
- Musirikale Gorilla Family
- Kuryama group (hosting about 15 gorillas )
- Ntambara group (with 11gorillas)
- Isabukuru group (with 11 gorillas)
- Inshuti group (with 6 gorillas)
- Titus group (with 6 gorillas)
- Urugamba group ( 6 gorillas)
Importance of Gorilla Research
The study of mountain gorillas has been ongoing for a long period of time. Since the times of Dian Fossey, research has been done to understand more about the life and behavior of mountain gorillas. During the hard times of the 1994 Rwanda Genocide, research was put to a standstill. However, by 1999, research resumed. Researchers from the Karisoke Research Centre were escorted by the military to check on the work of Dian Fossey.
A lot has been attained in research. The number of gorillas has increased and tourism has also been guided by strict rules and regulations that aim at ensuring the survival of the great apes.
The Research enables accurate identification of animals and the close study of their behavior so that they are habituated for the gorilla trekking experience. The tracking expedition is one of the avenues where revenues to carry out conservation works is generated.
The gorilla research also allows easy access to veterinary interventions in case of disease outbreaks. Through these scientific researches, the experts are able to discover new diseases that affect the gorillas at large. This results into making further studies about these scourges and finding remedies to treat them thus saving the gorillas from dying helplessly.
The gorilla scientific survey allows identifying the threats affecting the gorillas in a certain locality. Apart from the natural known threats like loss of habitats due to climate change and diseases, there are others like poaching, deforestation, and human-animal conflicts which are alleviated right away when discovered.
The Ugly Side of Gorilla Research
Gorilla research is normally looked at as a way of knowing the behaviors of the gorillas and getting them habituated for gorilla tourism. However, habituating more than 70% of the gorillas for tourism will discredit tourism as a tool for conservation because a larger number of gorillas will be exposed to human presence. Exposure to humans will increase the risk of disease transmission.
Gorillas being exposed to humans may involve stress, thus generating negative experiences for the gorillas.
Stress and other effects such as behavioral changes, reduced reproductive success, and ecological disturbance may compromise the welfare of gorillas.