Habituated Gorilla Families in Virunga National Park, Congo
Nestled within the Eastern reaches of Congo, spanning across the Virunga massif which extends its vast territories into Uganda and Rwanda, lies the illustrious Virunga National Park. This park holds the significant distinction of being one of the last bastions for gorillas on our planet. With nearly a third of the world’s endangered mountain gorillas, a subspecies whose total count hovers around a mere 1000, this park emerges not just as a beacon of hope for the species, but also as a testament to nature’s resilient wonders.
Going back in time, Virunga, initially named Albert National Park, earned the honor of being Africa’s very first national park, established in 1925. Its genesis was rooted in a dire necessity – to shield the rapidly dwindling population of mountain gorillas and other indigenous wildlife. Its diverse ecosystem uniquely boasts the presence of three distinct ape varieties: the mountain gorillas, lowland gorillas, and the eastern chimpanzees. Yet, despite being a treasure trove of biodiversity with the potential to be Africa’s premier tourism hotspot, the park’s progress has been unfortunately stymied due to regional instabilities.
However, not all hope is lost. The Virunga Foundation, a UK-based charity organization, has revitalized the park’s stature through its dedicated gorilla tourism initiative. This initiative involves a unique experience: tourists can visit and interact with the gorillas. But this isn’t a spontaneous venture. The gorillas need to undergo a meticulous process called ‘habituation’. This is the delicate task of understanding their intricate behaviors and gradually acclimatizing them to human presence. Far from being a mere experiential tactic, habituation plays a pivotal role in conservation. Habituated gorillas are easier to monitor, safeguard, manage, and provide medical care when needed.
Within the dense forests of Virunga National Park, home to roughly 300 mountain gorillas, only a select group of 10 gorilla families have undergone this habituation process. According to the park’s official records, while eight of these families are widely recognized and frequented by visitors, the ninth, named Wilungula, was newly initiated into the program. Their unveiling for trekking was planned for 2020, but the unforeseen onslaught of the covid-19 pandemic deferred this momentous event. The identity and details of the tenth family remain shrouded in mystery. It’s noteworthy that these eight renowned families predominantly inhabit the Bukima region in the park’s central section, eagerly awaiting their next human interaction.
Below is the list of the habituated gorilla families in Virunga national park Congo.
1. Humba family
2. Rugendo family
3. Mapuwa family
4. Kabirizi family
5. Munyaga family
6. Lulengo family
7. Bageni family
8. Nyakamwe family
9. Wilungula family
Kabirizi Gorilla Group: Founded in 1994, this group faced the tragic loss of their original alpha male, Zunguruka. Ndungute took over after Zunguruka’s passing, only to succumb to injuries from a crossfire between rebels and the government. The leadership struggle that ensued led to Kabirizi’s dominance. Named in honor of a fallen ICCN executive, this 23-member troop has made the Bukima section its home.
Humba Gorilla Group: A tale of independence, Humba carved out his own group in 1998, breaking away from the Rugendo family. Despite facing a dip in numbers when his brother, Nyakamwe, led a faction away, this group currently thrives with 13 members, residing between Gatovu and Bikenge.
Rugendo Gorilla Group: Among the pioneers in Virunga National Park, this group was led by the legendary silverback Rugendo. His assassination in 2001 led to a succession of leaders, with Bukima taking charge in 2008. Currently, this 11-member group frequents the areas of Bukima and Bikenge.
Mapuwa Gorilla Group: Originating from the ambitious spirit of Mapuwa, a son of Rugendo, this group has seen its share of splits and reunions. Now under the leadership of Mvuyekure, it boasts 25 members and resides in Jomba.
Lulengo Gorilla Group: Once led by the venerable Rugabo, the group faced tragedy when Rugabo and two females were poached in 1994. Lulengo rose to lead, and despite losses to other groups, it continues to thrive with 11 members in Jomba.
Munyaga Gorilla Group: This group exemplifies conquest. Created by a lone male, Munyaga, who took over the leaderless Buhanga family, the group faced challenges including the disappearance of its founder. Now under Mawoza’s leadership, they have 9 members in Bukima.
Nyakamwe Gorilla Group: Rooted in a split from the Humba group, Nyakamwe led this faction to establish itself in Bukima. Currently, the 15-member group continues to flourish under his leadership.
Bageni Gorilla Group: Demonstrating a tenacity akin to the great conquerors of history, Bageni broke away from the Kabirizi group in 2013, even recruiting his mother and brothers. This vast group of 30 members is now a dominant presence around Gatovu and Bukima.
Wilungula Family: The newest entrants, this group is an amalgamation of 40 individuals, including 4 commanding silverbacks. Although plans to open them for tourism in 2020 were thwarted by the pandemic, their Majesty awaits to be unveiled from Gikereri.
The gorilla families of Virunga showcase a blend of courage, ambition, and endurance. Their stories are not merely about survival but are emblematic of the power of unity, leadership, and
adaptation. Each group, in its unique way, offers a glimpse into the dynamic world of gorillas, shedding light on the intricate dance of nature, politics, and kinship. As we tread through the heart of Virunga, these families serve as a living testament to the enduring spirit of the wild.