The Gorilla Story Part 1. Some Insight into Mountain Gorillas.

Kasole of the Munyaga group beats his chest for us! Watch a video here. Who is Kasole? Find out here. 
 Having returned from guiding my nineteenth gorilla trek in fourteen months, I thought I’d share some of the insight that I have gained so that if you are considering a trip to see mountain gorillas you have more than the standard info pack you might receive from standard operators.

I personally prefer trekking in Virunga National Park in the Democratic Republic of Congo. The experience is slightly less regimented, sometimes disorganized, but is undoubtedly more intimate. The history of the gorilla groups in this article therefore applies to the groups in DRC, however, the Mountain gorillas are essentially the same wherever you are in the Virunga Massif. 

Below are some frequently asked questions (see my next post for some history into the make up of the six of the gorilla groups you’ll most likely visit in DRC):

How many species of gorillas are there?
There are 2 species of gorilla- the eastern gorilla (Gorilla beringei) and the western gorilla (Gorilla gorilla). The former is found in Virunga and split into two subspecies- the Mountain Gorilla of which half live in Virunga National Park, and the Eastern Lowland Gorilla (Gorilla beringei graueri) found in northern parts of the park and in Kahuzi-Biega National Park south of Lake Kivu.

How many mountain gorillas are left in the wild?
This question is a bit of a misnomer because mountain gorillas don’t survive outside of the wild. In fact, the only place where they survive in captivity is at the orphanage at Mikeno Lodge. While the results of the 2016 census have not yet been released, the estimates are that there are now over 1,000 mountain gorillas in the wild, between Bwindi National Park in Uganda, and the Virunga Massif. Stay tuned for up-to date information.

How big is the area that the mountain gorillas live in?
The amount of land that mountain gorillas have in the Virunga massif is on 447km2. You can clearly see the pressure of humans on the land when you look at a satellite image of what is left of the forest. An initiative by the Virunga is buying land adjacent to the park to replant bamboo and expand the area available to the mountain gorillas.
The forest (East) of the N2 in DRC is home of the Mountain gorillas. As you can see, the area of land in DRC is much greater than that in Rwanda.
 What do mountain gorillas eat?
Mountain gorillas are vegetarian but occasionally will raid a nest of safari ants (Dorylus sp). and sometimes eat mushrooms. They select from over 60 different species of plants but their favourite is bamboo which may make up to 90% of their diet during bamboo shoot season. The rest of the time, over 75% of their diet consists of 3 species: (Galium ruwenzoriense, Peucedanum linderi, and Cardus nyassus). A big silverback can eat up to 30kg per day. 

The blue sign represents the new park boundary for bamboo project. Expanding the habitat for Mountain Gorillas.  The forest in the distance is the current park boundary and limit of Mountain Gorilla habitat.
Are gorillas territorial?
No. Mountain gorilla groups live in overlapping home ranges that vary in size from 3 to 34 km2 depending on group size and food availability. They tend to move less than 1 km per day, resting and feeding for about the same amount of time. Occasionally when they encounter other groups or danger they will travel further, but not usually more than 3 km in a day.

What do you mean by a silverback?
The term silverback refers to a full-grown male gorilla. Male gorillas mature somewhere between 9 and 10 years old. At this time they are already much bigger than the females and the hair on their backs begins to turn white or silver. Somewhere between 12 and 15 years old, they reach their full size and can now begin to compete for females. They are now considered a silverback.
Humba's son poses for the camera. Who is Humba? Read this post.
While the specific make up of each gorilla group is different, gorilla groups are led by a dominant silverback. It isn’t completely straight forward and there’s a lot that is going on that we can’t see, but it seems that females choose who to follow. Remember, these are highly intelligent primates. Dominant silverbacks will usually tolerate other silverbacks in their group either because they are their sons, but occasionally they will also tolerate non-related silverbacks in the group- it is after all advantageous to have a strong coalition when they do encounter other gorilla groups to help guard the females from being abducted or convinced to join the other group. Silverbacks are very protective of their groups and will display and act violently towards perceived threats including lone males and other gorilla groups.

How do you tell the difference between a male and female gorilla?
It is actually quite difficult to tell the difference between a young male and young female gorilla unless you see the penis. Gorillas have internal testicles so you can’t go by that visual cue either. However, adult gorillas exhibit sexual dimorphism (the fancy word for males & females looking different)- mainly in size and the obvious “silver-back” of a fully mature male. An adult male gorilla can weigh more than 155 kg which is almost twice what a big female weighs (80kg). If you could look at their skulls, you’d also see that the males have bigger skulls with a very pronounced sagittal crest. This is the attachment for the chewing muscles. They also have fairly large canines.

What is a gorilla’s life like?
Babies are born after a 255-day gestation period. They weigh about 2kg at birth. Twins are sometimes born, but it is very stressful for the mother and they rarely survive. 18% of infants die in the first six months- and the mortality is higher in the wet season because of respiratory diseases. Another 16% will not make it to 3 years, but after that they have a good chance of surviving to adulthood (8 years).

Females mature at 7-9yrs and usually have their first baby at 10. From then on they have babies about every 4 years for the next 20 years. When males mature, they will often leave the group they were born into and join small groups of males or become solitary hoping to start their own families. Mature females also leave the groups they were born into and either join other groups or solitary males to form new groups.

What is a typical day on a gorilla trek?
Usually somewhere between 6 a.m. and 7 a.m. small bands of trackers and rangers head out to find the gorilla groups. They do this regardless of whether any tourist is going to visit for monitoring purposes. Because the gorillas tend not to move that far, the trackers head out to where they saw them last and begin tracking from there. 

Meanwhile, back at the ranger’s station, you are waiting for the registration process to begin. You’ll have your permit in hand and you fill in your details including passport number into a book and then sit down to wait for a briefing. It is fairly simple in Virunga, because there are fewer groups, and fewer people visiting, so you all sit in one room and the head ranger explains gives a short explanation of the gorilla groups and which ones you will visit. When you are ready to go, the rangers distribute facial masks and ask you to sanitize your hands.  At this point if you would like a porter to help you with your bag (and hold your hand on the slippery slopes) they are waiting outside ($15 fee per porter paid directly to the porter). You can also buy a walking stick for $10.  Once this is done you head off on the walk. The rangers have a fairly good idea of how long it will take to get to each gorilla group so you head off through the fields adjacent to the park to one of the numerous paths that enter the forest. When you enter the beautiful forest you head along a network of paths to where the trackers have found the gorilla group that you will visit. The trek can be anywhere from 20 minutes to 3 hours. You leave your bags and take only your cameras. I recommend carrying an extra camera battery and memory card in your pocket because you will likely take a lot of photos and video. You will don your mask and slowly approach the mountain gorillas. The rangers will vocalize to the gorillas to let them know that everything is ok and you will begin your 1 hour with the gorillas. This is non-negotiable, but if you want to spend more than 1 hour per day with gorillas, and have a relatively good fitness level- contact me. In my experience, the rangers are keen to get you in good photographic opportunities so sticking close to them often gets you in the best places. Your hour will go by fast. Then it is time to head back to the ranger post where your trek ends.  
Sometimes all you need is an iphone and a cool hat.
How should I behave in front of the gorillas?
·      Be silent in the presence of the gorillas.
·      No smoking
·      No eating or drinking
·      Do not stare or point directly at the gorillas
·      NO FLASH photography
·      Follow the guide's instructions/actions.
·      Move slowly and calmly
·      Should the Silverback charge, do not run.
·      Keep behind the guides.
·      No children under 15 in Rwanda, no children under 12 in DRC (non-negotiable)
·      Wear the surgical mask provided by the rangers in the presence of the gorillas.

Gorillas are highly susceptible to most human diseases and if you are knowingly carrying a contagious disease (especially flu) please DO NOT attempt to trek. This is because they are so closely related to us: read this awesome article about how close we are.

How fit do I need to be and what if I can’t walk?
This is one of those questions where the ideal fitness and minimum fitness are going to differ greatly. Mountain gorillas are found above 1,800m above sea level (5900ft). The forest paths are uneven and can be slippery- and any given group could be from 500m to more than 10km from the ranger post. Of course it is very unlikely that you will find that all the groups are deep in the forest or far away- the shortest walk I ever did in DRC to see Humba was less than 200m, but I’ve also walked for 3hrs with fit people to get to a group. The rangers will take your fitness or ability to walk into consideration but you should be able to walk a couple miles and be able to deal with some hills. If you are unfit, definitely hire a porter to hold your hand. Remember, a lot of it is in your mind. If for one reason or another you cannot walk, but would like to see the gorillas, it is a great opportunity to inject some cash into the local economy. Many of the villages in DRC are inaccessibly by car so the people have large woven baskets called Kipois that they use to carry people who can’t walk (or royalty) to roads. It costs $250 to be carried to a gorilla group.  

What should I wear for the gorilla trek?
The key things to think about when packing for Rwanda or Congo are as follows:
·      There is a high potential that you will encounter wet weather,
·      The trekking can be slippery and steep and you may need to scramble over fallen logs
·      There are stinging nettles in the forest that can be quite uncomfortable when brushed against, and there are safari ants known locally as Siafu that can also be unpleasant.
The essentials to wear:
·      Strong waterproof walking boots
·      Wicking sock liners and hiking socks- it is really useful if you can pull your socks up over your long trousers to prevent ants from crawling up your pants. Gators can be very useful as an option.
·      Long sleeved shirt (or risk nettles)
·      Long trousers/pants helps with nettles. I often just wear my rain-pants over shorts.
·      Sunscreen SPF 30 or more
·      If you need glasses or wear contacts carry an extra pair of glasses
Things to have in your day pack:
·      Warm fleece
·      Rain jacket/ poncho
·      2 spare batteries & 2 extra memory cards
·      drinking water
·      high-energy/protein snack
·      personal pertinent medication
·      valuables like passport and money
Additional optionals:
·      Insect repellent (Avon Skin So Soft is an effective insect repellent) but there are few biting insects that you will encounter in the forest.
·      Binoculars (not necessary with the gorillas) but if you like birding there are some spectacular birds
·      Garden gloves

What camera lenses should I take?
This is always a little bit of a tricky question to answer because it depends on the type of photo you are looking for. I only use my iPhone which also takes good video but is quite limiting- I can’t get the close up of the eyes etc. If you are a wildlife photographer and you have two camera bodies you’ll want a 24-70mm and a 100-400mm lens. If you can only have one of the above- the 100-400mm lens will be most versatile. The ability to open up the aperture and lets as much light in will also be very useful in the forest which can be quite dark. There is always a chance of rain when you’re with the gorillas so make sure you have a way to keep your cameras and equipment dry. There are some awkward but nifty rain-jackets for cameras that allow you to continue taking photos when it is raining.

You’ll be surprised how many photos you take so make sure you have plenty of memory, spare batteries and a way to back your photos up.

The other thing to consider if you are a serious photographer is that during the one hour you spend with the gorillas, you’ll only have a fraction of the time when the conditions are right for the photo you’re looking for- whether it is light, gorillas posing, or whatever you are trying to capture. This makes it essential to do more than one trek. Furthermore, you’ll often spend the first 30-45 minutes just getting used to the shooting conditions.

What are the difference between visiting the gorillas in Rwanda & DRC?
There is no difference in gorilla behaviour between Rwanda and DRC except for the natural difference between individuals and groups.

·      The maximum number of people per trek in Rwanda: 8
·      The maximum number of people per trek in DRC: depends on the gorilla group size- 4 if the group has less than 10 individuals, 6 if the group has more than 10.

·      Minimum age in Rwanda: 15 yrs
·      Minimum age in DRC: 12 yrs

·      Cost of gorilla permit in Rwanda: $1,500
·      Cost of gorilla permit in DRC: $400 high season, $200 low season (contact me for low season dates).

·      Obligatory to wear a surgical mask in DRC for the protection of the gorillas.

·      More accommodation options in Rwanda
·      Rangers speak better English in Rwanda

·      Registration process in Rwanda is done by your driver/guide
·      Registration process in DRC is done by yourself

·      Habituated gorilla groups in Rwanda: 10
·      Habituated gorilla groups in DRC: 8 but only 6 accessible from Bukima

The Gorilla Story Part II. A Brief History of the Gorilla Groups in DRC.

If we needed a species as an icon to represent the conservation of Virunga National Park, in the DRC, it would be the Mountain Gorilla, or Gorilla beringei beringei, as it is known to taxonomists. In fact, it could be argued that without Mountain gorillas, the National Park, established in 1925 and formerly known as Albert National Park, wouldn’t exist today. Paradoxically, it was two collectors of gorillas for museums that recognized the unsustainable collection of Mountain gorillas. Charles Akeley who collected for the New York Museum of Natural History, and Prince William of Sweden with their prominent connections were able to lobby the Belgian King and gather international support to establish the protection of Mountain gorillas.

The gorilla story in DRC takes us back to 2 legendary silverbacks, Zunguruka and Rugendo who each led a habituated group of gorillas on different ridges in the forest behind Bukima ranger post. Both were habituated in 1986.  

A white board in the rangers office at Bukima showing the group make up. Key: SB: Silverback, BB: Blackback, ADF: Adult Female, SUB: Sub-adult, Juv: Juvenile, Beb: Baby.

Current lead Silverbacks in the six groups accessible from Bukima Ranger Post:
Kabirizi group: Kabirizi
Bageni group: Bageni (Kabirizi's son)
Nyakamwe group: Nyakamwe (Humba's brother, son of Rugendo)
Humba group: Humba (Son of Rugendo)
Rugendo group: Bukima
Munyaga group: Mawazo (& Kasole)

Two stories:


If all of Rugendo’s sons are his, he could potentially be one of the most successful silverbacks to have led a gorilla group. At the time that he led it, it was a large group of 18 individuals. His son's names are highlighted in bold-italic.

Rugendo was tragically assassinated on the 15th July, 2001, in crossfire between warring militias, however, his genetics and legacy live on.

Rugendo had many sons
-       Mapuwa

Left his father’s group in 1998, with two females.

-       Humba
-       Nyakamwe
Humba left with his brother Nyakamwe in 1998. In 2014 they interacted and split into two groups.

-       Senkwekwe
Senkwekwe took over the group, though as a young silverback he lacked the strength and experience to keep the group intact. Some of the females left, joining his brother’s group Mapuwa. Senkweke was murdered together with five other gorillas in 2007.

Bukima  (not Rugendo’s son)
Is currently the dominant silverback of the Rugendo group. Kongoman and Baseka are both with him. 
-       Kongoman
-       Baseka

-       Ruzirabwoba is a solitary silverback.

Zunguruka got his name from the habit of walking in circles. He had two sons, Ndungutse and Salama who took over the family when Zunguruka died of old age.

In 1994, a wild silverback showed up on the scene and fought with Salama and Ndungutse. He did not win, but the wounds he inflicted on Salama eventually killed him leaving Ndungutse as the sole silverback.

The wild silverback was named Kabirizi.

In 1997, Ndungutse was assassinated. His sons Buhaya and Karateka took over the group, and after a series of fights, Karateka ended up as a solitary silverback.

At this point, Kabirizi returned to the scene and killed Buhaya. The females however refused to follow Kabirizi and were led by the oldest female Nsekuye.

At this point Munyaga, a lone silverback entered the scene and took over the group being led by Nsekuye. It wasn’t long before Kabirizi challenged Munyaga, this time winning and taking with him all the females. Munyaga remained with a small group of sub-adult males. Then in 2007 he went missing during a surge in rebel activities. At that time, Mawazo led the group although he was still a Blackback. He eventually matured and was able to acquire females of his own with his brother Kasole. 

Kabirizi continued to succesfully lead his group that grew to 36 individuals. Then in 2013 he suffered a blow when his son Bageni, who had grown up to become a formidable Silverback, challenged him taking with him 20 individuals, including his mother, brother, and 2 sisters.

Ruaha Walking Safari Training (May & September 2017)

Incredible views along the Ruaha river. Contact me to organize a walk in this incredible place.
May & September saw our walking safari training team in action again in Ruaha National Park. We approached our 3rd and 4th sessions for SPANEST with new energy and the confidence of having two sessions already under our belts. With 24 rangers per session we had our work cut out for us, but with the highly qualified team we ploughed forward.
Christoline Motta & Simon Peterson running drills in firearms safety & handling.
Jacques Hoffman coaches a ranger.
Each course began with a first aid component. Wilderness Medical Associates provided the accredited Wilderness Advanced First Aid course with a focus on anticipating, preventing, and ultimately dealing with medical issues that could arise not only in the walking safari environment, but also in the general duties of a national park ranger. 

Mike Webster gets the practice going in patient assessments.
The next component was the safe and competent use of the large calibre rifles that are recommended for walking safaris. Unfortunately many walking safaris in Africa are set up for disaster should the unlikely occur and a life threatening encounter with a potentially dangerous animal happen. Worth mentioning and on a very positive note, Ruaha National Park now provides rangers who are walking with suitable rifles and equipment.
Simon Peterson & Christoline Motta assessing a ranger in proficiency.
The final component of the training was an intense immersion in walking wildlife. We spent hours on the ground practicing walking in proximity to potentially dangerous wildlife, avoiding detection, extracting from situations, and ultimately decision making in order to prevent compromising situations that could result in stressing wildlife and stressing clients. 

Following an elephant bull and learning about how to use wind direction, cover, and predicting the animals movements to view without disturbing.
Some things have to be taught in the classroom. Here Simon Peterson revises shot placement.
Elephant watching on foot is exhilarating. In the heat of the day, the elephants come to the Mwagusi to drink the cool water filtered by the sand. The river bank provides a great safe vantage point to watch unobtrusively.
Pietro Luraschi leads post walk analysis in improving the guest experience and maintaining safety.
Magesa, a ranger from Sadaani National Park discusses the interesting lives of Grey-capped Social Weavers. A walking safari is more about the little things.
Rangers enjoy a beautiful scene with a small herd of elephants drinking in the river bed. Watching behavior is important in learning about predicting what might happen and making decisions to avoid any confrontation.

A Wildlife Special

--> As much as I love the wet season, there is no doubt that thirst drives great wildlife experiences in the dry season. The following images and videos were taken on a phenomenal ten-day safari in northern Tanzania at the beginning of September.
Fitting arrival at Oliver's Camp in Tarangire National Camp
Alone with two beautiful male lions in Tarangire National Park
Typical elephant scene in Tarangire National Park.
A beautiful camp to arrive to at the end of a long day of wildlife viewing. Lemala, Ngorongoro.
A beautiful scene in the morning on the crater rim. This photo was taken with iPhone and has not been edited.
A leopardess poses on a rock in the sunset. We stayed with her for a couple hours as she roared (video here)
This cheetah mother poses in the beautiful afternoon light on the Serengeti plains.
This lioness was hunting in the morning light in the Serengeti plains. We followed her for about 20 minutes.


Focus on Gorillas

The beta silverback of the Nyakamwe group ponders our presence.
I give the head ranger the thick envelope of gorilla permits that I have. We speak in Swahili because his English isn’t great, and my French is poorer than his English.
“You want to do two gorilla treks tomorrow?” he asks.
“Yes, not just tomorrow, but everyday for 5 days.”
He looks at me, smiling. I can read in his face that he thinks this is crazy. Our conversation continues. There’s a phone call to his superiors. He calls another ranger and they speak too quickly for me to understand what is going on, but then he turns to me and says,“Ok. Don’t worry. Tomorrow I will come to the camp at 7:30. Be ready to walk far. This is the first time we have ever done this. I don’t even know if it is possible, but I will know how we will do this tomorrow.”

The next morning, we set off. One guest who has had knee surgery can’t walk the distance, so 12 porters are there, ready to carry her in a “kipoi”: a local basket stretcher. We trudge a long through the potato fields for the first two hours to the path into the forest with the most direct access to the gorilla group. The first group we visit is Bageni. This is the biggest group of habituated gorillas in Virunga at the moment with 22 individuals. Most gorilla families are named after their alpha silverback. After a successful visit, we head to Nyakamwe, a smaller family of 11.
Nyakamwe, the leader of a gorilla family.
 Virunga National Park has eight families of habituated mountain gorillas, six of whom are within easy reach of Bukima Ranger post. Trackers and rangers go out daily to locate each group and check on all the individuals. Like humans, every gorilla has unique facial features as well as behaviour. The most obvious and easy to identify is the nose print. In our 5 days with the gorillas, there is no way to learn each individual, but as the week progresses, the names become less foreign, and I gain some insight into the dynamics of gorilla society. Their stories are saddened by tragedies involving assassinations and murder by rebels.
Jacques and Pierre, two dedicated rangers protecting gorillas in Virunga National Park.
One of the challenges of photographing gorillas is that you are only allowed one hour with a group per day. To get around this, we bought out all the permits for two groups, and negotiated permission to trek to two group per day. This would not expose the gorillas to more contact time than allowed but would allow us to double our photographic opportunities. 

There is more to Virunga than gorillas. These beautiful ground orchids along the path in the forest. 
Mawazo, the leader of Munyaga group watches us with a female and her youngster.