Are you a tourist with the dream of meeting the critically endangered mountain gorillas in Bwindi? I have good news for you. The good news is that you can be among the lucky people to participate in the most rewarding safaris (tracking the rare Giant Apes). Bwindi National Park being the home to half the world’s population of Mountain gorillas is living to its name because currently there are more than 400 individuals in this Park. Just like humans, these intelligent primates live harmoniously in families/groups/troops which comprise three to over thirty individuals including a dominant silverback, subordinate silverbacks, alpha female/s, blackbacks (young males), juveniles and infants.
The silverback is in charge of taking vital decisions in the group such as what time the group wakes up, time of feeding and where to find food sources, their movement and where to sleep. The silverback is also in charge of protection/defending the group against intruders.
Bwindi National Park located in South-western Uganda is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and one of the most sought after destinations in Africa. Reason? Mountain gorillas. With more than 400 mountain gorillas, there are 14 gorillas groups in this Park. However only 11 groups are open for gorilla trekking, one (1) is for research purposes and two (2) can be visited by tourists for the Gorilla Habituation Experience.
Now the interesting thing about Gorilla tracking in Bwindi is that these groups are found in four (4) sectors/areas which include Buhoma, Ruhija, Rushaga and Nkuringo. Each of these groups is unique and interesting in its own way. Before you decide on what group you wish to track and fulfill your lifetime dream, peruse and explore the astounding features and facts about each gorilla group.
Buhoma is situated in the North-western Park of Bwindi. This was the first sector to be formed hence it is the most popular of all and it is where the main Park Headquarters is located. Three fascinating gorilla groups can be tracked from Buhoma and they include Mubare, Habinyanja and Rushegura groups.
Mubare gorilla group (Mubale/M group).
Do not miss a magical encounter with the enthralling Mubare gorilla group. This was the first habituated gorilla group in Bwindi National Park hence it is the oldest gorilla group in Uganda. Its habituation started on 15th October 1991 (the same year Bwindi was gazatted) and ended in 1993.Visitors started visiting the group in 1993.This interesting group was named after Mubare hills because it is at this place that they were first sighted by the Park rangers.
At the time of habituation, the group had 12 members with the dominant silverback being brawny Ruhondeza. By 1996, the group had grown to 18 members. Throughout 1996, the group fought against wild groups and Ruhondeza always fought and jealously safeguarded his members but with time Mubare family lost several members hence declining. This is because Ruhondeza was aging, weak and unable to defend his members yet he had not yet groomed a successor.
2009 was a tough year because tragedy befell this family and they lost three of their members. Early in the year an adult female died due to a fracture in the skull leaving behind a young infant of only 6 months whom the group attempted to take care but unfortunately also died (was found at Ruhondeza’s bedside). This is because at the time of its mother’s death, it had not been weaned and therefore could not eat the soft shoots that the other members tried to feed it on. Unfortunately its fate was inexorable. In Mid-July another adult female also lost her baby.
In 2012, Mubare family was attacked by unhabituated male gorilla but due to Ruhondeza’s old age he couldn’t fight back hence the group lost most of its members (resulting from death and others moving to different groups) and they remained only 5 members. Out of exasperation, he left the group and started living a solitary life near Rubona village because he felt comfortable living in the human community rather than in the forest. The local community members never chased him because they loved him, and UWA kept on monitoring him. He eventually died on the 27th June 2012 and was buried near Buhoma Park Headquarters.
In 2013, more four (4) members (including a dominant silverback) joined this group and now there are 9 members including one (1) dormant silverback (named Kanyonyi).
Habinyanja group had 30 members during habituation. Currently it is comprised of 18 members including one (1) dominant silverback called Makara, one blackblack named Maraya, 6 adult females (Binyoko, Nyabuche, Nyamuhango, Rukundo, Kisho and Rugyendo), 1 sub-adult male (Kavuyo), 1 sub-adult female (Ruyombo), 3 juveniles (Malaika, Hamusini and Elisa) and baby infants (Kisho’s baby, Rugyendo’s baby, Binyoko’s baby and Nyabuche’s baby). The adult females of this group are led by the intelligent Kisho.
This group was habituated in 1997 making it the second habituated group in Bwindi. Its habituation lasted for two years and in 1999 it was open for visitation by tourists. This group derived its name from the word “Nyanja” which is a Rukiga word meaning “a place with water”. The group was first sighted near a Swamp within Bwindi Impenetrable forest.
This group was surrounded by a lot of saga during habituation where the reigning silverback was Mugurusi. The name Mugurusi is a Rukiga word for “old man”. He was the indubitable leader of the tranquil family of 30 members but his days were numbered, and he eventually died leaving behind a number of sons.
Soon after Mugurusi’s death, power rivalry/struggles became part of this once large and peaceful family whereby some of his sons (Rwansigazi, Makara and Mwirima) started to fight for leadership. Instead his two sons Mwirima and Rwansigazi tried leading the group for a number of years. However the two brothers had irreconcilable differences concerning the family size, where Rwansigazi preferred retaining a large family range /travelling long distances whereas Mwirima preferred a smaller family range and didn’t enjoy travelling long distances.
Eventually in 2002, the group split without any fight and Mwirima took 11 other members of the family hence giving birth to the third group (Rushegura) leaving Habinyanja with the current number of 18 individuals. Rwansigazi was later forced to give up leadership to Makara who is currently the Silverback of the group.
Rushegura gorilla group (Also known as R Group).
As earlier mentioned this group was originally part of Habinyanja group but later separated under Mwirima (Dominant silverback).The fascinating group was opened for tourism in 2002.This is because they were already habituated in the former group.
There are currently 19 members in this group with 1 dominant silverback and it is considered one of the largest groups in Bwindi. The reason why Mwirima broke off from Habinyanja was because he preferred a smaller home range. He left with 11 members hence the group started with 12 members including 5 females.
He led and protected this group due to his heroics until he died in 2014 at 35 years of age. When he was still alive, the brave Mwirima constantly fought tirelessly to protect the family. One incidence is when the group encountered Makara’s group, he fought until he won the battle.
Currently the leadership of the family is under Kabukojo. Other members include 5 adult females (Kyirinvi, Kibande, Buzinza, Nyamunwa and Karungyi), one sub-adult female (Ruterana), one sub-adult male (Kalembezi), 5 juveniles (Nyampazi, Kafuruka, Kibande’s baby, Karungyi’s baby and Kanywanyi), and 5 infants (Kyirinvi’s baby, Buzinza’s baby, Nyamunwa’s baby, Kibande’s second baby and Katabazi).
Rushegura group is constantly moving and crossing to the neighboring Democratic Republic of Congo but still come back to Bwindi.
Ruhija sector is located on the Eastern side of the Park. The gorilla groups found in this Park include Bitukura, Kyaguriro, and Oruzogo.
This group was named after Bitukura River because that’s where they were first sighted by rangers. Unlike other groups whose habituation takes 2-3 years, surprisingly the habituation of this group took only 15 months (one year and three months).This was greatly attributed to the fact that the group shares a direct attachment with Kyaguriro group.
They always convened with Kyaguriro family hence frequently encountered UWA staff. This therefore made their habituation a lot easier. Habituation of this interesting group started in July 2007 and ended in October 2008.Another impressive thing about this group is that the group had four dominant silverbacks but surprisingly the second youngest silverback became the leader of the group, after the ruling silverback (Karamuzi) retired after leading for 40 years hence it is one of the peaceful families in Bwindi.
However, on 18th December 2016 the conservation fraternity, UWA staff and Uganda in general suffered a huge blow following the shocking loss of Ndahura (dominant silverback) who died (at 28 years) after falling from a tree branch (about 50 meters high). Now the group is left with three dominant silverbacks with Rukumu taking on leadership from Ndahura.
The group started with 24 members but because of fights and other members moving to other groups, the number reduced to the current number of 11 individuals comprising 3 silverbacks, 2 blackbacks, 3adult females, 1 juvenile (after Twigukye left) and 2infants.
This group never ceases to amaze people with its intriguing history. It was found out that in 2011, the group separated into two different groups living 10kms apart only to reunite later after only four months and continued living happily. Up to date the reason for the separation is not yet known.
Another interesting mystery surrounding this family is the migration of their eldest juvenile daughter to Kyaguriro family. Under normal circumstances, the female gorilla on reaching adulthood leaves the family to start a family with a desirable solitary male or merely joins another family (just like Twigukye did). But the young female did the exceptional thing and made a move. To find out more interesting facts about them, visit them or even friend them (through the “friend a gorilla” initiative).
This is another interesting group in Ruhija sector. This group is greatly known for rummaging and feeding on vegetation mainly comprising of “Alchornea hitela” plant locally known as Oruzogo hence the origin of their name. This is one of the most recent groups to be habituated in Bwindi whereby it was open for tourism on 20th June 2011.
Currently there are 17 members in this group with the dominant silverback being Tibirikwata. Other members include Bwoba (the coward), Busungu (short tempered), Kaganga (the great one), Karimi (the tongue), Buchura (the last born), Otaka, and Kashundwe among others. The group has continuously welcomed new born babies, Ntamurungi gave birth in June 2011, and Musi gave birth in October 201. Another bundle of joy came when Kakoba gave birth to a set of twins in March 2012
An interesting characteristic about this group that catches the attention of tourists and UWA rangers is the playful energy demonstrated by the infants and juveniles in the group, which entertains the tourists who visit this group. Visit this group and get the excitement you have never experienced before.
Kyaguriro group (Kyaguriro A and B)
This is the group set aside for research purposes to study/learn about mountain gorilla behaviors, habituation and conservation of these Giant Apes. Much as this group was reserved for research, it can be tracked when the demand for gorilla permits is high.
Originally (during and after habituation), the group was under the leadership of an aging silverback Zeus (named after the Greek god because he was the lord and master of all the gorillas in this group). However his reign was short lived and Zeus was later expelled by his rival Rukina, and he died in exile. This tells you that the fate of dethroned despots look to be the same for humans and beasts alike-Death in exile.
However the unthinkable tragedy happened when Rukina was hit by lightning on 7th April 2015 and died instantly at the tender age of 28 years. Rukara (the dormant silverback) then took over power. The drama in this family seemed to have just started. Apparently, the family split into two, whereby the other is being led by Mukiza who was one of the silverbacks in the family. It is believed that the fight started in 2015 after the death of Rukina, where Rukara and Mukiza fought and the family split for a short while then reunited. Eventually in May 2016 another fight occurred but this time round Mukiza took 10 members with him to form a new family where he is the leader.
Now there are 10 members in Kyaguriro family (Kyaguriro A) under Rukara comprising 1 silverback, 3 adult females, 2 blackbacks, 2 juveniles and 2 infants.
UWA continues to monitor the group to see whether the separation is permanent or temporary so that the new family can be named. However there are 10 members in the new group (Kyaguriro B) under Mukiza comprising 1 silverback, 4 adult females, 1 sub-adult and 4 infants.
This sector though still remote has the highest number mountain gorilla families. Rushaga is located in the Southern side of Bwindi and most groups here are considered difficult to track because of the steep landscapes.
Nshongi was once the largest gorilla group in Bwindi and the entire world. It was open for tourism in 2009 after two years of habituation. This group is full of interesting history including it having the largest number of members and the endless power struggles it has experienced.
Nshongi was initially comprised of 36 members including multi-males at the time of its habituation hence was bound to be faced with intra-male rivalry.
The group derived its name from River Nshongi where they were first spotted. Just like any other group that cannot hold a large number of individuals, Nshongi was not exceptional. Two sections of family members decided to break away whereby in July 2010, Mishaya one of the silverbacks left the group with 10 members to form a separate group (Mishaya) leaving the group with 26 members.
With Mishaya leaving the group, it paved way (opened doors) for other members to leave the group. This time it was Bweza who separated from the family (on the 1st August 2012) to form Bweza group hence leaving the group with 18 members. However, some members left Nshongi group to Bweza, while others joined Bikingi hence leaving the group with the current 7 members (including 1 silverback, 3 adult females, 1 sub-adult female and 1 infant.
This group was named after the Silverback “Mishaya” who left Nshongi (in July 2010) with some females to form a new group that it is today. He left with 10 members but expanded the group to 12 members by gathering other females from other groups. Mishaya was constantly faced with confrontations from other groups in his pursuit of expanding the group. On the 26th April 2011, Mishaya clashed with a non-habituated gorilla family where he was discovered to be seriously wounded together with his family members. He was treated and monitored until recovery.
Unfortunately Mishaya was found dead on 3rd February 2014 by UWA trackers. He died at a tender age of 28 years after a short illness (it was found out that his death was due to coiling of the Intestines).At the time of his death, he was leading 10 members including adult females (including Mwiza), one blackblack, juveniles and infants (including Birungi). Mwine (the blackback) at the time took over leadership.
The group members in Bweza were formally members of the Nshongi family. It was named after Bweza who led the group from Nshongi (their mother family) on the 1st August 2012. Since they were originally members of a group, they were not habituated but instead observations and trial visits where carried out by UWA officials (since they were skeptical to announce the new group because from the behavior portrayed by the group, Rangers thought the group would rejoin Nshongi family).So they wanted to ascertain whether the group was ready for gorilla trekking.
During separation, there were only 8 members but currently the group is comprised of 12 individuals including 2 silverbacks, 3 adult females, 4 blackbacks, I juvenile and 2 infants.
Just like Oruzogo, Kahungye was also opened for tourism in 2011.The name of the group originated from Kahungye hill because this area is the home range of this gorilla group. Originally the group had 29 members including 3 silverbacks but due to intra-male rivalry the group split a year later into two (creating another group called Busingye).
This is one of the interesting groups to track because of their acrobatic antics that seem to entertain visitors who visit the group.
The group is currently comprised of 17 individuals including Rumansi the dominant silverback, two other silverbacks (Gwigi and Ruhamuka), 3 adult females, 3 blackbacks, 3 juveniles, 3 sub-adults and 2 infants.
This remarkable group split from Kahungye group on 4th of June 2012 hence it is currently the newest group to be opened for tourism.
The family is currently comprised of 9 members including the dominant silverback Busingye, 3 adult females, 1 juvenile and 4 infants. This fierce silverback led the group and formed his own family. The name Busingye is a Rukiga word meaning Peace, but this silverback is totally the opposite of his name because he is always picking fights with other groups (mostly fights for female gorillas).
This group is under habituation and tourists can visit it for the fascinating Gorilla Habituation Experience. This group is comprised of 15 members who include 1 silverback (named Bikingi), 5 adult females, 2 sub-adults, 2 juveniles and 5 infants. The current members include former members of Mishaya family and other non-habituated members who are still under close monitoring until they will be open for tourism. Be among the first lucky people to track this family when announcements allowing tourists to visit them are made.
This is located in the Southern part of Bwindi and is the Southern headquarters of Bwindi National Park. The area has the toughest terrain but the most interesting group to track is also found in this sector. Two groups are found here and they include Nkuringo and Bishaho groups.
Nkuringo was the first group to be habituated in Southern Bwindi. The word Nkuringo means “round hill” in the Rukiga language, because the group was first sighted near a hill. This group was known for foraging on local communities’ gardens and hence it was one of the reasons for its habituation (to minimize human-wildlife conflicts)
The group was opened for tourism 2004 after two years of habituation. The Silverback was Nkuringo but he later died in 2008, Safari one of the silverbacks then took over leadership of the family.
Currently the group is comprised of 12 members including 2 silverbacks, 2 adult females, 1 blackback, 2 sub-adults, 3 juveniles and 2 infants (including twins-Katungi and Muhozi though the former died at the age of 18 months).
One of the amazing things about this group is that in 2013, a woman of 94 years tracked this group and fulfilled her lifetime dream of seeing the mountain gorillas. But she was taken on a stretcher to the forest. Tracking this group needs someone to be physically fit (with a lot of energy and stamina and considered the toughest trek in Uganda but is interesting because you enjoy the scenic views of Nkuringo.
This group is one of the two groups undergoing habituation (together with Bikingi group). If you wish to spend more time (at least 4 hours) and have a closer encounter with the Giant Apes, do not miss the chance to participate in the Gorilla Habituation Experience as you learn about their interesting behaviors and take photographs.
Members of this group were originally members of Nkuringo family who had dispersed from the group. Later it was discovered that one of the former silverbacks (Bahati) of Nkuringo family led the parallel family to an unknown place. They were later discovered in early 2012 after a search was launched.
Later this group was named Bishaho because this is the name of the place where the family forages most. Bahati is still the dormant silverback of the group that comprises 8 members including 1 silverback, 3 adult females, 1 blackback, 1 sub-adult, 1 juvenile and 1 infant.
In conclusion, there are 14 gorilla families in Bwindi National Park which include Mubare, Habinyanja, Rushegura, Oruzogo, Kyaguriro, Bitukura, Nshongi, Mishaya, Bweza, Kahungye, Busingye, Bikingi, Nkuringo and Bishaho. All these groups have unique characteristics/behaviors that distinguish them from others. Endeavour to visit any of the groups and achieve your lifetime dream of meeting the rare critically endangered mountain gorillas.