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The mountain gorilla (Gorilla beringei beringei) is one of the two subspecies of the eastern gorilla. It is listed as critically endangered by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN). There are two populations; one is found in the Virunga volcanic mountains; within three National Parks: Mgahinga, in south-west Uganda, in north-west Rwanda and Virunga in the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). The other is found in Uganda’s Bwindi Impenetrable Forest National Park.
The fur of the mountain gorilla is often thicker and longer than that of other gorilla species which enables them to live in colder temperatures. Adult males are called silverbacks because of a saddle of gray or silver-colored hair which develops on their backs with age. The hair on their backs is shorter than on most other body parts and their arm hair long. Gorillas can be identified by nose prints unique to each individual. Males have a weight of 195 kg (430 lb) upright standing with a height of 150 cm and usually weigh twice as much as the females. Adult males have more pronounced bony crests on the top and back of their skulls, giving their heads a more conical shape.
The mountain gorilla is most active between 6:00 am and 6:00 pm. Many of these hours are spent eating as large quantities of food are needed to sustain its massive bulk. It forages in early morning, rests during the late morning and around midday and in the afternoon it forages again before resting at night. Each gorilla builds a nest from surrounding vegetation to sleep in and constructing a new one every evening. Only infants sleep in the same nest as their mothers. Gorillas leave their sleeping sites when the sun rises at around 6 am, except when it is cold and overcast; then they often stay longer in their nests. Like all great apes other than humans, its arms are longer than its legs. It moves by knuckle-walking (like the common chimpanzee), supporting its weight on the backs of its curved fingers rather than its palms.
Habitat and ecology
The mountain gorilla inhabits the Albertine Rift montane cloud forests and of the Virunga volcanoes. The vegetation is very dense at the bottom of the mountains, becoming sparser at higher elevations, and the forests where the mountain gorilla lives are often cloudy, misty and cold. The mountain gorilla spends most of its time in the Hagenia forests, where gallium vines are found year-round. All parts of this vine are consumed; leaves, stems, flowers, and berries. It travels to the bamboo forests during the few months of the year when fresh shoots are available and it climbs into subalpine regions to eat the soft centers of giant senecio trees.
The mountain gorilla is primarily herbivore; the majority of its diet is composed of the leaves, shoots and stems. It also feeds on roots (3.3%), flowers (2.3%), and fruit (1.7%), as well as small invertebrates (0.1%). Adult males can eat up to 34 kilograms (75 lb) of vegetation a day, while a female can eat as much as 18 kilograms (40 lb).
The mountain gorilla is highly social and lives in relatively stable, cohesive groups held together by long-term bonds between adult males and females.
The dominant silverback generally determines the movements of the group, leading it to appropriate feeding sites throughout the year. He also mediates conflicts within the group and protects it from external threats. When the group is attacked by humans, leopards, or other gorillas, the silverback will protect them even at the cost of his own life. He is the center of attention during rest sessions and young gorillas frequently stay close to him and include him in their games. If a mother dies or leaves the group, the silverback is usually the one who looks after her abandoned offspring, even allowing them to sleep in his nest. When the silverback dies or is killed by disease, accident, or poachers, the family group may be disrupted. Unless there is an accepted male descendant capable of taking over his position, the group will either split up or adopt an unrelated male. When a new silverback joins the family group, he may kill all of the infants of the dead silverback.
A typical group contains: one dominant silverback, who is the group’s undisputed leader; another subordinate silverback (usually a younger brother, half-brother, or even an adult son of the dominant silverback), one or two black backs who act as sentries; three to four sexually mature females who are ordinarily bonded to the dominant silverback for life and from three to six juveniles and infants.
Males leave when they are about 11 years old and often the separation process is slow; they spend more and more time on the edge of the group until they leave altogether. They may travel alone or with an all-male group for 2–5 years before they can attract females to join them and form a new group. Females typically emigrate when they are about 8 years old, either transferring directly to an established group or beginning a new one with a lone male. Females often transfer to a new group several times before they settle down with a certain silverback male.
The midday rest period is an important time for establishing and reinforcing relationships within the group. Mutual grooming reinforces social bonds and helps keep hair free from dirt and parasites. Young gorillas play often and this helps them learn how to communicate and behave within the group. Activities include wrestling, chasing, and somersaults. The silverback and his females tolerate and even participate if encouraged.
For reasons unknown, mountain gorillas that have been studied appear to be naturally afraid of certain reptiles and insects. They are also afraid of water and will cross streams only if they can do so without getting wet, such as crossing over fallen logs.
Sounds classified as grunts and barks are heard most frequently while traveling and indicate the whereabouts of individual group members. They may also be used during social interactions when discipline is required. Screams and roars are used for alarm or warning and are produced most often by silverbacks.
Although strong and powerful, the mountain gorillas are generally gentle and very shy. Severe aggression is rare in stable groups but when two mountain gorilla groups meet, the two silverbacks can sometimes engage in a fight to death, using their canines to cause deep gaping injuries. For this reason, conflicts are most often resolved by displays and other threat behaviors that are intended to intimidate without becoming physical.
Conservation efforts have led to an increase in overall population of the mountain gorilla (Gorilla beringei beringei) in the Virungas and at Bwindi. In both Bwindi and the Virungas, groups of gorillas that were habituated for research and ecotourism have higher growth rates than unhabituated gorillas. Habituation means that through repeated, neutral contact with humans, gorillas exhibit normal behavior when people are in proximity. Habituated gorillas are more closely guarded by field staff and they receive veterinary treatment for snares, respiratory disease and other life-threatening conditions. Nonetheless, researchers recommended that some gorillas remain unhabituated as a bet-hedging strategy against the risk of human pathogens being transmitted throughout the population. Despite their recent population growth, the mountain gorilla remains threatened. As of 2008, mountain gorillas were listed as Critically Endangered on the IUCN Red List and are dependent on conservation efforts to survive.
This is one of the most severe threats to gorilla populations. The forests where mountain gorillas live are surrounded by rapidly increasing human settlement which leads to the reduction of the genetic diversity for each group. Through shifting (slash-and-burn) agriculture, pastoral expansion and logging, villages in forest zones cause fragmentation and degradation of habitat. The resulting deforestation confines the gorillas to isolated deserts. The impact of habitat loss extends beyond the reduction of suitable living space for gorillas.
Mountain gorillas are not usually hunted for bush meat but they are frequently killed by traps and snares intended for other animals. They have also been killed for their heads, hands, and feet, which are sold to collectors. Infants are sold to zoos, researchers, and people who want them as pets. The abduction of infants generally involves the loss of at least one adult, as members of a group will fight to the death to protect their young
Despite the protection garnered from being located in national parks, the mountain gorilla is also at risk from people of a more well-meaning nature. Groups subjected to regular visits from tourists and locals are at a continued risk of disease cross-transmission, this is in spite of attempts to enforce a rule that humans and gorillas be separated by a distance of 7 metres at all times to prevent this. With a similar genetic makeup to humans and an immune system that has not evolved to cope with human disease, this poses a serious conservation threat.
Difference between Gorillas and Chimpanzees
- Male chimps are usually less than 70 kg and are around 120 cm tall. Male gorillas weigh around 150 kg and are around 180 cm tall. Females of both species weigh less than males and stand shorter.
- Gorillas have larger head crests, larger jaw muscles, larger limbs and thicker bones. Their feet and hands are less flexible. Chimps have more slender hands and feet and their thumbs are proportionately larger.
- Chimps have proportionately larger brains and are slightly more intelligent on average.
- Gorillas have higher sexual dimorphism than chimps.
- Chimps can make simple spears, chew leaves to use as sponges, throw stones to deter baboons, use a rock and anvil to crack nuts and use a stick to fish termites. They have also been seen using sticks as weapons against others. Gorillas have been seen using sticks to check the depth of water, make tree nests and they can also fish for termites.
- Gorillas have black skin and dark brown/black hair. Alpha males can have silver backs. Different subspecies have different hair thickness. Chimps have peach or black skin and black hair.
- Gorillas are mostly herbivorous but some do eat termites. They also eat fruit but in smaller quantities. Due to their larger colon and appendix, they can have a high fibre diet and they eat leaves, nettles, celery, some roots and stems. Eating meat can upset their gut bacteria composition and this can cause heart diseases. Gorillas can spend 8 hours a day eating.
- Chimps have many males and females who have multiple breeding partners. There is a strict hierarchy and chimps become higher by fighting or popularity. Females leave the group to avoid inbreeding. Chimps can plan and team up to remove a leader. Chimps also wage war on neighboring clans and will steal their trees, territory and members. Some of the stolen members could end up as food.
- Chimps and gorillas both live in trees but gorillas climb less due to their habitat and weight. They both nest in trees but sometimes on the ground if they are too heavy.
- As signs of aggression, chimps kick trees and scream. They show all their teeth. Gorillas beat their chests and charge.
GORILLA HABITUATION EXPERIENCE
Gorilla Habituation experience was introduced by the Uganda Wildlife authority for visitors to get involved in the gorilla habituation process. The gorilla habituation adventure gives tourists more time upto 4 hours with a greater chance to get to know more about their closest wild relatives the mountain gorillas.
In Uganda gorilla habituation is only done in Bwindi Impenetrable Forest National Park and has close to 17 habituated Gorilla Groups that include; Rushegura, Mubare, Bitukura, Habinyanja, Mishaya, Nkuringo, Bweza, Oruzongo, Busingye, Nshongi, Kahungye, Katwe, Christmas, Kyaguriro and Nyakagezi. However out of these only two groups at Nkuringo and Rushaga were set aside as the gorilla families available for habituation and these include Bushaho and Bikingi Gorilla groups. Bikingi is located in the Southern sector of Bwindi National Park in Rushaga area and it is led by Bikingi silverback while Bushaho family thrives within the Nkuringo sector of Bwindi National Park.
Only 4 tourists are allowed to be part of the habituation. The mountain gorilla habituation permit is sold at $1500 per person and can be bought from the Uganda wildlife authority in Kampala or got through a trusted tour operator. The mountain gorilla habituation permits should be booked early enough because there are very few slots for tourists and besides that the mountain gorilla habituation process is a highly desired activity.
Tourists going for mountain gorilla habituation are expected to report to the national park headquarters by 7:30 am in the morning for a briefing about the whole process. While here, they are also told about the major safety procedures to follow while in the forest to ensure a successful jungle expedition and to get the best of the mountain gorilla habituation experience. The mountain gorilla habituation rules and regulations are similar to the mountain gorilla trekking rules.
After the briefing, tourists are directed to the forest as they follow the mountain gorilla group undergoing habituation. The four hours with the gorillas does not include the time taken to hike up the forested mountains to get to the mountain gorillas which makes the mountain gorilla habituation experience a very enjoyable activity way more than just mountain gorilla tracking where tourists only spend an hour with the mountain gorillas.
MOUNTAIN GORILLA FAMILIES
Uganda hosts 17 habituated gorilla families and each gorilla family is appointed 8 gorilla permits every day for visitors. Some of the habituated gorilla families include; Rushegura, Mubare, Bitukura, Habinyanja, Mishaya, Nkuringo, Bweza, Oruzongo, Busingye, Nshongi, Kahungye and Nyakagezi.
Rushegura Gorilla Family
This family is located in Buhoma. The family has 19 members with one silverback although the number may change depending on members joining in and out of the group, new born arrival and death. The group separated from its former family Habinyanja in Rushegura place in the year 2002 and the separation was led by Mwirimu who loved staying at a close range with his family members. He later broke away with 7 members including 5 females, other gorillas joined him and they became 12 members. In 2010 he became stable with his family which increased to 19 members.
At the age of 25 Mwirima shows his strength of ruling and even winning fights over other wild gorillas. The family used to cross to the neighboring country (Democratic Republican of Congo) but always came back and settled in their home of Bwindi Impenetrable Forest National Park. This group is one of the calmest families and are usually seen wandering around the lodge gardens or visit the souvenir shop of Gorilla Forest Camp as they are very curious as well. They do not shy away from visitors, which gives them a chance to have a close look as they carry out their daily activities.
Habinyanja Gorilla Family
This habituated family is trekked in Buhoma sector. Habinyanja gorilla family derives its name from a Rukinga word “Nyanja” which means “a place with water”. The reason for this name is that the group was first seen near swamp ponds in Bwindi Impenetrable Forest National Park. The gorilla family was habituated in 1997 and first visited by tourists in 1999.
At the time of habituation the group was led by the dominant silverback “Mugurisi” which means “Old man” and after passing away because of old age, the two brothers Rwansigazi and Mwirima shared power. Rwansigazi was supposed to succeed Mugurisi but because at the time of his death Mwirima had equally grown stronger and thus wanted challenge for family leadership. For several years, Rwansigazi and Mwirima shared power after their father’s death but as time went on the two were so different that the group couldn’t continue.
Rwansigazi was an adventurous gorilla and liked travelling while Mwirima who liked his dad Mugurisi preferred to stay at a small range. In 2002 the two silverbacks decided to separate without any fights whereby those members that preferred adventure followed Rwansigazi while those who preferred a small range remained with Mwirima. The group that followed Rwansigazi maintained the name Habinyanja and the members who stayed with Mwirima came to be known as the Rushegura family.
Mubare Gorilla Family
This family is located in Buhoma and consists of 8 individuals including 1 silverback. This mountain gorilla group was the first habituated within Uganda and was open to tourists in 1993. The group was named after the gorgeous Mubare Hills where it was first seen. The Mubare family had 18 gorillas however because of some of them moving to different groups, life loss during fights as well as the death of a baby in 2009 this number reduced to 5 members.
In March 2012, the family was attacked by a wild gorilla group who broke Ruhondeza’s leadership and took away some of the females. Old Ruhondeza took refuge in a nearby community forest but continued to be monitored by researchers, until he died in his sleep on 27 June 2012. In the meantime, Ruhondeza successor Kanyonyi managed to expand the family again and increased it to eight members including a baby named Kashundwe. Gorilla trekking in this group is much adorable due to the increase in number of members and recently the group was filled with joy when they welcomed two babies in the same year 16th October and 7th November 2019.
Katwe Gorilla Family
This new family is located in Buhoma sector of Bwindi Impenetrable Forest National Park and habituation in this group began in 2015 but investigations are still undergoing about the actual number of gorilla members in this family though trekking has already started. The family under went through a habituation process of 3 years which made it familiar to human presence and guarantees travelers of their security in presence of these gentle giants.
Bitukura Gorilla Family
This family is located in Ruhija part of Bwindi Impenetrable Forest National Park and is the most recent habituated gorilla family. The mountain gorilla family was named after a river that bears the same name and here habituation started in July 2007 whereby the group was opened for tourism in October 2008. It normally takes two years of habituation training but this group was ready for visitors in 15 months. The group originally consisted of 24 members but reduced to 14 members and a newborn arrived recently on the scene. It is a peaceable family with four silverbacks having the second youngest silverback Ndahura as their leader. Despite the other group recruits and loss or several members unlike in some other groups, the Bitukura Gorilla Group gets along with one another.
Oruzogo Gorilla Family
This family is found in Ruhija sector of Bwindi Impenetrable National Park and consisted of 23 members including 1 Silverback. The family was opened for tourism on 20th June 2011 and was led by a dominant Silverback “Tibirikwata”. This is one of the most popular families with tourists because of the playful and energetic juveniles and toddlers in the group. The family experienced a growth in number due to the births whereby this group also received more joy when a set of twins was born in March 2012.
Kyaguriro Gorilla Family
This family is located in Ruhija sector of Bwindi Impenetrable National Park and the group was first habituated in 1997 however the family was not visited by any visitor by then since there was no assurance for the gorilla permits to trek this family. This family started with an aging silverback named Zeus who later on died in exile after being banished by his rival Rukina.
In April 2015 Silverback Rukina the leader of the group, was struck to death by lightning and after his death the family sought the leadership of Mukazi, a young silverback who took over power till he got ambushed by a Silverback from the Bitukura Family that caused the break away and separation of the family which led to the birth of the groups; Kyaguriro A, Rukara and Kyaguriro B-Mukazi in 2016. The family apparently has 15 members including 2 Silverbacks. Despite its habituation, Kyaguriro Gorilla Group has not been visited by tourists to this present day because it was put aside for research.
Mishaya Gorilla Family
This family is located in Rushaga area in the Southwestern part of Bwindi Impenetrable Forest National Park. Mishaya gorilla family was once part of the Nshongi gorilla group but in 2010 Silverback Mishaya decided to form its own new family which consisted of 12 individuals with 1 silverback but figures went on changing due to births, deaths, friends and much more.
Silverback was known for his aggressiveness that he fought and was seen in many battles with other Gorilla groups and unhabituated gorilla families as well. His interactions with other Gorilla groups could result into fights that won him females to join and expand his family. In 2011, Mishaya was involved in a heated fight with an unhabituated Gorilla family which left him and a 2 year old infant with injuries all over the body which was reported by the trackers as ‘Severely Injured.’ The injuries were treated by veterinarians from the Mountain Gorilla Veterinary Project. Unfortunately, Silverback lived only 28 years and on 3rd Feb 2014 he lost his life. He was found dead by the Park trackers in the morning, he had no injuries, no history of illness and so the cause of his death was unclear.
Bweza Gorilla Family
This family is located in Rushaga sector of Bwindi Impenetrable Forest National Park and consisted of 7 members including 1 silverback and 2 infants. The group started with the Nshongi family which was the largest Mountain Gorilla family by then to be habituated in Uganda but later split into more groups because of some misunderstandings between its members. The family had many fights in 2013 and so Bweza the Silverback opted to finally break away from the rest of the family. The park rangers thought the family would get back but unfortunately they didn’t and this prompted the group to be opened for tourism in the year 2012.
Busingye Gorilla Family
The family is located in Rushaga sector of Bwindi Impenetrable National Park and the group consisted of 9 members. The name Busingye means “peace” and this group separated from Kahungye family. The two separated in the August 2012 due to some misunderstandings.
Nshongi Gorilla Family
Nshongi gorilla group is located in Rushaga sector of Bwindi Impenetrable National Park. The family consists of 36 individuals and the word Nshongi derives from “Omushongi Gwoboki” meaning “honey” and referred to the deep color of the river. Habituation of this family begun in 2007 and it was officially launched for tourism on 26th September 2009. In 2010, the group split into two; the Nshongi group with 26 individuals, including 4 silverbacks and newly formed family led by the Silverback Mishaya with 10 individuals.
Kahungye Gorilla Family
Kahungye Gorilla Family is found in Rushaga sector of Bwindi Impenetrable Forest National Park. The name Kahungye comes from a hill in Rushaga where the family was first spotted and it comprised of 13 members including 3 Silverbacks. However the number keeps on changing due to a number of factors like demise of gorillas, new births, new entrants and much more. The family was opened for tourism in October 2011 but unfortunately they split in less than a year to give birth to a new group called Busingey Gorilla Group.
Nkuringo Gorilla Family
This family is found in Nkuringo sector of Bwindi Impenetrable Forest National Park and it was opened up for tourism in 2004. Nkuringo is the Rukiga word meaning a “round hill”. Initially the group consisted of 17 members but went on reducing to up to 12 members. Nkuringo family was the first gorilla group to be habituated in the entire southern sector of Bwindi Impenetrable Forest National Park in 1997. The group was led by an elderly Silverback Nkuringo who died in April 2008 leaving behind two silverbacks; Safari and Rafiki and it was Safari who took over the leadership. This was the first gorilla family to welcome a set of twins from mother Kwitonda; they were named Katungi and Muhozi but unfortunately Katungi died at the age of 1.5 years due to illness.
Christmas Gorilla Family
This is one of the new groups located in Nkuringo sector of Bwindi Impenetrable National Park and it is led by a dominant Silverback known as Christmas who is believed to have been born on Christmas day. The family has 9 members including 3 adult females, 3 black backs and two infants but mainly 6 members seen moving around.
Nyakagezi Gorilla Family
This is the only family inhabiting the Mgahinga National Park that protects half of the total number of Mountain Gorillas. The group consisted of 10 members with 3 silverbacks and the group was led by the Silverback Mark who led and protected the Nyakagezi Gorilla Group. The group liked travelling and crossing borders between Uganda, Rwanda and Democratic Republic of Congo but later returned and settled at the Mgahinga National Park in 2012 with 10 members but later more news came up in 2013 when the group welcomed a new born baby increasing the number to 11 members.
Below are some of our short and long Uganda gorilla packages to Bwindi Impenetrable Forest and Mgahinga National Park.