Tap to book now

Mountain Gorillas

Mountain Gorillas In Volcanoes National Park

Over 604 Mountain gorillas reside in the Virunga Mountains–a triangle where Congo, Rwanda and Uganda and the eight Virunga volcanoes intersect. Precisely, this is where the mountain gorillas of Rwanda reside.

Moutain gorillas are the earth’s rarest and most majestic creatures. They are very special creature and before you travel to Rwanda to see them, you should research and learn as much as you can about them. Below are some of the mountain gorilla facts you should know as you plan to go for gorilla trekking in Rwanda.

What Is A Mountain Gorilla

Scientifically known as known as Gorilla beringei beringei, the mountain gorilla is one of the two subspecies of the eastern gorilla (Gorilla beringei).

Moutain gorillas are the biggest and most powerful living primates and also our closest relatives after chimpanzees and bonobos, sharing about 98% of our DNA.

As their name suggest, they live in the forested mountains of East-Central Africa at elevations between 2438 and 3962 metres. At this elevation, it is not unusual for the temperature to drop below freezing at night.

Therefore these great apes have several adaptations that help them survive in their environment. And one of them is their long, thick coats which help to keep them warm. Mountain gorillas, in fact, have longer, thicker and darker fur than their lowland cousins.

They do not survive in captivity. The gorillas you’ve encountered in zoos are most likely from the lowlands of western Africa.

Mountain gorillas are also endangered and according to 2018 census results, there are approximately 1063 Mountain Gorillas remaining in the world with about 459 staying in Bwindi Impenetrable National Park in Uganda.

Once on the verge of extinction, their survival is one of Africa’s greatest conservation success stories. The renowned mammologist George Schaller was the first to research mountain gorillas in the late 1950s. But it was Dian Fossey who brought their plight to international attention, studying them for 18 years in Rwanda’s Volcanoes National Park.

She lived with them in the forest, raised funds for rangers and protected the gorillas despite extreme danger from poachers, culminating in her unsolved murder in 1985. At that time, Fossey had estimated that just 250 gorillas survived, under threat from habitat loss, extensive poaching and the crossfire of civil wars.

How Big Is A Mountain Gorilla

As the world’s largest primates, adult male mountain gorillas can be as heavy as 220 kilograms (485), stand up to 6 feet (2 meters) tall with a broad bare chest almost that wide and have an arm span of up to 8 feet (2.4 meters).

Females are a bit more petite, weighing about 100 kilograms and standing 5 feet tall.

Because of their immense size and obvious extraordinary physical strength that appear intimidating, many travellers on Rwanda gorilla tours to Volcanoes National Park often wonder if Rwanda gorillas are aggressive or dangerous. The good news is, these massive apes are gentle giants and very shy.

However, when disturbed and threatened they can roar, bark, or hoot very loudly. They can also stand upright and beat their chests, throw things and even make aggressive charges. Also, a mother gorilla will fight to the death if she feels her baby is threatened.

What Do Mountain Gorillas Eat

The mountain gorilla is primarily an herbivore feeding on stems, leaves, bamboo shoots and fruits. Adult males can eat up to 34kg (75 pounds) of vegetation a day, while a female can eat as much as 18kg (40 pounds).

Moutain gorillas’ only true preys are insects such as termites and ants which they eat to supplement their diet.

How Do Mountain Gorillas Move

Moutain gorillas primarily move the ground. Like all great apes other than humans, their arms are longer than their legs. Therefore, they move on all fours using their knuckles, supporting their weight on the backs of their curved fingers rather than their palms.

Besides knuckle walking, they sometimes walk bipedally/on two legs for short distances while carrying food or in defensive situations.

They will however, climb into fruiting trees if the branches can carry their weight. Gorillas also move on all fours even when they are in trees – and hardly jump from branch to branch.

Do Mountain Gorillas Live In Families

Moutain gorillas are highly sociable creatures, living in family troops of anything from 5 to 50 individuals.

A group typically consists of one dorminant male silverback (the male’s back turns silver when he reaches sexual maturity at about 13 years old), one or more subordinate silverbacks, as well as a harem of three or four mature males, and several young gorillas.

A silverback will start to form his family at about 15 years of age, most normally by attracting young sexually mature females from other families. He may continue to lead the group well into his 40s.

The leading silverback forms the focal point of a gorilla family and when he dies, his family may disintegrates.

The major role a silverback is to protect the gorilla family from external threats and mediates conflicts within the group. He is the group’s center of attention and he makes all the decisions in family including determine the movement of the group.

He will bark and hoot as he structures the activities of the day, which often includes moving within a home range of roughly 16 square miles, feeding, resting, and preparing nest in evening for sleeping.

How Many Gorilla Families Are In Volcanoes National Park

Rwanda’s Volcanoes National Park has 12 habituated gorilla families which are available for gorilla trekking.

Each gorilla group has something to offer which may be in terms of character, size, dominance or more.

Some groups are led by silverbacks that are very peaceful and if you indeed portray the same then it would be recommended to bond with a peaceful family.

All gorillas in the habituated gorilla families of Rwanda are known by name and have been given names to identify them through the Kwita Izina baby gorilla naming ritual, an event like no other on Earth.

Kwita Izina is one of the world’s most respected forums for conservation and sustainable tourism.

Here, invited guests take to the huge, silverback-shaped bamboo stage and assign each gorilla with a carefully chosen name according to the baby’s behavior and unique character traits, and which Rwandans believe will encourage good fortune and play a prominent role in shaping the infants’ futures.

The festivities – which include traditional music, dancing and performances from local students and artists – attract thousands of visitors each year, with conservationists, rangers and communities; international celebrities, dignitaries and the country’s President attending the ceremony near the town of Kinigi, at the foothills of the Virunga Massif.

Gorilla Families In Volcanoes National Park Rwanda

Below are the details of guerilla groups in Volcanoes National Park which yo can visit during your gorilla safaris in Rwanda

  1. Susa Gorilla Family (Susa A)

Susa gorilla family derives its name from Susa River which runs through the area where the group calls home. Susa Gorilla group is the best-known gorilla family of Volcanoes National Park since this is the one that Dian Fossey studied from 1967 until she was murdered in 1985.

Originally, this group was quite large comprising of about 42 members, but it split into two in 2008. The breakaway family was named the Karisimbi group (Susa B).

Today, the group consists of 28 members, including 3 silverbacks. A fascinating feature of this family is the presence of twins, named Byishimo and Impano.

Rwandan mountain gorilla mothers are known to abandon one of their twins because it is so difficult to care for two, but Nyabitondore chose to care for both babies despite their playful and boisterous nature.

  1. Karisimbi Gorilla Family (Susa B)

Karisimbi gorilla group formed after splitting from the original Susa Gorilla Family or Susa group in 2008.  It was originally known as Susa B and later named Karisimbi in 2010 at the gorilla naming ceremony – Kwita Izina.

Just like its name, this group resides on slopes of Mount Karisimbi. If you welcome the challenge of a tough hike, then you will enjoy tracking this group, which lives on the higher slopes of Mount Karisimbi in Volcanoes National Park at heights up to 4507 meters.

It could take you sometime to get there, as it often requires a full day of hiking to reach the family. Trackers usually locate the group a day before spirited gorilla-seeking vacationers set off on the trek, but you must be prepared for the possibility that they have moved too far away and it is not possible to track them.

The group currently has 16 members led by 1 silverback called Nyakangaga. Nyakangaga parted ways along with 13 members and moved far away to form their own family.

  1. Amahoro Gorilla Family

In Kinyarwanda, Amahoro means peace and therefore this group is known for its peaceful ways. It is under the leadership of a silverback called ‘Ubumwe’ which means ‘togetherness’.

Amahoro family lives on Mount Bisoke slopes and it can occasionally move up the hence, making it difficult to track them.

Silverback Ubumwe is known for his congenial nature, which led him to lose some of his members to another group called Umubano.

Amahoro gorilla group is currently comprised of 17 members including;
  • 1 Silverback (Ubumwe),
  • 2 blackbacks,
  • 5 juveniles,
  • 5 adult females and
  • 4 infants.

They are the safest to track as the as these primates hardly get emotional.

  1. Umubano Gorilla Group

Umubano Gorilla Family was once a part of the Amahoro gorilla group.  The group splited into two following a challenge to the head of the Amahoro group leader called Ubumwe, by a rival silverback named Charles.

Having matured into a Silverback of the same rank as Ubumwe, Charles refused to take orders from him and constantly fought Ubumwe for months.

Charles formed his own group named Umubano, the Kinyarwanda word for “living together”.

Umubano is currently composed of 13 members and you have a chance to meet them during your gorilla treks in Rwanda. These include;

  • 1 silverback,
  • 1 sub-adult,
  • 3 adult females, and
  • 6 babies
  1. Sabyinyo Gorilla Family

Sabyinyo Gorilla Group lives in the highlands between Mounts Sabinyo and Gahinga. It is such an impressive family that many visitors on Rwanda gorilla safaris wishes to visit.

As you will learn during your Rwanda gorilla trek, the dominant Silverback of group called Guhonda has taken forceful steps to remain the only alpha male in the family.

Within most gorilla families, when a male matures and becomes a silverback, he is often forced out of the family. Such was the fate of Ryango, a rival to Guhonda who was ousted and remains a lonely silverback.

At an enormous 220 kg, Guhonda is the largest of all the alpha males in the gorilla groups of Volcanoes National Park.

This giant silverback leads a group 16 gorillas. This group also does not go far from one of the luxury safari lodges in Volcanoes National Park called Sabinyo Silverback lodge.

Silverback Guhonda was born in 1971. He was around during the horrific Rwanda genocide of 1994. Not only is he the oldest silverback alive (that we know of), he is, purportedly, the largest.

In 2021, Guhonda will be 50 years old, which is impressive for mountain gorillas, whose average lifespan is between 40 and 50 years in the wild.

Perhaps he will exceed the lifespan of Ruhondeza, the first habituated mountain gorilla in Bwindi Impenetrable National Park, who died of natural causes in 2012 and was more than 50 years old.

  1. Agashya Gorilla Group (Group 13)

Agashya has the most interesting history of any gorilla group in Volcanoes National Park. The family started with 13 members and it was formerly known as group 13. It was initially led by Silverback Nyakarima.

However, Nyakarima was defeated in a fierce fight against a challenger called Agashya which means ‘the news’. Agashya took his time to watch Nyakarima and assess his strengths before inciting him to fight.

Having defeated the alpha male, Agashya took over the entire group. He moved to the higher slopes of the mountain with his new family, deliberately making it challenging for the old alpha to follow and track them down.

In fact, he still uses this strategy whenever he senses the presence of another silverback that might challenge him.

Agashya has consolidated the group by incorporating lone gorillas and the family has grown from 13 to 20 members including;

  • 3 silverbacks
  • 9 blackbacks
  • 6 females,
  • 2 babies

It is interesting to note that this group resides on the same slopes of Volcanoes National Park as the Sabyinyo group, but as already note, its silverback is careful to avoid danger.

  1. Kwitonda Gorilla Family

Kwitonda Group lives on the lower slopes of Mount Muhabura and sometimes moves to the high elevations at times. The family was founded by a silverback Kwitonda which means ‘humble one’ who died in 2012.

Silverback Kwitonda crossed from Democratic Republic of Congo in 2013 due to pressure from other gorilla families in the area and move to form a group of own in a new area.

Kwitonda died at the age of 40 and his health started deteriorating due to pressure from young gorillas in the group.

Before his death, he allowed other male gorillas to mate with females of the family. It is believed that he knew he wasn’t strong enough to lead the family yet the group need to grow.

By allowing this, he strengthened the family bond. Akarevuro who was young in the leadership of Kwitonda has taken over the leadership of the family. This group is composed of 29 members including;

  • 2 silverbacks
  • 2 blackbacks
  • 10 adult females
  • 1 sub-adult male
  • 7 juveniles, and
  • 7 babies.
  1. Hirwa Gorilla Group

Hirwa Gorilla Family is currently led by silverback Munyinya. This gorilla group often crosses from Volcanoes National Park in Rwanda to Uganda’s Mgahinga Gorilla National Park.

Hirwa was formed in 2006 when members of two families broke away from their groups to form a new one. Some of the members originally belonged to the Sabyinyo group, while others came from the Agashya group.

Since this family was created out of pure luck, their name translates to “lucky one.” The group lost its 4 members who died from a lightning strike on 3rd February 2020. Currently, the group has 11 members.

  1. Ugenda gorilla Family

The Ugenda translates as “on the move” or “mobile” in the local Kinyarwanda language. This group has the habit of often moving from one location to another.

They do not seem to prefer any particular territory, and this makes tracking them a bit time-consuming.

Ugenda gorilla group currently has 11 members including 2 silverbacks. They are likely to be found around Mount Bisoke.

  1. Bwenge Gorilla Family

Some members of the Bwenge Gorilla group featured in the “Gorillas in the Mist” movie about Dian Fossey.

This family derives its name from a Silverback known as ‘Bwenge’ a Kinyarwanda word for ‘wisdom’.

The Bwenge family is currently made up of 11 members together with a silverback and is majorly found between Mounts Karisimbi and Bisoke and had gone through hard times when it lost 6 young ones.

  1. Muhoza Gorilla Family

Muhoza Gorilla group was founded by Silverback Muhoza. Muhoza founded his group with 7 members on in December 2016.

He grabbed 2 adult females from the Hirwa group and the family is now composed of 14 members; 1 Silverback, 8 adult females and 5 infants.

  1. Igisha Gorilla Family

Igisha Gorilla Group originated from Susa B Group after separating in 2014. The group is currently led by Silverback Igisha.

The group is formerly known as Susa B family which was later named after the head silverback Igisha.

Today the group comprises of 26 members and is one of the largest groups in Volcanoes national park. This group is graded as a tough trek.

Want to visit Volcanoes Park?

Want to visit Volcanoes National Park, Rwanda's only mountain gorilla trekking park?