Mountain gorillas are social and gregarious, intelligent and curious. So, much like the human group I trekked with on a mild day in October 2016, then. While waiting for permits our company of eight strangers happily milled about, animatedly wondering aloud what our trek in Volcanoes National Park would deliver. We were right to be excited; our one-hour encounter with the Hirwa group that day produced lifelong Rwandan gorilla trekking memories – and human friendships!
Besides the impressive silverback, Mr Lucky (‘hirwa’ means ‘lucky’ in Kinyarwanda), who spent the hour we were with his family feeding and moving around on his own, we were lucky enough to have a ‘toddler’ in the group. Shyly hanging back behind mom Kabatwa’s legs at first, her curiosity soon got the better of her and her exhibitionism had us open-mouthed with amusement and wonder.
I was enchanted by her acrobatics on the vines, sticking her feet in her mouth – just like a baby! – and sucking her toes or ambling over to drink out of a trickling stream. Then suddenly she stopped what she was doing and waddled over to me. Looking straight up into my face she reached out her arm and put her hand on my thigh. Not one of us dared breathe or move! All too quickly though she dashed back to mom’s ample tummy and on she went with showing off.
Also members of the Hirwa group are a set of twins, born in 2011 to Kabatwa. Twins are a rarity among mountain gorillas and apparently only three sets have been recorded in Volcanoes National Park in the past 50 years. Most recently a set of twins was born to mum Isaro of the Isabukuru group in January 2016. Watch a video of the 2011 newborns here.
But now, having trekked to ‘our’ gorilla group, I needed to understand the families, where they live, and who they are.
After looking at a map of gorilla distribution in Africa, it’s clear to see why the species is split into Western Gorilla gorilla and Eastern Gorilla beringei gorillas, their ranges being separated by the Congo River and its tributaries.
The iconic – but grievously imperilled – mountain gorilla G. b. beringei we track in Volcanoes National Park is a sub-species of the Eastern gorilla.
Mountain gorillas live in groups led by one or more adult male silverbacks. Members of the group comprise females, their young and possibly other younger males (blackbacks) not yet ready to challenge the silverback for leadership.
Volcanoes National Park has 12 habituated gorilla groups which visitors can track. Each gorilla group has unique characteristics making them quite different from one another – and thus it’s well worth considering trekking to see two groups while you are here. A number of our party opted for a second trek the next day, simply to be able to immerse themselves in the experience rather than fret about camera settings and getting the perfect shot.
Meanwhile, the individual groups’ stories make for insightful and entertaining reading!
Each gorilla group’s name has a fascinating provenance too; some poignant (such as Titus, named after Dian Fossey’s orphaned research gorilla), some for a geographical feature (Susa, after the river), some for behaviour (Amahoro, meaning serenity or Ugenda, meaning mobile), and some for status (Bwenge, meaning wisdom, after the Gorillas in the Mist movie-star group’s silverback).
While a group’s home range may cover up to 15 km2, their movement is limited to barely a kilometre on an average day so the groups do not compete with one another. With their flexible diet – mountain gorillas mostly eat foliage including leaves, stems, pith, and shoots – mountain gorillas live comfortably in the Park’s variety of habitats ranging from bamboo to cloud forest.
My trek to meet a mountain gorilla family left me humbled and inspired: quietly observing our relatives as they get on with the business of being gentle, vegetarian giants is a truly life-affirming activity.