In early 2013, I had the privilege to observe two separate mountain gorilla groups in the wild Virunga Massives of southwestern Uganda.
We hiked for miles through the thick jungle of Bwindi Impenetrable National Park to visit the Kahungye group, consisting of 8 members led by a single silverback, as well as the Nkuringo group, comprised of around 15 members dominated by a husky alpha-male, several females caring for young, and a few other silverbacks that occasionally try to assert their leadership.
Mountain gorillas have never been successfully bred in captivity and at present only number around 1000 in the wild.
The only area mountain gorillas occupy today is a fragmented network of thick jungle in the Virunga Massives of Rwanda, Uganda and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, an area that is still threatened with conflict.
Gorillas share 98% DNA with humans and are among our closest evolutionary cousins.
Great Apes are extremely social animals, and clearly show emotion both towards their own kind, as well as towards the human visitors who come to be in their presence.
A silverback named Rafiki recently took over leadership of the Nkuringo group after the disappearance of his brother, Safari. Rafiki means “friend” in Swahili.
Though not without controversy, gorilla tourism has played an important part in bringing gorilla numbers back from the brink of extinction while aiding the local economy.
In a major setback to the progress made over the past several years, Rafiki, silverback leader of the Nkuringo Group, was killed in June 2020 at the hands of poachers who had encountered and likely startled the gorilla on an illegal hunt.
The death of a leading silverback can often lead to instability causing the group to disband and raising risks to survival.
In July 2020, UWA Rangers arrested four people over the death of Rafiki. They are monitoring the Nkuringo Gorilla Group to ensure the family is protected.
Rafiki’s killer, Felix Byamukama, pleaded guilty and was sentenced to 11 years in prison.
Rafiki was around 25 years old when he died.
Fortunately, recent reports from Nkuringo Walking Safari suggest the group has stabailized under the leadership of a dominant blackback known as Rwamutwe, meaning “big head” in Swahili.
In another sign of hope amid the challenging times of coronavirus, two new gorilla babies were recently born into two separate habituated groups in Bwindi, giving further hope to the survival of these beautiful creatures.
Perhaps they’ll grow up to be as popular as Rafiki was, and maybe even lead their own group one day.