The Volcanoes national park in Rwanda has a total number of of about 380 mountain gorillas and 10 habituated gorilla families which are available for gorilla trekking. The volcanoes national park is part of the wider Virunga mountain ranges spreading all the way to the Democratic Republic of Congo. About 500 mountain gorillas inhabit the Virunga range. The other half live in Uganda’s Bwindi impenetrable forest and Mgahinga gorilla parks.
Mountain gorillas live in family groups led by a dominant silverback. During Gorilla tours, travelers are assigned a particular gorilla group based on their preferences, accommodation and overall level of fitness. Some gorilla groups live deep in the forest and require longer tracking hours. Rwanda has 10 habituated gorilla groups. Gorilla families are divided into two in Rwanda – Those for research purposes and those open to tourists. The Shida and Beetsme group are research groups and have the highest number of individuals.
Just like it is done with Uganda’s gorilla families , only eight people can visit each gorilla group in a day. This implies that only 80 Gorilla permits are available for booking in a particular day. Locating some of these groups involves dealing with difficult and sometimes steep terrain. Gorilla groups in Rwanda move to a different location each day as they build new nests for the night. Tracking every group has its challenges and opportunities. If you doubt your overall fitness, there are paid porters to help you all the way up.
Habituated Gorilla Families in Rwanda
The 10 habituated gorilla groups in Rwanda are:-
- Susa Gorilla Group (Susa A Family)
- Karisimbi Gorilla Group (Susa-B)
- Sabyinyo Gorilla Group
- Amahoro Gorilla Group
- Umubano Gorilla Group
- Agashya Gorilla Group
- Kwitonda Gorilla Group
- Hirwa Gorilla Group
- Bwenge Family Group
- Ugenda Gorilla Family
Susa Gorilla Group (Susa A Family):
The Susa group, made famous by the zoologist Dian Fossey and her research activities, is one of the most preferred gorilla groups by visitors. The group now contains 28 members including 3 silverbacks. The name “Susa” in Kinyarwanda was borrowed from the nearby Susa river. The gorilla group initially had 42 members before it broke into two because of a feud. This gorilla family tends to live high up in the mountains and hence the most difficult to track – sometimes taking a whole day. Park rangers always know their location but on days when they wander too far away, tourists may not be allowed access to them. The famous playful young twins Byishimo and Impano make this gorilla group full of activity and exciting to watch. Then there is Poppy one of the oldest habituated gorillas. If you are adventurous and fit, this might just be the gorilla family for you.
Karisimbi Gorilla Group (Susa-B):
This gorilla group has 15 members and is usually found on the slopes of the Karisimbi volcano. This is the gorilla family that split from Susa (Susa-A) after a long feud and hence the name Susa-B or more commonly Karisimbi. Tracking this gorilla group is difficult and if they wander too far on a particular day, gorilla tracking activities can be cancelled. The trackers usually go ahead of the visitors to confirm the location of the gorilla family and then relay this information to colleagues leading the tourists. If you are in great shape and can endure the long trek up the Karisimbi volcano slopes, get ready to be rewarded with beautiful scenery that make the whole experience worth every penny.
Sabyinyo Gorilla Group:
This is a small gorilla group of about 8 members led by the powerful silverback Guhonda. At 220kgs, Guhonda is perhaps the largest silverback in the park. The group derives its name from the Sabyinyo “Old man’s teeth” Volcano around which they live. Guhonda has kept his family together by excluding and relegating his rival silverback Ryango to a loner outside the group. The group contains playful juveniles and is easy to spot because they stay near the parks edge.
Amahoro Gorilla Group:
The Amahoro gorilla family contains 17 members led by Ubumbwe. The group name means “peaceful” and Ubumbwe the dominant silverback has always demonstrated this quality while leading the group. Ubumbwe remains calm and peaceful even after losing a few group members to Charles another silverback formerly with the group. Charles took advantage of Ubumbwes calmness to steal some females and to form the Umubano group. The Amahoro gorilla family lives at the slopes of mount Visoke. Though reaching the group involves climbing steep slope, visitors love this group because of their juveniles, predictability and calmness.
Umubano Gorilla Group:
Umubano means “living together”. The Umubano group was once part of the Amahoro family until Charles the leader broke away from Ubumbwe the Amahoro dominant silverback. As he grew older he started undermining the calm Amahoro group leader. After constant confrontation with Ubumbwe, Charles decided to make off with some females from the Amahoro family to start his own. The gorilla family contains 11 individuals with 6 youngsters and lives in the area near the Amahoro family. This gorilla group is visited by many tourist because of the less effort required to reach them as well as the unique personality of the group.
Agashya Gorilla Group:
This group was known as “Group 13” and led by Nyakarima before Agashya challenged him to a deadly fight after which he made off with the entire family up the volcano. This complete takeover was the first to be observed by gorilla researchers. After moving as far away as possible from Nyakarima, Agashya continued increasing his family number by stealing members from other groups and taking on loners. The group leaves near the Sabyinyo gorilla group. Whenever he senses trouble for the group, Agashya gathers all members and flees to his favorite safety spot on top of the volcano. Because of this, the gorilla group can be difficult to track. The group has now grown from 13 to about 25 members.
Kwitonda Gorilla Group:
With 18 individuals that include two silverbacks, this is a difficult group to track. Led by Kwitonda “humble one in Kinyarwanda”, this group originated from Gorilla groups in Congo. They live around the slopes of Mount Muhabura but tend to move within a wide geographical area that makes tracking cumbersome but exciting.
Hirwa Gorilla Group:
This is a relatively new group that was created when some individuals from Group 13 and the Sabyinyo family came together to form their own group. They are found on the slopes of Mount Sabyinyo led by a dominant and very protective silverback. The Hirwa name means “lucky one” because the group was lucky to have more individuals join them voluntarily. This unusual group formation was witnessed in 2006 and now has 16 members including twins. Locating this group can be difficult on certain days.
Bwenge Family Group:
Bwenge means “wisdom”. Some of the gorilla group members featured in the drama “Gorillas in the Mist”. The group was formed in 2007 by Bwenge the dominant silverback after leaving his group of birth and being joined by female members from other families. The family contains 11 individuals but reaching them is difficult as they live up a steep and sometimes muddy hill on the slopes of Karisoke Volcano.
Ugenda Gorilla Family:
The Ugenda group lives around the Karisimbi area and contains 11 members including 2 silverbacks. Ugenda means “being on the move” in Kinyarwanda and was used in reference to the roving nature of the group. Because of their wandering habit, tracking them can be very difficult on some days.