A Family Saga: 20 Years Of Gorilla Tracking in Uganda

October 16, 2013

This week marks the 20 year anniversary since mountain gorillas in Bwindi Impenetrable National Park in southwest Uganda received their first official visitors. The first gorilla family to be habituated for tourism was called Mubare, after the hills they were first located on. Habituation for this group began on 15th October 1991, and two years later, on 13th October 1993, commercial gorilla tracking commenced in Uganda.

The fortunes of this group have had their ups and downs. Initially they were made up of up to 18 individuals but their numbers declined to as little as five members after a period of increased infant mortality, the disappearance of several blackbacks, and repeatedly losing females to rival wild groups. As Ruhondeza, the silverback, became older and weaker, he attempted to safeguard his family by leading them to the relative safety of farmland bordering the park.

Ruhondeza, Mubare Gorilla Family, Bwindi, Uganda

On 27th June 2012, Ruhondeza passed away. A few months prior to his death, his group had been overthrown by a wild silverback and the once-mighty Ruhondeza spent several months as a solitary male, living near a small village. Despite the fact Ruhondeza was feeding on banana crops belonging to this community, the village agreed to leave him in peace, recognizing his enormous contribution to establishing gorilla tourism in Uganda and bringing relative prosperity to the area.

Today the Mubare group lives on and is gaining in numbers once again. Ruhondeza‘s son, Kanyonyi, reclaimed his family, and has led interactions with other groups to increase his numbers. Only two weeks ago, clients traveling with us in Uganda were lucky enough to witness an interaction between Kanyonyi and the Rushegura gorilla family. The Mubare group now has eight members and is growing all the time.

In conservation terms, despite their trials and tribulations, Mubare are a success story. For twenty years they have been at the forefront of gorilla tourism and community conservation, and their original silverback was not killed by poaching or diseases, merely by old age.

Today, a further ten habituated gorilla families are available for tracking. Some of these were habituated from a wild state, others are splinter groups formed when their silverbacks left an existing tourism group. The funds raised by tourist visits play a vital part in the conservation of the species, as well as wildlife management across Uganda. The communities around the park also benefit – both from a share of the monies raised, but also from the extra jobs and revenue generated by the tourism infrastructure around Bwindi.

Mubare played a vital role in making all of this possible, and anyone tracking this friendly family should consider themselves privileged to meet this historic family. They may be a relatively small group, but what they currently lack in size they make up for in stature, as they are without doubt, the first family of gorilla tourism in Uganda.

Posted by Anne-Marie Weeden

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