Uganda’s Gorilla Kingdom: Exploring Mountain Gorilla Groups, Their Family and Social Structures in Bwindi and Mgahinga
A mountain gorilla family is a social group of closely related individuals of the Gorilla beringei beringei species, a subspecies of the eastern gorilla. They are mainly found in the Virunga Mountains, which cover parts of Rwanda, Uganda, and the Democratic Republic of Congo. These gorillas are known for their unique appearance, with black fur and silver hairs that develop on the backs of older males. Collaborative conservation efforts aim to protect them from threats, sometimes involving controlled tourism for funding and awareness. In this article, we take a close look at the gorilla group structure and discover the habituated gorilla families you may encounter while on a gorilla trekking expedition in Uganda.
Understanding The Gorilla Family Structure
A gorilla family is composed of a dominant silverback male, usually the patriarchal leader, adult females with various roles, juveniles, dependent infants, and young blackbacks. They exhibit strong bonds and communication, relying on vegetation for food. Let’s take a quick look at each member of the gorilla family:
The Silverback, the dominant leader
The silverback, a dominant adult male in the gorilla family, earns his name from the silver hair that emerges on his back as he matures. He assumes the pivotal roles of safeguarding the group, guiding them to food sources, and, crucially, making significant decisions. Typically, any additional silverback within the family would be a brother to the leader, adhering to his guidance and decisions, especially not touching his primary mates.
These are the mature females in a gorilla family, with some of them related to the silverback and others his primary and secondary mates. They play a critical role in the group’s social structure and reproduction.
These are the offspring of the adult females. Juveniles are gorillas that have not yet reached sexual maturity and depend on their mothers for care and protection.
These are the youngest members of the family structure, typically less than three years old. They are entirely reliant on their mothers for nourishment and care.
These are young adult males who have yet to become silverbacks. They are often the sons of the silverback. They may eventually leave the family to establish their own groups or challenge other silverbacks for dominance.
Mountain gorilla families are characterized by strong social bonds and cooperative behaviors among their members. The silverback serves as the leader and protector, ensuring the safety and well-being of the entire family. Families communicate through vocalizations, body language, and grooming behaviors. They also have specific ranges within their habitat, and they move around to find food, mainly consisting of vegetation like leaves, stems, and fruits.
Due to their vulnerability, various groups collaborate to protect mountain gorillas from extinction threats. Conservation organizations, national parks, tour operators like Nkuringo Safaris, and local communities work together to safeguard these magnificent creatures from habitat loss, poaching, and disease. Some gorillas have been habituated for tourism to fund conservation programs and allow visitors to see them.
The Number of Gorilla Groups Available for Trekking in Uganda
Uganda is a remarkable gorilla trekking destination with 20 habituated gorilla families open to tourism. Among these families, 19 can be found in the magnificent Bwindi Impenetrable National Park, while the remaining gorilla family resides in Mgahinga National Park. With over half of the world’s total gorilla population living in Uganda, this country offers an exceptional opportunity to observe these magnificent creatures in their natural habitat.
The Uganda Wildlife Authority has diligently executed the meticulous process of habituation for the gorilla families available for tourism, which familiarizes gorillas with human presence. This comprehensive process, spanning 3 to 5 years, ensures the gorillas grow accustomed to human proximity before they are accessible for trekking within their native habitat.
The 2019 gorilla census indicated approximately 459 individuals residing within Bwindi’s confines. Considering the mountain gorillas across Rwanda and Congo’s Virunga mountain range, the global population reaches around 1,063.
Uganda enhances the visitor experience by offering multiple trekking sectors for habituated gorilla families. Bwindi Impenetrable National Park is divided into four sectors: Buhoma, Ruhija, Rushaga, and Nkuringo. Additionally, Mgahinga National Park boasts its own trekking sector. All sectors are under the management of the Uganda Wildlife Authority, ensuring meticulous conservation and management of these precious gorilla families.
To safeguard the gorillas and their habitat, UWA, the wildlife governing body, carefully controls visitor numbers and issues permits in limited quantities. The Uganda Wildlife Authority releases over 160 permits daily, yet demand consistently outpaces supply. This prudent management approach is essential for preserving the well-being of the gorillas and their natural surroundings.
Recommended reading: The Gorilla Habituation Experience in Bwindi Impenetrable Forest
Exploring Uganda’s Gorilla Trekking Sectors and Families
Uganda presents four gorilla trekking sectors, each offering an exceptional chance to visit Africa’s mountain gorillas in their native surroundings. Bwindi Impenetrable National Park, housing the majority of Uganda’s gorilla families, encompasses four distinct sectors: Buhoma, Ruhija, Rushaga, and Nkuringo. Every sector promises a different trekking experience, characterized by diverse landscapes, vegetation, and encounters with various gorilla groups.
Buhoma, nestled in the park’s northern reaches, boasts gentler slopes than the other three and vibrant forests. Ruhija, situated to the east, reveals a captivating blend of bamboo and montane woodlands, crafting an enchanting trekking journey. In the park’s southern expanse lies Rushaga, renowned for its diverse gorilla families, occasionally granting visitors the opportunity to encounter larger groups. Nkuringo, gracing the southwest, rewards trekkers with panoramic vistas and stimulating hiking experiences.
Additionally, Mgahinga National Park, resting in Uganda’s southwestern corner, adds another dimension to the experience with its volcanic landscapes and distinctive gorilla group.
Each sector weaves a tale of Uganda’s gorilla habitats, showcasing their captivating beauty and offering an unforgettable window into the lives of these majestic creatures. Below is an overview of the gorilla groups habituated to human presence within Uganda’s trekking areas.
Buhoma Sector – North of Bwindi
Buhoma sector, one of the gorilla trekking trailheads in Uganda, is located in the northern section of Bwindi Impenetrable National Park. It is also where the park headquarters are located, offering a convenient starting point for captivating gorilla treks. This sector is particularly favored for its relatively simpler gorilla expeditions and its easy connection to wildlife safari extensions in the western regions of Uganda. Noteworthy is the Buhoma sector’s collection of exquisite wilderness safari lodges and camps, which provide a touch of luxury amid the wild. Even the mountain gorillas themselves occasionally venture beyond their forested borders, sampling the lush vegetation surrounding Buhoma’s thoughtfully adorned camps. They may enjoy curiously observing the cheerful visitors converging from around the globe, often accompanied by intriguing playthings. Let’s uncover the gorilla groups you may encounter in Buhoma.
Gorilla Groups in Buhoma
The Buhoma sector is home to four distinct Gorilla Groups, offering a total of 32 available permits for trekkers to embark on remarkable encounters. Among these groups are:
- Mubare Family: This group, christened after the Mubare hills, holds historical significance as the first habituated group in 1991. With 18 members, it is under the leadership of Ruhondeza Silverback.
- Habinyanja Family: Formerly larger but subsequently divided, the Habinyanja family now comprises 18 members led by Makara Silverback.
- Rushegura Family: Originating from a split within the larger Habinyanja group, the Rushegura family now boasts 20 members guided by Mwirima Silverback.
- Katwe Family: This group, headed by Katwe Silverback, comprises 9 members, offering a more intimate yet captivating encounter.
Ruhija Sector – Northwest of Bwindi
Ruhija is the quietest sector for gorilla trekking in the northeast of Bwindi Impenetrable National Park. This sector, though less frequented by tourists and tour operators, offers a distinctive charm with a modest selection of lodges. Embracing its tranquil atmosphere, Ruhija is home to three gorilla families living in its serene backdrop. The sector also boasts some of the forest’s highest peaks, inviting adventurers to a rewarding yet intimate encounter with nature.
The Ruhija Sector is home to four Gorilla Groups, offering a total of 32 permits for trekkers seeking memorable encounters. These groups are:
- Bitukura Family: Habituated in 2008, the Bitukura family comprises 13 members, guided by the dominant silverback, Ndahura.
- Oruzogo Family: Established through habituation in 2011, the Oruzogo family consists of 22 members, including two silverbacks. Tibirikwata holds the role of the dominant silverback.
- Mukiza (Kyaguliro B) Family: Comprising 15 members, the Mukiza Family is led by the dominant silverback, Mukiza.
- Kyaguriro Family: Often observed for research purposes, the Kyaguriro Family consists of 9 members under the leadership of Rukina.
Rushaga Sector – South of Bwindi
Rushaga Sector, located in the southern part of Bwindi Impenetrable National Park, is a popular destination for tourists due to its gorilla habituation experience. This experience allows trekkers to spend at least four hours in a day with a wild gorilla family. Rushaga sector has eight gorilla groups that are available for gorilla trekking, and two groups are reserved for research and habituation experiences. Currently, Rushaga has more fully habituated gorilla groups than any other sector in Bwindi and is the only sector offering habituation experiences.
Rushaga Sector has eight Gorilla Groups, offering a total of 64 permits per day for a truly immersive encounter. These groups include:
- Nshongi Family: Originally the largest habituated group, the Nshongi family currently comprises 25 members, led by two silverbacks.
- Mishaya Family: Separated from the Nshongi group, the Mishaya family consists of 10 members under the leadership of Mishaya Silverback.
- Busingye Family: Having broken away from the Kahungye family, Busingye Silverback leads this group of 10 members.
- Bweeza Family: Formed in 2011, the Bweeza family consists of 9 members.
- Kahungye Family: The largest group with 18 members, the Kahungye family was habituated in 2011.
- Bikyingi Family: Currently undergoing habituation, this group boasts 12 members.
- Muchunguzi Family: Comprising 8 members.
- Unnamed Group: With 8 members, this group currently lacks an official name.
Nkuringo Sector – South of Bwindi
Nkuringo offers breathtaking views of the forest canopy, the undulating rift valley landscape, and the Virunga Volcanos chain. The sector is home to Rafiki, one of Bwindi’s most famous silverbacks who tragically fell victim to poachers during the June 2020 pandemic lockdown. Additionally, Nkuringo has three habituated gorilla groups available for trekking, with another group currently undergoing habituation. So, if you’re into breathtaking views and getting up close with gorilla legends, Nkuringo’s where the action’s at.
The Nkuringo sector is home to three gorilla groups, offering a total of 24 permits for visitors.
- The Nkuringo family, which experienced the unfortunate loss of its leader Rafiki in 2020, consists of 12 members led by Rwamutwe Silverback and his brother Tabu. Despite the challenging hike, tracking the Nkuringo group is exceptionally rewarding, providing a delightful experience.
- The Christmas family, which split from the Nkuringo group, consists of six members led by Christmas Silverback, Rafiki’s brother.
- Lastly, the Bushao family comprises 12 members led by Bahati Silverback.
Ntebeko – Mgahinga Gorilla National Park
Mgahinga has 1 gorilla family, with 8 permits available
- Nyakagezi—has 10 members who are quite big in size.
How to book a gorilla permit
Embarking on a gorilla tracking experience is an absolute must on any Uganda Safari, but it requires obtaining a gorilla permit in advance. At Nkuringo Safaris, our planning specialists can assist you in securing these permits, ensuring you witness the mighty gorillas in their natural habitat. Additionally, we offer personalized Uganda Safaris, handling all logistics and managing your entire tour for a seamless and unforgettable adventure.
While independent travelers can book permits directly at the Uganda Wildlife Authority office in Kampala, we highly recommend using a trusted tour operator like us to avoid potential logistical challenges. It is crucial to book gorilla permits well in advance, as they can be scarce, particularly during peak seasons.
A gorilla trekking permit in Uganda costs USD 700 per person, with discounts available for residents with work permits at $600 and East African citizens at UGX 250,000. For an even more immersive experience, the gorilla habituation permit allows visitors up to 4 hours with the gorillas, costing USD 1500 per person.
Don’t miss this incredible opportunity to connect with these magnificent creatures in their natural habitat!
Best time to visit gorilla families in Uganda
Gorilla trekking in Bwindi Impenetrable Forest is accessible throughout the year, but the optimal time to visit a gorilla group is during the dry seasons. These seasons typically occur from June to August and December to February when the heavy rainfall subsides, making the trekking experience more favorable.
Bwindi Impenetrable Forest experiences a tropical climate, with its weather and environment influenced by the forest itself. The annual average temperatures range from 7 to 15 °C (minimum) to 20 to 27 °C (maximum). The park receives an annual rainfall between 1,400 and 1,900 mm. The rainy season is observed from March to April and September to November.
The forest’s vegetation plays a crucial role in regulating the climate and rainfall patterns. The dense forest cover promotes evapotranspiration, which enhances rainfall in the surrounding region. The forest also helps to reduce soil erosion, minimize flooding, and ensure the flow of streams even during the dry season. Additionally, during the dry seasons, the forest trails become drier and less slippery, facilitating easier trekking and photography.
The high season, which attracts a significant number of tourists, typically spans from June to September. It is advisable to book permits well in advance during this period to secure your spot. On the other hand, the low season falls in March, April, May, October, and November, during which permits are more readily available, and visitor numbers are relatively lower.
Consider these factors when planning your gorilla trekking adventure in Bwindi Impenetrable Forest to ensure an enjoyable and memorable experience.
Primate Safety Precaution
Mountain gorillas are gentle giants. They show very little aggression toward each other, and their overall demeanor is exceptionally peaceful. There is always the potential for danger when you are close to wildlife. However, you can reduce risks significantly by exercising caution and safety measures and following park rules.
- Keep a safe distance from primates.
- Do not visit chimps when you are ill or with an infectious disease.
- Human waste must be buried 30cm deep.
- Do not use flash photography.
- Back away slowly if the animal approaches you.
- In the forest, the path or trail does not belong to you. Never block an animal’s path.
- If a gorilla charges, follow the guide’s example – crouch down slowly, do not look the gorillas directly in the eyes, and wait for the animals to pass.
- Don’t make any quick movements.
What to pack for a gorilla tracking safari
It would be best if you considered the weather when packing for this exciting experience. If your trip entails a fly safari, you may be required to pack light since baggage is limited to 15 kgs. Make sure you have packed sunscreen, poncho or raincoat, warm clothing, insect repellant, money belt, long-range camera, sturdy hiking shoes, flashlight, and extra rechargeable batteries.
Nkuringo Safaris has a detailed list of items to pack for your safari upon confirming your booking.
Meet A Gorilla Family on Uganda Safari
When reserving a gorilla trekking permit in Uganda, the UWA booking office requires us to select one of the five available park sectors. Your chosen sector will determine which gorilla group you’ll have the opportunity to encounter during the trek. As a licensed agency since 2007, Nkuringo Safaris can handle the gorilla permit process on your behalf, and our experts will assist you in familiarizing yourself with the gorilla groups included in your permit.
To begin planning your unforgettable adventure, feel free to contact our local safari experts at firstname.lastname@example.org or use our convenient contact form to request more information. We look forward to engaging in a chat with you and ensuring a remarkable gorilla trekking experience in Uganda.