Ethan Kinsey Safaris

Adventures in East Africa

Posts tagged Rwanda
The Gorilla Story Part II. A Brief History of the Gorilla Groups in DRC.
 

If we needed a species as an icon to represent the conservation of Virunga National Park, in the DRC, it would be the Mountain Gorilla, or Gorilla beringei beringei, as it is known to taxonomists. In fact, it could be argued that without Mountain gorillas, the National Park, established in 1925 and formerly known as Albert National Park, wouldn’t exist today. Paradoxically, it was two collectors of gorillas for museums that recognized the unsustainable collection of Mountain gorillas. Charles Akeley who collected for the New York Museum of Natural History, and Prince William of Sweden with their prominent connections were able to lobby the Belgian King and gather international support to establish the protection of Mountain gorillas.

The gorilla story in DRC takes us back to 2 legendary silverbacks, Zunguruka and Rugendo who each led a habituated group of gorillas on different ridges in the forest behind Bukima ranger post. Both were habituated in 1986.

A white board in the rangers office at Bukima showing the group make up. Key: SB: Silverback, BB: Blackback, ADF: Adult Female, SUB: Sub-adult, Juv: Juvenile, Beb: Baby.

Current lead Silverbacks in the six groups accessible from Bukima Ranger Post:

Kabirizi group: Kabirizi

Bageni group: Bageni (Kabirizi's son)

Nyakamwe group: Nyakamwe (Humba's brother, son of Rugendo)

Humba group: Humba (Son of Rugendo)

Rugendo group: Bukima

Munyaga group: Mawazo (& Kasole)

Two stories:

Rugendo

Zunguruka

If all of Rugendo’s sons are his, he could potentially be one of the most successful silverbacks to have led a gorilla group. At the time that he led it, it was a large group of 18 individuals. His son's names are highlighted in bold-italic.

Rugendo was tragically assassinated on the 15th July, 2001, in crossfire between warring militias, however, his genetics and legacy live on.

Rugendo had many sons:

  • Mapuwa

    • Left his father’s group in 1998, with two females.

  • Humba

  • Nyakamwe

    • Humba left with his brother Nyakamwe in 1998. In 2014 they interacted and split into two groups.

  • Senkwekwe

    • Senkwekwe took over the group, though as a young silverback he lacked the strength and experience to keep the group intact. Some of the females left, joining his brother’s group Mapuwa. Senkweke was murdered together with five other gorillas in 2007.

  • Bukima

    • (not Rugendo’s son) Is currently the dominant silverback of the Rugendo group. Kongoman and Baseka are both with him.

  • Kongoman

  • Baseka

  • Ruzirabwob a is a solitary silverback.

  • Zunguruka got his name from the habit of walking in circles. He had two sons, Ndungutse and Salamawho took over the family when Zunguruka died of old age.

In 1994, a wild silverback showed up on the scene and fought with Salama and Ndungutse. He did not win, but the wounds he inflicted on Salama eventually killed him leaving Ndungutse as the sole silverback.

The wild silverback was named Kabirizi.

In 1997, Ndungutse was assassinated. His sons Buhaya and Karateka took over the group, and after a series of fights, Karateka ended up as a solitary silverback.

At this point, Kabirizi returned to the scene and killed Buhaya. The females however refused to follow Kabirizi and were led by the oldest female Nsekuye.

At this point Munyaga, a lone silverback entered the scene and took over the group being led by Nsekuye. It wasn’t long before Kabirizi challenged Munyaga, this time winning and taking with him all the females. Munyaga remained with a small group of sub-adult males. Then in 2007 he went missing during a surge in rebel activities. At that time, Mawazo led the group although he was still a Blackback. He eventually matured and was able to acquire females of his own with his brother Kasole.

Kabirizi continued to succesfully lead his group that grew to 36 individuals. Then in 2013 he suffered a blow when his son Bageni, who had grown up to become a formidable Silverback, challenged him taking with him 20 individuals, including his mother, brother, and 2 sisters.

 
Gorillas, chimps, elephants and zebra
 

This four-chapter safari was in itself a sequel to a safari that debuted in February 2013. Following a very successful safari through the Serengeti with sightings and experiences ranging from wildebeest calving, herds of elephants walking through the fields of golden grass, prides of lions, cheetah coalitions and an intimate viewing of two leopards as they walked along a gully, I was asked to think about planning another safari.

Serengeti, February 2013

Marc and Barry have travelled extensively and particularly enjoy portrait photography, so we decided on an itinerary that would include the opportunity to photograph mountain gorillas in Rwanda, chimpanzees in Mahale Mountains National Park, elephants in Ruaha, and general wildlife in Ngorongoro Crater. When you are interested in photography, it is important to give it time. Most photos, especially of wildlife, are shot with an exposure that is smaller than one 60

th

of a second. It is an incredibly short period of time that is influenced by so many variables. It is essential to be patient and in doing so you increase your chance of experiencing and capturing that special fraction of a second.

Follow the links and enjoy some of those moments they captured.

Chapter 1: Gorillas in Rwanda

Chapter 2: Ngorongoro Crater

Chapter 3: Chimpanzees in Mahale Mts.

Chapter 4: Ruaha National Park

other galleries:

People in Rwanda

People in Tanzania

With both of them carrying very nice cameras, I decided to leave my big camera in my bag and opted to use my iPhone. I’ve noticed that phone photography is becoming popular and there are even courses at university level that you can take. The quick editing that some of the apps offer is also quite fun and easy to use.

The images and a video below were all taken with my iPhone and edited on Instagram- each tells a different story.

This little guy took interest in me and after posing for the photo above began a little performance.

They invite you to play.

Much of the wildlife in Ngorongoro crater is so habituated to vehicles that they hardly move from the road.

Greystoke Camp in Mahale.

Fishing for ants with tools.

You may have seen this pelican on youtube. The new camp pet provides quite the entertainment when you're not trekking the chimps.

Tuskless matriarchs are common in Ruaha.

The wet season in Ruaha can make game viewing a bit difficult but the landscapes are stunning.

 
Celebratory Safari
 

The moon rises as we enjoy sitting around a fire.

The new season kicked off to a wonderful celebratory safari for a well-earned birthday. Two nights in Ngorongoro, three in Serengeti and then a four-day Rwanda trip to see the Mountain Gorillas made for a sweet safari. So here's how we celebrated:

After breakfast on the verandah of the tent, we went for a game drive. Driving around a bush we encountered this impala giving birth- which seemed fitting for a birthday sighting.

The landscapes in northern Serengeti provide a quintessential backdrop to the wildlife sightings in the area. These 500 million year old kopjies provide refuge for lions and leopards. Rock-splitting fig trees (Ficus glumosa) find tiny spaces to establish themselves sending their roots through the cracks in the rocks. Some of them are very old like the one below.

What a perfect tree to have a picnic lunch! The rock at the base was also the perfect table top.

Rounding off the day with sun-downers on a rock with a view.

The celebrations continued in Rwanda with two gorilla treks. Gorilla groups are named after the silverback, the dominant male. We treked to Kwitonda group where this little rascal entertained us for nearly half an hour, and the next day to Agashya group where the weather made it too dark to photograph or film. The Agashya gorillas retreated in the mist and sat in a semi-circle in a cathedral of bamboo.

Kwitonda, the dominant silverback has 4 females and 14 children. He is accompanied by 2 other silverbacks

Gorilla individuals are easily (easily to some) identified by the unique pattern of wrinkles on their nose. By comparing nose prints on the family tree above and the rascal in the video below, I believe his name is Karibu.

 
Congo II. Mountain Gorillas of Congo
 

Kabirizi, a magnificent silverback. Phot by Gian Schachenmann

In a country devastated by genocidal colonial rule, torn by kleptocracy, warring militia groups, and swamped with refugees, it is a wonder that Africa’s oldest national park, Virunga National Park, has managed to survive. The more time we spent walking around the headquarters, the more I was impressed by the Congolese Nature Conservation Institute (ICCN), headed in Virunga by Emmanuel de Merode. The heavily armed rangers who looked more like soldiers were evidence that not everything is peaceful, yet there was an optimistic air that begged us to bring tourism.

The MAN made for a bumpy but fun ride!

We climbed into the back of the 4wd MAN lorry that the ICCN had converted to transport guests on the horrific roads and slowly crawled up toward Bukima ranger post to begin our gorilla trek. The steep, rocky and sometimes slippery 12km road took us nearly an hour and a half to climb, through fields of bananas, cassava, pole-beans, and arrow-root and again, hundreds of children running out to wave. Whereas in most places in East Africa the adventurous route is a chosen option, the route we were on was the only way up the mountain. Wheels spinning and the massive engine straining, we made the last meters to the edge of the forest.

Without the ceremonial briefings of Rwandan gorilla trekking, after registering our names on a random piece of paper, we set off through the fields of potatoes and tobacco that crept right up to the edge of the forest. Startling us, a child ran whooping towards a patch of potatoes, giving us a glimpse of a couple beautiful l’Hoests monkeys as they scampered for safety in the forest. It was fairly easy walking and within an hour we’d reached the spot that would give us the easiest trek through the rainforest to the Kabirizi group that the trackers were monitoring. Compared to Rwanda, the forest trekking was easier. I don’t know how our ranger found the trackers because his radio battery died, but after only an hour we found ourselves with a very large group of gorillas.

Photo by Gian Schachenmann

Mountain Gorillas live in family groups led by a dominant male- an impressive massive animal weighing upward of 500lbs distinguished by the white-haired saddle on his back that earns him the title of Silverback. The pioneer research on Mountain gorillas was conducted by George Schaller, also a pioneer lion researcher in the Serengeti, but their plight was made famous by Diane Fossey and her book, “Gorillas in the Mist”. 

Donning our surgical masks, a precaution to protect gorillas from the various diseases we potentially carry to which they have no natural immunity, we began the precious hour. Kabirizi, a large and intelligent Silverback, took control of the group in 1998 his predecessor was caught in crossfire between the army and rebels. He acquired more females fighting other silverbacks, and now holds one of the largest groups, nearly 5% of the world’s Mountain Gorillas. We followed the family as they moved through the bamboo forest feeding on shoots and young stems, and we were rewarded with some commanding viewing.

With only 820 Mountain Gorillas left, a human disease would be a disaster.

The next morning we found the Humba group (14 individuals) and again enjoyed their calm company for the hour we were allowed. Although there is a minimum distance from which to observe the gorillas, it is sometimes impossible to get out of the way quickly enough should they walk toward you. At one point, when we were backed up against a bamboo clump, I was thrilled at the trust a female showed. Casually walking past us, her tiny baby clinging to her side, she stopped only a few meters away to pull a piece of Sticky-willy that had stuck to the baby’s hair.

 
National Geographic Expedition Feb 2010

Its not every day that you can get anyone older than a child to roll down a hill in the middle of a forest imitating a gorilla. Fortunately, the National Geographic Expedition I was leading had 14 exceptionally fun and different people and when the toddler gorilla decided to violate the 7-meter rule and tuck and roll down the hill, some of us just had to follow suit including the Bibi in the group.

I’m not writing a long entry on this trip but I am going to mention a few highlights. It was an honor to be asked by National Geographic to lead one of their expedition tours in East Africa. Read about the itinerary on their website.

National Geographic Expedition February 2010

There was never a dull moment on the trip, despite some long days packed with game viewing, Maasai boma visits, and the Olduvai Gorge museum. We even managed to find time to deviate from the main roads getting into the thick of easily a hundred thousand zebra on the plains, to sit and watch as a male lion posed on a rock scanning the plains for his pride, and to pick up a less known snake or chameleon for our expert, Bill Branch to brief us on.

The obvious first exceptional experience happened by accident when we noticed a particularly beautiful male giraffe with a pink object hanging from it’s shoulder. A white landrover with Tanzania Wildlife Research Institute (TAWIRI) sticker was inching its way forward as the giraffe appeared to be having a little bit of trouble staying standing. Through binoculars the thin rusted wire noose hung around its neck- a snare set by poachers. A quiet pop and another pink dart landed next to the other one and the giraffe struggling against the drug sat down. The vet’s threw a rope around him and then tried to cover his face and cut the snare from around his neck. Time was ticking and the pliers wouldn’t cut the wire, finally they managed to slip it over his head.

I managed to format my camera memory and lose the photos I’d taken of the safari part but made up for it in Rwanda. I don’t often take pictures of people but the kids performing the Rwandan traditional dance had so much energy invested- just look at their faces!

Gorillas in Rwanda

The boundary of Virunga National Park is marked by a rock wall that keeps the buffaloes and elephants from getting into the potato fields that reach right up to its base. The ranger explains that it also helps to keep people from taking that extra foot or two when they plow their fields and thus protects the park. We clamber over the rock wall and head into the thick bamboo forest.

…Before I built a wall I’d ask to know
What I was walling in or walling out,
And to whom I was like to give offence.
Something there is that doesn’t love a wall,
That wants it down.’ I could say ‘Elves’ to him,
He said it for himself. I see him there
Bringing a stone grasped firmly by the top
In each hand, like an old-stone savage armed….


Today we have to climb for a few hours to see them. We’ve been allocated the most famous Sousa group of Mountain Gorillas and we climb high into the forest. Coming out of the bamboo forest we enter a thicker Hygenia forest where we start to see their signs. The trackers have found them and we push on, joining them back on the edge of the bamboo forest.

… He moves in darkness as it seems to me-
Not of the woods only and the shade of trees.


I am staring into the eyes of one of the worlds few Silverback Mountain Gorillas as he crosses his arms to scratch his shoulder, tilts his head, and watches me. There is a sadness in his big, dark eyes and the furrows on his face like those of a man in deep contemplation who has something he wants to share. Living in the thick dark rainforests of the 15000ft Virunga Massif at the confluence of three countries torn by civil war and an exploding human population. His deep and gentle stare distracts me from the stinging of the nettles we have walked through for the last few hours. We sit there in awe at this gentle and massive animal. The young ones play, seemingly oblivious to us, but they also keep their distance. A black-back sits with his back to us, occasionally glancing at us. Its time to leave soon, and we all wish we could stay a bit longer.

Poem excerpts from Robert Frost's Mending Walls.

This is a bit of an article I wrote about a safari in Rwanda. I hope you enjoyed.