With an estimated number of 400 mountain gorillas residing in the Virungas, Rwanda is one of the only 3 countries in the world that harbours the endangered mountain gorillas. These amazing giant mammals live in the depth of the volcanoes national park jungle. The virungas has three major volcanoes namely; Bisoke, Mikeno and Karisimbi and the mountain gorillas spread over these areas. The park has a total of 10 habituated mountain gorilla families that are opened to people for tourism and 2 mountain gorilla families are reserved for research. A group of a maximum of 8 tourist visitors are allowed to trek these gorilla families on a single day and they can only spend a maximum of an hour in their presence. These families include;
- Susa Gorilla Group Family:
The Susa Group was a group of Gorillas that Dian Fossey (the famous American zoologist who dedicated her life to studying gorillas) studied during her many years in Rwanda until her untimely death in 1985. Today the Susa Group has 28 family members although at one time it had over 40 members; but like many families it had a family feud and split.
The group is named after the Susa River which runs through the area where the Susa Gorilla roams and calls home in Volcanoes National Park. It consists three silverback in its group and there is also Poppy who is thought to a member of the Susa Group when Dian Fossey studied them – he was born in 1976
The trek with the Susa Group can often take all day and it’s the most sought out groups by most of the people who come here to trek. It is also the longest to track due to the distance to the area where the group is found on that day. On rare occasions when the group is up too high, the trek is canceled for that day.
- Agashya Mountain Gorilla Family
This family initially had 13 mountain gorilla members however the mountain gorilla numbers increased and today the family has about 25 individual members including a dominant silverback, 12 females, 3 youth gorillas and 7 young ones.
The dominant silverback Agashya won the leadership crown after over powering the then group leader Nyakairima in a deadly fight that ensued between the two. After winning, Agashya decided to move the gorilla family uphill for safety as a way of protection against any intruders.
Agashya managed to increase the mountain gorilla numbers in his family from 12 to 25 as he is a very ambitious gorilla. Agashya is also very protective of his gorilla family and once he senses any danger and intrusion, he will move with the whole mountain gorilla family uphill. This sometimes makes it harder for tourists to trek this gorilla family.
- Sabyinyo group
The group was named after the Sabinyo volcano that means the ‘old man’s teeth’. It is also the nearest gorilla family and the easiest to track inhabiting the gentle slopes between Mt. Sabyinyo and Mt. Gahinga. The gorilla family is popular for its giant silver back called Guhonda which has kept its main challenger, Ryango out of the family to remain as a lonely silver back. The Sabinyo group is made up of 13 members including one silver back after another was exiled from the group. The commander of the group; Guhonda is the largest silver back in the park weighing about 220kg.
- Umubano Group
This means “neighborliness”, Umubano consists of 11 individuals: 1 Silverback; 1 Sub adult male; 3 Adult females and 6 Babies. Umubano broke off from Amahoro family after the dominant silverback (Ubumwe) was challenged by Charles, now the leader of Umubano. As Charles matured into a silverback of the same rank as Ubumwe, he could not stand being given orders and therefore decided to stage a fight and challenge Ubumwe. The fight went on for weeks and months until finally, Charles managed to snatch from Ubumwe a few females and formed his own group; thus Umubano was formed.
Ever since then, he has commanded respect and recognition from Ubumwe in that it has been observed, on various occasions, there have been interactions between the two silverbacks, but no fighting has been seen since the great battle ended.
- Amahoro group
Amahoro is a Kinyarwanda word that means serenity and as the name goes, the family is known for its peacefulness and amiability which on the other hand has caused its silver back Ubumwe to lose some members into another group called Umubano. Amahoro means ‘peace’ and the group has lived to the expectations of her name and is regarded as the most peaceful group. It comprises of 18 members including 2 silver backs and it is a bit taxing to track as one has to endure a hike up Mt. Bisoke slopes where the group established their home. Most of the time they are roaming the slopes of Mount Visoke and it is a trek of medium difficulty. Please keep in mind that you determine the speed with which the trek is done and a potter can always be availed for support as it will make it easier to trek this Gorilla family on that day.
- Kwitonda Gorilla Family Group
The Kwitonda Gorilla Family Group which means the “humble one” consists 17 family members and is found on the slopes of Mount Muhabura. Trekking this group is a bit more difficult to track because it most times it keeps far away in thick forested areas that cannot be easily accessed by tourists but this adds to the excitement of the day.
- Ugenda Mountain Gorilla Family
Ugenda family inhabits the Karisimbi volcanic area with a total of 11 mountain gorilla members and has 2 silverbacks. This mountain gorilla family is also among the difficult groups to trek because it always move from one area to another building new nests for the nights thus the name Ugenda that explains the family’s characteristic.
- Bwenge (Wisdom) Gorilla Family Group
The Bwengwe Gorilla Family Group is tracked on the slopes of Mounta Karisoke Volcano and it means wisdom. It is named after their leader called Bwengwe and the gorilla family was formed in 2007. The group has also experienced a lot of loss in that six of its infants have died although it is presently thriving with new births under the strong leadership of Bwengwe.
Some members of this group were featured in the “Gorillas in the Mist” movie and a trek to where the Bwenge Gorilla family roams can take a good three hour trek which makes it one of the more difficult groups to track.
9. Hirwa Gorilla Family Group:
This is a relatively new Gorilla Family which was birthed from two different Gorilla Families that is Agashya or and the Sabyinyo Gorilla Group consisting nine family members and they are usually tracked in the foothills of Mount Sabyinyo on the Gahinga side of the Mountain.
One of the most interesting things about this group is that it has twins and the tracking skill level can be difficult depending on the location of the Hirwa Gorilla Family Group on that day.
- Karisimbi Gorilla Family Group
This group was formed after the largest gorilla family group, the Susa group split into 2 groups after what was a family feud. It presently consists 15 group members and it is found on the lower levels of Mount Karisimbi Volcano and the trek here can be most difficult for some.
Like with the Susa Family this is a long trek and on rare days when the Karisimbi Family is too far away the treks to them are canceled.
Despite the trek being difficult, it also equally rewarding in that you will see a lot including some stunning scenery and at the end of the day you will forget the tire that you endured.