This year marks the twentieth anniversary of a very special family, the Mubare family group in the Bwindi Impenetrable Forest in the south western corner of Uganda. They are of course, gorillas. Why are they so special? They were the first official group or family to be habituated and receive visitors thus starting one of the great safari tourism experiences of our time, gorilla trekking.

The group was so named by the UWA (Uganda Wildlife Authority) rangers because they were found in the Mubare hills, deep in Bwindi forest. The official habituation (effectively getting used to human presence) of this gorilla group started on the 15th October 1991 and lasted for two years. They received their first official (and paying) visitors on the 13th October 1993.

Like all families, their fortunes fluctuate over time. At the start of the habituation process, this family group had 12 members. Their numbers peaked at over 18 and they are currently at a lowly 5 members. The group was led almost immediately by the powerful alpha male, silverback gorilla named Ruhondeza. In the local Rukiga dialect Ruhondeza means “sleepy fellow”and was meant to signify his attitude to life. He was powerful and fought many violent encounters with other wild gorillas. The family lost members due to these attacks as well as through internal confrontations with lesser males challenging his authority. This “sleepy attitude” indicated a lack of consistent supervision of the group which resulted in fragmentation of the family and hence the lowly numbers of today.

In March 2012, the family group was attacked by an unhabituated silverback male. Time had caught up with Ruhondeza and he was too old to fight back and protect his family. He was consequently forced out of his family group and then lived a solitary existence until his death three months later on the 27th June 2012 in Rubona village . He was buried at Buhoma Bwindi Park headquarters by the UWA rangers. A monument is planned for his grave. He was almost 50 years old.

The present group (Gorilla Family) of five is led by the leading silverback Kanyonyi, one of Ruhondeza’s sons. Kanyonyi was so named after his place of birth , a neighbouring hill. Kanyonyi means a bird in the local dialect.

The legacy of this group is vast. Gorilla tourism has become an international conservation success story. Mountain gorillas have shown a significant increase in their population. There are today eleven gorilla families in Uganda and ten in Rwanda which have been habituated and are available for trekking. Several social and scientific discoveries have been made along the way. It was previously thought for example that gorillas only fed on the pith of the banana plant. By observing the Mubare group, it was was observed recently that they removed the peels and ate the fruit before it was ripe.

Gorilla trekking is a strictly controlled activity.You are only allowed to approach them from a certain distance and can only stay one hour. The cost of this activity is not cheap. A one day permit costs $600 per person but this restricts numbers whilst adding much needed funds to provide security for these animals as well as the maintenance of the national park infrastructure.

So twenty years on, we raise our glasses and say cheers to the Mubare family for allowing us humans to watch one of the greatest sights in the animal kingdom.

See more Gorilla Trekking Safaris here; http://www.uyaphi.com/uganda/safari/

A Special Gorilla Family by Nicolas Edwards

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