Virunga Gorillas – Information about Gorillas of Virunga National Park, Congo Gorilla Tour Guide, Facts, Gorilla trekking Guide, History, and Travel Tips
Worldwide, there are only about 1063 mountain gorillas and of these, about 250 individuals occur within the Virunga jungles and these are one of the reasons why some travellers will beat all odds (such as visa acquisition challenges and instability challenges) to make trips to the Eastern side of Democratic Republic of Congo. For anyone who has read about this country will be aware that the country shelter two popular sub-species of gorillas (Eastern lowland gorillas and mountain gorillas), but the latter is trekked within the 780000-hectared Virunga National Park.
The spectacular Virunga National Park is in Eastern Democratic Republic of Congo with an area of about 3050 square miles comprising of humid montane rainforest, lowland closed forest, open savannah grassland, Swamp, Lava plains and Afro-alpine vegetation.
History about Virunga Gorillas
The existence of Virunga Gorillas dates back to over 22-32 million years ago when old fossil remains were found in the East African region, although were first discovered by Robert Von Beringe in 1902. He was a German Captain who first spotted them on Mount Sabyinyo and later christened as “Gorilla gorilla beringei by Matschie in 1903.
Carl Akeley (an American naturalist and Explorer) convinced then King of Belgium, Majesty Albert to Protect the area sheltering mountain gorillas and for this reason, Virunga National Park was created in 1925 as “Albert National Park after the King, officially making it the first Park in the African Continent.
Gorilla Groups in Virunga National Park
A total of 8 habituated gorilla groups are found in Virunga National Park and only 64 visitors can trek these Great Apes each single day.
Kabirizi Group consists of former members of Zunguruka Group headed by a wise silverback of the same name. Habituation of the group ended in 1994, within Bukima area. After the death of Zunguruka, the group was led by his Ndugutse until poachers also killed him in 1997. It was left under the leadership of Buhanga (Ndugutse’s son and Zunguruka’s grandson). The killers of Ndugutse were later found and sent to jail but one year later (in February) Buhanga was also killed during a fight with Kabirizi. This briefly left the group under the control of a Matriarch known as Nsekuye.
In the same year Munyaga (a solitary silverback) took over leadership but fights with Kabirizi still continued. It is during these fights that Kabirizi grabbed all females to form Kabirizi Group. He was however challenged by his son Bageni, taking over 21 members and there are about 24 members in Kabirizi.
Having developed into a silverback in 2010, Bageni patiently waited until 2013 to challenge his father Kabirizi. He left with 21 members to establish his thrilling family. It was later named after him. Subsequent clashes with his father gave Bageni the opportunity to take another female gorilla thus leaving only three adult females in Kabirizi. During this numerous conquest attempts he attacked an unidentified gorilla group of 40 members still undergoing habituation and took two of its adult females. There are now 36 members in Bageni group that includes 3 silverbacks.
Rugendo Gorilla Group
Like Zunguruka, Rugendo is one of the oldest gorilla groups in Virunga National Park and has been in existence since 1984. For a period of 14 years, this group grew from a size of 10 to 18 members prior to splitting into two, the break-away group formed by his son Humba. Following the tragic murder of Rugendo in 2001, leadership remained under his son called Senkwekwe. His leadership lasted only 6 years, following his murder with 5 other gorillas by poachers. It is from here that the Word’s first mountain gorilla orphanage was established and named after Senkwekwe. After years of conflicts and therefore not being monitored, it was discovered that Bukima had taken over the group.
Named after silverback Mapuwa, a former member of Rugendo Group who left in 1995 with his brother Ruzirabwoba to live as solitary males. They took this bold step with hope of enjoying future benefits that include being leaders and it took the older of the brothers (Mapuwa) three years to finally become the head. After many confrontations from Lulengo group, he grabbed two more females to establish his family. He also fought Rugabo and Kwitonda families to expand the group by four members. He was overthrown by Mvuyekure, temporarily forcing him to exile but he later returned as a subordinate silverback and there are currently 24 members with two silverbacks.
Before being known as Lulengo, this group was originally referred as Rugabo and is widely known for its painful past in the hands of poachers. In 1994 the dominant silverback together with 2 adult females were savagely killed when an infant gorilla was being kidnapped. On the positive note, the group gained more members in 1998 after a confrontation with Mapuwa group then received an emigrating female in 2014 after a clash. There are now 11 members in the group.
Official habituation of this group was finalized in 1998 and this led to the reduction on attacks by poachers, although it was already known to researchers owing to the regular interactions with Buhanga whereby a number of members were received here. However, the numerous fights with other groups also cost the lives of its members, dropping to 6 individuals from 12 between 1998 and 2002. The dominant silverback of the group mysteriously disappeared between 2007 and 2008 leaving Mawazo as the leader.
Humba Gorilla Group
This group came into existence from the many fights between Rugendo and his son Humba, making the latter to leave together with his younger brother Nyakamwe. From the time of formation in 1998 to 2009, the number had grown to 17 members but internal conflicts between the two brothers led to the split of this group. Nyakamwe ended up taking more members thus Humba retained only 6 members. Their number increased in 2014, resulting from the clash with Munyanga.
Nyakamwe Gorilla Group
This group was named after the founding silverback (Nyakamwe) who has earlier left his natal group Rugendo, together with his brother and later got disagreement thus separation. It was formed in 2014 when he left with over 10 members leaving his brother Humba with only 6 members. Clashes with Kabirizi led to the addition into the group (adult female) and presently there are 14 members after several births and sadly deaths.
Characteristics of Virunga Gorillas
Virunga Gorillas (Mountain gorillas) are sub-species of Eastern gorillas, known for their muscular arms, broad chests as well as big hands and feet. Gorilla beringei beriengei (as they are often referred) have thicker, darker and longer hair to provide insulation from extreme coldness in their natural habitat. Their natural environment comprise of bamboo forest, dense tropical rainforest, mixed forests as well as the sub-alpine grassland on the Volcanic peaks.
Virunga Gorillas occupy areas ranging from 2500 to 4000 meters above sea level, with dense forest and cold temperatures. Their gestation period is 8.5 months, after which a single baby weighing about 1.8-2 kilograms is born. Nonetheless, there are some cases of twins among Virunga Gorillas.
Virunga Gorillas weigh between 300 and 450 pounds, with standing height of four to six feet tall. This however makes their smaller compared to their lowland cousins. When it comes to diet, Virunga Gorillas are herbivores that eat succulent leaves, bamboo shoots, stems and fruits of different plant species.
The gorillas in Virunga National Park have gestation period of 8.5 months, like it is in human beings.
Gorilla Trekking in Virunga National Park
Gorilla trekking in Virunga National Park is led by armed Ranger guides and trackers who are also in charge of daily monitoring of the Protected Area’s 8 habituated gorilla groups. Excursions normally begin at Bukima Ranger Post at 8:00am and require 1-3 hours of walking/hiking each way and this depends on the actual location of the group being trekked, nature of terrain, weather condition and level of difficulty of the landscape. Before travellers begin hiking through the forest, they are first taken through a mandatory briefing for 30-45 minutes.
Best time to go gorilla trekking within Virunga National Park
June to September and December to February is the perfect time to go gorilla trekking within Virunga National Park because during this time, the rainfall level has reduced which makes it less challenging to walk through the forest searching for mountain gorillas. However truth be told, Virunga jungle can be explored throughout the year. Months of March to May and October to November are the rainiest which make forest trails muddy and slippery hence more challenging to hike and search for the mountain gorillas. However, it’s not all negative about gorilla trekking in the rainy season because on the positive note, gorilla treks are shorter, owing to the fact that the giant Apes have plenty of food thus will not move deeper into the jungle.
Where to stay in Virunga National Park before/after gorilla trekking
Mikeno Lodge is the main place of lodging in Virunga National Park before/after gorilla trekking. This luxury accommodation facility came into existence in August 2011 and has 12 private and individual Bungalows. Each of these Bungalows features double or twin beds, is of beautiful style with Lava Rock walls as well as thatched roofs. An airy bathroom, private deck and lounge area around a fireplace are enjoyed in each of the Bungalows.
This is another luxurious Tented Lodge in Virunga National Park and boasts breathtaking views of the Virunga Volcanoes. This accommodation facility largely overlooks the jaw-dropping views of at least 6 Volcanoes that include Nyiragongo, Gahinga, Bisoke, Karisimbi, Muhabura and Mikeno. Guests stay in luxurious Safari Tents that sit on raised platforms with en-suite bathroom, large beds and private balconies. The main building area has Wi-Fi, well-stocked Bar and Lounge and dining area among others.
Other fantastic places to stay in Virunga National Park before/after gorilla trekking include Bukima Tented Camp, Nyiragongo Summit Shelters, Tchegera Island Tented Camp, Kibumba Tented Camp and Lulimbi Tented Camp among others.
How many people are allowed to track mountain gorillas in Virunga National Park?
No more than 8 visitors are allowed to track or be around a habituated group/family of mountain gorillas. This is done to avoid stressing the Giant Apes as they go about their daily routines in their natural habitat.
Age limit for gorilla trekking in Virunga National Park
Fifteen (15) and up is the recommended age for gorilla trekking in Virunga National Park. While seeing mountain gorillas in their natural habitats is a phenomenally thrilling experience for every traveller to the Democratic Republic of Congo, there is a limit on who visits the Great Apes. Children are generally unpredictable thus might start throwing tantrums in the middle of the trek or likely to begin screaming on seeing the gorillas. Also, gorilla trekking is generally physically demanding thus becoming difficult for young children to catch up with the pace in searching for them.
Gorilla trekking permits for Virunga National Park
Permits for Virunga National Park cost only $400 per person, making this Safari destination the cheapest mountain gorilla trekking destination. However, if you are trekking the Giant Apes in the low season (March, April, May, October and November), you will be charged only $200 to trek these endangered primates in Virunga.
How to acquire gorilla trekking permits for the iconic Virunga National Park
Having understood the cost of gorilla permits, it is also important to know how to obtain them. A gorilla permit is simply a document that allows you to enter the jungles in search of Giant Apes in their natural habitats. This special document can be secured directly from the Park Headquarters and Virunga offices at Grande Barriere Border crossing or indirectly via a trusted Tour Operator. Even for this remote and secluded Eastern side of the Democratic Republic of Congo where this Protected Area is found, visitors are recommended to book for permits at least 3-4 months in advance.
Gorillas Filming in Virunga National Park
Did you know that it is possible and safe to film the mountain gorillas in Virunga National Park? However before being allowed to undertake this life-changing adventure (filming), visitors are required to first process their filming permits as well as gorilla permits for all the crew members in addition to seeking permission from local Authorities within the country.
For the gorilla filming permits for Virunga National Park, they have to be cleared with the Customs office at any official entry point. Additionally, your filming crew members will also be required to process/possess valid Visas as well as work permit prior to being allowed access into the beautiful Democratic Republic of Congo.
3 Amazing facts about Virunga Gorillas
One of the amazing and mind-boggling things about Virunga Gorillas is that they share 98.4% of their DNA with humans. This is interesting and heart-warming to hear but also detrimental because it makes them susceptible to a lot of human diseases. Because of this, we have to always protect them by trekking in good health (free from communicable diseases), following guidelines issued by local Authorities, to mention but a few.
Virunga Gorillas are generally herbivores, meaning they don’t eat any kind of meat but rather savor on fruits, leaves, stems, pith, roots and shoots.
These gorillas only live in the densely forested and mountainous areas hence are known as “mountain gorillas.
How to book a gorilla safari to Virunga
For travellers looking for a more affordable option of undertaking a safari to Virunga, consider booking it on your own-buy permits, book transport, meals and accommodation. However if you have decided to use the services of a tour operator, select a list of them. Send a “contact us” inquiry specifying what you need. You will receive a reply with final cost of activity, after which you can confirm your gorilla safari with the Company offering best rates and good services.
In Conclusion, the Virunga Gorillas are one of the top reasons for visiting the Democratic Republic of Congo where visitors get the chance to learn about history of these Giant Apes and their conservation, the different gorilla groups, characteristics of the gorillas, how gorilla trekking adventures are undertaken, the best time to enjoy this adventure, where to stay after trekking Virunga Gorillas, the age limit of encountering the Great Apes, cost and how to obtain gorilla permits of Virunga National Park, about gorilla filming and how to book a gorilla safari to the iconic destination.
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