Volcanoes Gorillas – Information about Mountain Gorillas of Volcanoes National Park Rwanda, Facts, Gorilla trekking Guide, History and Travel Tips
Volcanoes gorillas have made a huge comeback after almost being driven to extinction by poaching, illegal bush meat sale and habitat encroachment. The only species of gorillas in Volcanoes National Park are the mountain gorillas, which mainly occupy the dense montane forests within mountainous regions of East-Central Africa. Volcanoes gorillas are interestingly the prime attraction within Rwanda’s Northern Province.
Volcanoes gorillas are sub-species of the Eastern gorillas and live within the slopes of Virunga Mountains, an extensive range of varying extinct Volcanoes that extend across the borders of Uganda, Democratic Republic of Congo and Rwanda. The other phenomenal category of mountain gorillas is found within Uganda’s Bwindi National Park and adjacent Sarambwe Forest Reserve in Democratic Republic of Congo.
History of Volcanoes Gorillas
For more than a century ago, Volcanoes gorillas had a silent history, with many groups of people working hand in hand to ensure that they remain existent within the dense jungles of East-Central Africa.
These Giant Apes were reportedly discovered in 1902 when Captain Freidrich Robert Von Beringe-a German Army Officer and European Explorer first observed them on the lower slopes of Mount Sabyinyo. Interestingly, the mountain gorillas were named in honor of this outstanding German Captain. He together with other enthusiastic Conservationists such as Dr. Engeland and Corporal Ehrhardt as well as 20 other Park Rangers and porters from surrounding local communities embarked on a mission from Usumbura on the 19th of August 1902 to pay a courtesy visit to the Sultan Msinga of Rwanda as well as continue north to the range of Virunga Volcanoes.
The main mission of this journey of discovery was to first reach out to the German outposts within former German East Africa so as to remain in touch with the local chiefs in addition to ensuring good relations. This was done while nourishing the influence as well as power of the German Government within these places. On getting to the Virunga Volcanoes, they made an effort to hike Sabyinyo Volcano and after 4.5 hours of hiking they reached an altitude of 3100 meters above sea level, walked through the Bamboo forest, several elephant trails and set camp at 3100 meters above sea level. While on the hike, they noticed a huge human-like male primate weighing about 90 kilograms, hairless chest, big-sized hands and feet. Given the intimidating size, they managed to kill two of these creatures and lifted them with ropes.
Sadly, they couldn’t ascertain whether it was a gorilla or chimpanzee, given the fact that these Giant Apes had not been discovered within the area. When descending and returning back to the base of mount Sabyinyo, the samples of the skin and limbs of the animal that Captain Freidrich Robert Von Beringe had earlier collected were stolen by a spotted hyena, then the remainder was taken to a Museum in Berlin. It is from these studies that another scientist-Dr. Matschi described them as sub-specie of gorillas, thus naming them “gorilla beringei beriengei” after Captain Freidrich Robert Von Beringe.
However since then, these creatures have gone through years of civil war, encroachment of their natural habitat, hunting/poaching as well as diseases that have tremendous threatened their population. Due to this, these gorillas were once believed to getting extinct by the end of the 20th Century.
Carl Akeley, an American Naturalist persuaded then King of Belgium-His Majesty Albert to create a National Park that would be fundamental in the conservation of Mountain gorillas. For this move, Albert National Park was created in 1925, making it one of the oldest Parks in the African Continent. First studies of mountain gorillas in then Albert National Park were done in 1959 and the first book published of these creatures was titled “The Mountain Gorilla: Ecology and Behavior” published in 1963. With support from Louis Leakey and National Geographic Society, Dian Fossey (an American primatologist) embarked on a ground-breaking field study on the mountain gorillas (critically endangered at the time) within the Virunga Ranges. She was active in getting rid of mountain gorillas’ public acumen as beasts by clearly demonstrating the deep intimacy as well as social intelligence noticeable among Giant Apes as well as how closely their riveting behavior are similar to that of human beings.
The turning point of Gorilla Conservation history in Volcanoes National Park was the “Mountain Gorilla Project of 1979” with a convention between Government of Rwanda as well as Consortium, leading to the formation of different private Organizations (such as WWF, AWLF and FFPS) working towards Nature Conservation. Two gorilla families close to Karisoke base were introduced to habituation process.
However, Dian Fossey was assassinated on 27th December 1987 in her Cabin and until today, mystery of her death still remains unknown. He was laid to rest close to Digit, one of her favorite gorillas but her legacy still lives on with the Dian Fossey Fund.
Gorilla Groups in Volcanoes National Park
A total of 12 gorilla groups have been habituated for trekking in Volcanoes National Park and these occupy different areas of the 160-square kilometer Protected Area within the north-west of Rwanda. These groups include:
Sabyinyo Gorilla Group
This Group ranges around the slopes of Mount Sabyinyo, hence the reason it was named Sabyinyo. It is considered one of the easiest-to-trek groups in Rwanda because it is close to Kinigi Park Headquarters. There are about 13 members in this group.
Karisimbi (Susa B) Gorilla Group
This gorilla group was named after the highest Virunga Mountain (Mount Karisimbi) and is also referred as Susa B, owing to the fact that it broke off from the original Susa Gorilla Group. There are about 16 individuals in the group, two of which are silverbacks and requires strenuous hikes to get there.
Agashya Gorilla Family
The word Agashya means “new one” in the Kinyarwanda dialect and the group is also referred as “Group 13” because it had 13 members at the time of habituation. There are now over 27 members in this group living within the lower slopes of Mount Sabyinyo, along with Sabyinyo Gorilla Group.
Susa (or Susa A) Gorilla Group
Susa A was one of the gorilla groups studied by Dian Fossey during her Gorilla Research/studies and has over 42 members during habituation. It is mainly found within the higher slopes of Virunga Mountains hence visitors have to be prepared for challenging hikes to find its members.
Kwitonda means “humble” and is the name of the Silverback gorilla that led the group from Virunga National Park. into Volcanoes National Park in 2003. Given the fact that they are always on the move, the group is one of the most challenging to trek and its members usually live at elevations of 2300 to 4500 meters above sea level. After the death of Kwitonda in 2012, the group was taken over by Akarevuro and is now one of the largest with over 28 members.
Being one of the newest habituated gorilla groups in Volcanoes National Park, Muhoza group was opened for trekking on 3rd December 2016 with only 7 individuals. It was established under the leadership of Muhoza, who later ambushed Hirwa Group, taking along two of its members thus increasing their number to 9 members. The good news is that it later welcomed twins bringing their number to 11 members that include 1 silverback, 6 adult females, 2 sub-adult females and 2 infants.
Umubano gorilla group
Umubano means “togetherness” in the Kinyarwanda dialect because this group lives in close proximity with Amahoro group, with minimal fights recorded. This group was formed as a result of rivalry between two strong silverbacks in Amahoro (Charles and Ubumwe) hence breaking away to form Umubano group.
Ugenda gorilla Family
One of the 12 gorilla groups in Volcanoes National Park was named Ugenda for the “wanderer” behavior of its members, because they are always on the move and range around the slopes of Mount Karisimbi and sometimes head towards mount Bisoke.
Hirwa means “lucky one” in the local Kinyarwanda dialect, while the group was founded by a brave silverback known as “Munyinya”, who left his natal group (Susa A) with several adult females and other members. There were about 16 members at the time of establishment/habituation in 2006 but after several years, the group received a set of twins thus making it one of the most cherished gorilla families. It is now considered one of the mobile groups in Volcanoes National Park after its members temporarily moved to Uganda’s Mgahinga Gorilla National Park in 2019.
Amahoro is a Kinyarwanda word meaning “peaceful”, owing to the peaceful nature of group member. The 18-member group is led by “Ubumwe” meaning “togetherness” and occupies the rugged slopes of Mount Karisimbi (highest of the 8 Virunga Volcanoes) making it Challenging to locate hence ideal for the adventurous visitors only.
Titus is one of the oldest gorilla groups in Volcanoes National Park and was one of Dian Fossey’s research groups. It was formed and named after Titus, a young blackback that all his family members to poaching but slowly and with time formed another gorilla group.
Bwenge means “wisdom” in the local Kinyarwanda dialect and is the name of the dominant silverback that also formed the group. He is believed to be one of the wisest silverbacks in Volcanoes National Park, and the group was formed in 2007. There are 11 members in this group, ranging along the slopes of Mount Bisoke thus making it one of the easiest-to-trek groups in Rwanda.
Characteristics of Volcanoes Gorillas
First, Volcanoes gorillas share about 98.2% of their DNA with humans, and this makes them susceptible to several communicable diseases such cough, flue, measles and many others.
Volcanoes gorillas are sociable creatures that live in groups of five to thirty members, and led by a huge dominant silverback. These groups can be referred as families or troops with adult females, sub-adult females, blackbacks and infants. Adult males are known as “silverbacks” because of their silver-gray saddles.
The gestation period of Volcanoes gorillas is 8.5 months, whereby females give birth to one offspring at an interval of 3-4 years. This therefore means that they bear 2-6 offsprings in an entire lifetime. Reproduction of female gorillas begins by age 10 while for males at age 13.
Volcanoes gorillas are notable for weighing from 135 to 200 kilograms and extend at a height of four to six feet. Their diet is mainly herbivorous, comprising of succulent leaves, bamboo shoots, wild celery, tree barks, fresh fruits, stems and many others.
The Mountain gorillas in Volcanoes National Park are characterized by muscular arms, wide feet and hands as well as broad chests. Generally, their fore limbs are longer than the hind limbs to carry their massive weight.
Volcanoes gorillas have thicker and longer hair for insulation against the cold temperatures within their natural habitats.
Gorilla Trekking in Volcanoes National Park Rwanda
The unforgettable chance to trek and see endangered mountain gorillas in the wild is unrivaled, some visitors even saying it is life-changing. Face to face encounters with the Giant Apes as they go about doing their daily routines in the wild is properly undertaken with professional trackers and Ranger guides who take small groups of visitors upwards the slopes blanketed with bamboo vegetation to spend marvelous and jaw-dropping hour, just 7 meters away from these gentle beasts.
A total of eight gorilla permits are issued for each of the 12 habituated gorilla groups, thus your face to face encounter with the mountain gorillas is as private and interrupted as possible. With limited gorilla permits (96 in number) issued each single day for Volcanoes National Park, travelers are advised to book for gorilla safaris in advance. Tourists converge at the Park Headquarters in Kinigi by 7:00am and this is followed by allocation into gorilla families on the trekking day and this is based on levels of physical fitness, age and individual interests in addition to briefing on the rules and regulations for trekking and observing the endangered mountain gorillas.
Guided treks head to different places in the jungle, lasting 30 minutes to three hours or more, until elevations of 2500 to 4000 meters above sea level. One hour is allowed for observation and photography after making contact with the allocated gorilla group.
Best time to go gorilla trekking in Volcanoes National Park
Gorilla trekking tours in Rwanda’s Volcanoes National Park are done throughout the year. Nonetheless, the best time to achieve maximum experiences from gorilla trekking in Volcanoes National Park is the dry season-running from June to September as well as December through February when rains are minimal or absent, and trails aren’t muddy or slippery thus perfect conditions for moving through the jungle to search for the mountain gorillas.
Where to stay in Volcanoes National Park after gorilla trekking
Volcanoes National Park boasts of numerous and outstanding places to stay after or before undertaking gorilla trekking tours and they include Muhabura Hotel, Faraja Hotel, Five Volcanoes Boutique Hotel, Garr Hotel, Bisate Lodge, Da Vinci Gorilla Lodge, Virunga Lodge, Sabyinyo Silverback Lodge, Villa Gorilla, Gorilla Solution Lodge, Mountain Gorilla View Lodge, Le Bambou Gorilla Lodge, Garden Place Hotel, One & Only Gorilla’s Nest, Singita Kwitonda Lodge, Kinigi Guesthouse, Bishop’s House, Le Palme Hotel, Best View Hotel, Gorillas Volcanoes Hotel and many others.
How many visitors are allowed to trek mountain gorillas in Volcanoes National Park?
For travelers still wondering about the number of visitors allowed to trek mountain gorillas within Volcanoes National Park, the number is 8 visitors per group each day. This is usually done to reduce any possible behavioral changes to the mountain gorillas, owing to the fact that huge crowds stress or make them uncomfortable. This is also done to reduce possible risks of exposure to diseases and this is mainly attributed to the fact that Giant Apes share 98.2% of their DNA with humans. Numbers are also limited to minimize damage to the natural rain forest.
The age limit for mountain gorilla trekking within Volcanoes National Park
The minimum age for mountain gorilla trekking within Volcanoes National Park is 15 years and this is implemented because of the hilly/mountainous as well as rugged terrains hence making it challenging for children and this in the end delays gorilla trekking adventures. Also, young children’s reaction towards mountain gorillas charging is unpredictable thus to avoid any negative reactions, the minimum age is 15 years.
Gorilla trekking permits for Rwanda’s Volcanoes National Park
Gorilla trekking permits that allow visitors to trek mountain gorillas in Volcanoes National Park cost only $1500 per person per trek for one hour encounter with a habituated gorilla group. These gorilla permit fees are only paid to Rwanda Development Board, although permits can be acquired through trusted Tour Operators. This country offers discounts (30%) for travelers that spend 3 days exploring Akagera and Nyungwe Forest National parks in addition to gorilla trekking hence will pay only $1050 per person per trek. These permits are only issued to visitors that are 15 years and above, those with basic physical fitness and to avoid disappointments, booking has to be at least 3-4 months before the planned trekking say.
How are volcanoes gorilla permits obtained?
Volcanoes gorilla permits are obtainable directly through Rwanda Development Board (via email -firstname.lastname@example.org and telephone- +252 576514. This process is more stressful and cumbersome yet cost effective. Alternatively, you can book indirectly through a trusted and credible Tour Operator, considered less stressful hence preferred by most travelers to Rwanda but you will be required to pay commission to cover administrative costs.
Mountain Gorilla filming within Volcanoes National Park
While gorilla trekking allows one hour of interaction with the Giant Apes in their natural environment, filming is also possible. While searching for mountain gorillas in the jungle, it is also possible to film the Great Apes and produce Television documentaries/films such as “Gorillas in the Mist”. First, it should be noted that gorilla filming and photography permits cost only $5000, plus an additional $2000 for security (but will be refunded at the end of the gorilla filming trip). Don’t forget to buy gorilla permits for the entire filming crew thus 8 permits will be required for a maximum of 8 visitors.
Media accreditation is also required for filming in Volcanoes National Park and costs only $30 for 15 days’ filming or $50 for one month filming.
The 3 amazing facts about Volcanoes gorillas
Volcanoes gorillas are one of the largest, heaviest and strongest living primates with an average male weighing 200 kilograms and having a standing height of four to six feet tall.
Volcanoes gorillas interestingly spend almost a quarter of their day foraging on bamboo shoots, leaves and stems although will sometimes be found eating snails, ants and tree barks.
Another riveting fact about Volcanoes gorillas is that they have over 16 kinds of calls in form of short barks (used in terms of curiosity), chest beating, hooting, strutting with stiff legs (to scare away rivals) and roars.
How to book gorilla trekking safaris to Volcanoes National Park
Gorilla trekking safaris to Volcanoes National Park are booked in two ways-individually by travelers who have to organize everything from gorilla permits, transportation from the Airport/City to and from the Park, meals as well as accommodation for the nights spent in the gorilla trekking destination. This is undeniably challenging and stressful, hence the reason travelers opt for the second option, which is entrusting the booking process to a credible Tour Operator who will plan for all the aspects of the trip.
Conclusively, Volcanoes gorillas are the premier reason why thousands of travelers make trips to remarkable and beautiful Rwanda but it would be more meaningful when you already understand the history of volcanoes gorillas, the different trekkable gorilla groups, interesting characteristics of the Giant Apes, how gorilla trekking tours are undertaken in Volcanoes National Park, the perfect time to undertake these adventures, where to lodge during the gorilla trip, maximum number of people allowed to trek Rwanda’s habituated families, the age limit for the gorilla treks in Volcanoes, how gorilla trekking permits for Volcanoes are obtained and how much they cost, the process of gorilla filming within Volcanoes National Park and how gorilla safaris to Volcanoes can be booked.