Mountain Gorilla Trekking in Virunga National Park

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Currently dealing with Ebola and Covid-19, Virunga National Park is facing one of its greatest threats yet. Please consider helping the park in its conservation efforts by donating via virunga.org/donate

Virunga National Park is located in the Albertine Rift Valley, North-Kivu Province, Democratic Republic of Congo. Gazetted in 1925, it was founded primarily to protect the rare and endangered mountain gorilla. It was renamed from Parc Albert to Virunga National Park in 1969. 

Virunga, derived from the KinyaRwanda language, means volcano. And a fitting name it is given the chain of volcanoes within the park boundaries, two of which – Nyamuragira and Nyiragongo – are the most active volcanoes in Africa. The latter is home to the world’s largest lava lake and last erupted in 2002. 

Nyiragongo Volcano from Tchegera Island © Nicholas Philipson | Woza Rafiki

Virunga is the oldest and most biologically diverse park in Africa. With splendour abound the park was inscribed as a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1979. The park is incredibly vast, covering an area of 7800 square kilometers, encompassing an outstanding diversity of landscapes ranging from the forest clad slopes of volcanoes to the snow-capped Rwenzori Mountains of the Moon, grassland savanna and marshlands. An abundance of species inhabits these ecological havens including an impressive 706 bird species and twenty two primate species. Three of these are great apes – the mountain gorilla, eastern lowland gorilla and eastern chimpanzee. Virunga is the only park known globally to host such a number of great apes in one area. 

The park is located in an area that has been racked by instability, devastated by war and impacted profoundly by armed conflict. Several armed groups and militia operate within the park presenting the park’s management with many challenges in order to protect the park and its communities from poaching, deforestation and political instability. The custodians of the park include over 700 park rangers of the Congolese Institute for Nature Conservation (ICCN). Rangers and staff alike have dedicated their lives to safeguarding the park’s communities and its natural heritage, especially the endangered mountain gorillas, of which the park is home to a third of the world’s population.

ICCN Rangers at Virunga National Park - custodians of the park © Nicholas Philipson | Woza Rafiki

During the Covid-19 pandemic, before Virunga National Park closed their tourism operation, we were the last tourists to be granted access, and managed to sneak in at the last minute to do a mountain gorilla trek. 

Bukima, s starting point for the gorilla treks, is located on the slopes of Mount Mikeno in the park’s southern sector. This area is home to eight habituated family groups. After a short briefing, we trekked the dense montane forest undergrowth for roughly an hour until we discovered the Humba family. The family is comprised of thirteen members: two silverbacks, four adult females, one sub-adult, two juveniles and four babies. As the only guests at Virunga National Park we were the only onlookers with the exception of our pisteurs (trekkers) and rangers who accompanied us. 

Ndayambaje, Nchimiye, Jean de Dieu and Joseph © Nicholas Philipson | Woza Rafiki

Observing these great apes, it soon became evident that there is no doubt these creatures are profoundly powerful and ought to be respected, however, they are mostly docile creatures showing immense intelligence and intricate family structures and bonds. 

A curious juvenile roly-polied in our direction, eager for a closer inspection of its onlookers and heading over to initiate play. Hastily, we backed up as far as we could against the surrounding bushes, careful to observe the required 10m separation. Nowhere to go, the curious little fella bounded over and walked straight past our feet. INCREDIBLE! Our hearts racing with excitement, we were completely immersed within the family group – they were above, in front and all around us. Babies playfully wrestled each other and swung from branches as mothers lay calmly observing proceedings and big silverbacks eagerly munched away on some shrubbery. The local pisteurs communicate with the gorillas using grunt-like sounds assuring them of our presence. They know the gorillas very well and admirably interpret their behaviour.

© Nicholas Philipson | Woza Rafiki
Humba, the dominant silverback of the Humba Family © Nicholas Philipson | Woza Rafiki

Soon after the gorilla trekking experience, we watched a documentary Virunga: Rivers of Fire and Ice (1995) by Alan Root. In one scene, a gorilla family observes a chameleon with members taking turns to gently tug at its tail to prevent it from venturing too far, while the family looks upon this strange creature, intrigued. This further affirmed to us, our already profound admiration, for the astonishing intellectual capacity and curiosity shown by these creatures. 

© Nicholas Philipson | Woza Rafiki
Two juveniles play in the trees above © Nicholas Philipson | Woza Rafiki

After the allotted hour with the Humba family, we returned at pace to Bukima camp. With a cup of tea in hand, we eagerly cross referenced our gorilla pictures with the identification cards of the family members. Did you know that gorillas are identified using their unique nose print?

Humba's unique noseprint

Upon returning from the gorilla trek, we embarked on a tour of the Rumangabo headquarters. Senkwekwe Gorilla orphanage was the first stop. This centre is the only one of its kind worldwide caring for mountain gorillas in captivity. The centre was established in 2009 and currently, there are four gorillas under the guardianship of the head Caretaker, Andre Bauma, and his excellent team. These gorillas have become orphans, separated from their families as a result of poaching. The Senkwekwe caretakers have dedicated their lives to caring for – as they refer to them – the children.

We stood on a viewing platform while the gorillas’ names were called out. Soon Matabishi and Ndakasi had climbed the tree in front of us, dutifully posing for their portrait while Ndeze was not as interested. Musuka, the newest and youngest gorilla, was below in the bushes. Sadly, she was found in the forest caught in a snare. As a result, her foot was amputated, so she cannot climb trees like the rest of her adopted gorilla family. 

Matabishi © Nicholas Philipson | Woza Rafiki

Next, we ventured on to the gorilla cemetery, started in 2007 after the shocking slaughter of six gorillas from the Rugendo family. An interesting case is the death of twin babies whose mother was unable to look after them simultaneously. Sadly, the twins died one week apart and are buried at the gorilla cemetery. 

Gorilla Cemetery © Nicholas Philipson | Woza Rafiki

In the evening before dinner, we cozied up to the fire at leisure. During dinner, while recalling the day’s enthralling events, we were interrupted with bad news. Rwanda had closed its borders and Uganda were soon to follow. We were stranded in the DRC with our car stored in Rwanda! 

Stay tuned for the next post to read about how we ended up being reunited with our car and became unceremoniously stranded in Virunga National Park for the next 45 days. 

We are Woza Rafiki. Come friend share in our adventure.

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3 Responses

  1. Sharon says:

    Extraordinary life experience for you both. Remarkable story and photos.

  2. Elaine Philipson says:

    Wow so glad to have you guys back in SA but this adventure will last with you for many a year. What a unique and rewarding experience 🙂

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