Hiking deep into a dense tropical rain forest in the Virunga National Park to see a gorilla group in the wild is every traveler’s wish in the world. With less than 900 mountain gorillas that are remaining in the world, only a quarter of them live in the dense jungles of Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). The hike to see these unique creatures is strenuous but rewards those who make it into its jungles with thrilling experiences of a life time. Mountain gorillas share about 98% of their genes with humans some thing that makes them to be our closest relatives in the wild and yet also the world’s critically endangered Apes. Despite the growing rate of gorilla trekking in Uganda and Rwanda, tracking mountain gorillas in the DRC is equally rewarding given the fact that the country is working hard to improve on its security and safety. DRC has been affected by political instability especially in the Eastern side of the country and most importantly visitors must check out the security alerts from Congo Embassies or security organs before taking a safari. This instability hasn’t affected only human settlement in Congo but also the survival of mountain gorillas in their habitat and tourism as many visitors are scared off. However, the Virunga National Park is now open for tourism and surprisingly, a good number of visitors have been registered who have traveled to enjoy fantastic experiences with these tremendous wild creatures.
Gorilla tracking experience in the DRC starts early in the morning and visitors can be driven up to the gorilla tracking station at Bukima just out side Goma Town. The length of the trek is wholly dependent up on the physically fitness of visitors to find the gorilla group but in most cases visitors can take less than 2 hours or more. Note that these creatures live in the wild and you don’t expect them to be in one place because they have to move around to look for food. A hike to see gorillas means, exploring their daily behavior as you also get a glimpse of mother gorillas holding their infants, juveniles playing while the dominant silverback gorilla can be there protective of the family.
Gorilla tracking is only done in habituated gorilla groups and in DRC and visitors can chance to track families of more than 35 mountain gorillas and only one hour is allowed for the visitors spend with gorillas in the wild. While planning a gorilla safari, make sure that you have surgical masks to prevent the spread of diseases to gorillas, remember they are very susceptible to human diseases and care must be taken.
Gorilla Groups in Virunga National Park
Below is a list of habituated gorilla groups in Virunga National Park
Kabirizi gorilla group:
This group was previously comprised of over 34 members together with 2 silverback gorillas but today the group has 19 gorillas. It is situated around Bukima area just next to Goma town. Just from its name, the gorilla family is controlled by Kabirizi silverback. This tremendous gorilla family was named after the ICCN director who lost his life in a traffic accident in the late 1990s. Before, the Kabirizi silverback was not yet a habituated gorilla group and instead a wild gorilla. In 1998, he was given the name during the habituation process. However, before Kabirizi gorilla group was popularly called Ndungutse group since it was headed by Ndungutse silverback that was also killed in 1997 after it was trapped in crossfire between the DRC army and the Rwandan rebels around Bukima patrol station. The current silverback gorilla is facing a battle from young Masibo silverback. To track this gorilla family, tourists can begin their trek at Bukima patrol station.
Humba gorilla group:
This gorilla family is headed by Humba silverback. It is also one of the groups that are situated around Bukima area of the Virunga National Park. The group is comprised of 16 mountain gorillas including 2 silverbacks. It is also a popular peaceful habituated gorilla family and several visitors and park rangers treasure tracking it. Humba is a brother to Senkwekwe silverback gorilla that was killed on 22nd July 2007 by unknown gun men. He broke off from Rugendo-his father in 1998 and since then he has been a leader of the Humba gorilla group.
Rugendo gorilla group:
This gorilla group is made up of 6 members with 3 silverback gorillas. It is headed by Rugendo the dad to Humba. The group was habituated in 1989 and by 1997 it had around eighteen members including 2 silverback gorillas; Rugendo and Humba. At a time Humba broke away from his dad in 1998, only eight members lived with Rugendo and in the following years, some escalation in the population of gorillas in this family. In 1999, 2 births were experienced in the Rugendo family from the adult female gorilla called Safi that gave birth to Katembo and Neza too gave birth. Unfortunately, on 15th July 2001, Rugendo gorilla family got trapped in fire arm exchange between the military and interahamwe militia groups and at the end, he was killed nearly 40 meters away from Virunga National Park. In 2007, the family was again attacked and four members were also killed with 3 adult female gorillas called Safari, Neza and Mburanumwe and the Senkwekwe that was head silverback successor of Rugendo.
Mapuwa gorilla group:
This is another tremendous group that is comprised of fifteen members with one silverback gorilla. The group lies in Jomba just next to Bunagana. This gorilla family is headed Mapuwa silverback who has managed to bring more members into the group as well as guarded them from external enemies. Mapuwa was also a son to Rugendo silverback but he broke away from his dad’s camp in 1998 and began his own group. At a time he broke away, he went with two adult female gorilla called Jicho and Mafaze. He kept on fighting wars to succeed other female gorilla especially in 2002, where he battled with Pilipili and took three members from his group and this left Pilipili a lonely silverback. Several baby gorillas have also been welcomed into this gorilla family something that has increased their population up to 15 members.
Lulengo gorilla group:
Lulengo group is made of six members with one silverback gorilla. It is headed by Lulengo silverback. The group is situated in Jomba next to Congo-Uganda border in Bunagana. Lulengo silverback was born into Rugabo gorilla group, the ancient habituated gorilla group in Mikeno area. Before, this gorilla family was known as Musekura but was renamed as Lulengo in remembrance of the Technical Director of Virunga National Park who was killed by a land mine. His dad Rugabo was also killed by poachers at a time of the Great Lakes Refugee Crisis in 1994. After his death, the gorilla group was succeeded by Lulengo, a blackback gorilla at a time, Pilipili, mareru and Nvuyekure.
Munyaga gorilla group:
This gorilla family is situated in Bukima near Goma and it is composed of seven and two silverbacks. This was also the last gorilla family to be habituated in 2008. It is headed by Munyaga silverback and dominant adult female gorilla called Bilali. Bilali came from the Rugendo gorilla family in 2004 and after she joined this group, she had 2 baby gorillas but unfortunately they all passed on. It was during this that Munyaga silverback also went away and currently the family is led by Mawazo silverback that stayed with Buhanga till 1997, and then joined Karatega where he returned to Ruhanga in 1998 and nearly four weeks later he went to Munyaga gorilla group. The gorilla family is popular for its bold headed silverback Kadogo.
Nyakamwe gorilla family:
This is a newly created gorilla family in Virunga National Park. It was founded together with Bageni group the biggest gorilla family in the park. This gorilla family is composed of 11 individuals and it is headed by Nyakamwe silverback. The family derived its name from silverback gorilla known as Nyakamwe. Currently there are instances of struggling for power in this gorilla family.
Bageni gorilla family:
This is currently the biggest habituated gorilla group in the park. It is composed of 26 gorillas with their silverback Bageni. However, there is a battle already in this gorilla family and it is predicted that the family might break off into 2 or even 3 families. The family is comprised of two silverback gorillas (Kanamaharagi and Kitagenda silverback) that are currently battling with Bageni silverback.
Tips to help you plan properly for gorilla trek in the Virunga National Park:
Like any destination where gorilla tracking takes place in Africa, you must have a gorilla tracking permit which will cost you $400 per visitor for the case of DRC. Note that there are very few tour companies or agents in DRC compared to Uganda and Rwanda and better if you booked for your gorilla permit directly from Virunga National Park.
When to visit:
The Virunga National Park is an all year round destination for visitors who wish to track gorillas in DRC but some paths can be difficult to navigate especially in the rainy season that takes place in the months of May to October. This season also comes with some kind of advantage of discounted gorilla permits that cost $350 per visitor and you can also apply for DRC visa at $100.
The health matters:
Concerning your health, before traveling, it is advisable that you get a yellow fever injection because you won’t be allowed to enter the DRC if you don’t present a proof of this inoculation. Also, you must take Hepatitis A, typhoid, meningitis and rabies injections and anti malarials.
What to bring:
Gorilla trekking requires you to plan for your safari appropriately because in most cases visitors have packed as if they are traveling for a picnic which isn’t a case for gorilla trek. The jungle hike can be long and tedious and waterproof hiking shoes are necessary, a bottle of water and some snacks, wicking socks, comfortable hiking clothes mostly long sleeved, rain jackets, first aid kids and a waterproof camera.
The rules and regulation:
There are countless rules and regulations to help you have a smooth trek in the Virunga National Park but some of them include the following.
A maximum of 8 visitors per trek are allowed to track a gorilla family and this is intended to reduce the risks of human disease spread to mountain gorillas. Only persons above 15 years can track mountain gorillas in DRC and a distance of 5 to 7 meter should be maintained while in a face to face interaction with mountain gorillas especially for the one hour that is given to visitors.
Where to stay:
Tracking mountain gorillas can be tiring and this calls for you to spend a night thereafter in one of the comfortable lodges around the park. Some of the notable lodges for you to retire for a night include the following;
Mikeno Lodge, a hidden treasure within Virunga National Park with spacious bungalow accommodation, luxurious and very private with spectacular tree or valley views. It is just one and half hours drive from Goma. Bukima Tented Camp which is just outside the park boundary, next to main starting points of Virunga mountain gorilla tracking. An originally researcher’s camp is now being used by trackers. Nyiragongo Volcano Summit Shelters which comes with magnificent Nyiragongo Volcano Mountain with the world’s largest Lava Lake. Tchegera Island Camp is the best way for you to escape the hustle and bustle of Goma town or chill after hiking through Nyiragongo volcano just off the Northern shores of Lake Kivu. Enjoy the remarkable views of the Lake and al the four volcanoes. Lulimbi Tented Camp which is situated in the heart of Virunga National Park which comes with the biggest percentage of elephants and hippos, buffaloes, warthogs, giant frogs, crocodiles, birds and others. Lastly, retire at Kibumba Tented Camp just on the edge of the gorilla sector which brings you clear view of Mount Mikeno, Mount Karisimbi, Mount Nyiragongo and Mount Nyamuragira.
Visitors who wish to track mountain gorillas in the Virunga National Park can access the park by simply flying into Kigali, Rwanda and then take a 3 hour taxi drive to Goma border where your authorized tour operator or agent will pick. In case you are heading to Kinshasa, there are also direct fly schedules from notable airlines like Addis Ababa, Nairobi, Brussels, Johannesburg and Paris. Internal flights are not recommended for visitors due to safety reasons.
In conclusion, gorilla tracking is a strenuous experience that involves hiking through the dense jungles of Virunga National Park. Visitors who intend to par take this remarkable experience should be physically fit and well prepared to challenge themselves in the steep slopes and terrains of Virunga. Come and discover the hidden treasures of DRC!