Visit to the gorilla family of film stars

Saturday October 6 2018

Mountain gorilla

Segasira from the Titus family takes a break. He will soon be a silverback. PHOTO | SUSAN MUUMBI | NMG  

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One early misty morning last month in Gisenyi, Rwanda, our guide Jerome explained that we would be climbing Bisoke mountain to see the Titus family. We were a group of six women representing various media and travel groups from all over the world.

Gorillas can live up to 4,000 metres above sea level, Jerome explained, but sometimes it gets too cold and they move to lower areas.

According to information received the day before from the rangers who look after the gorillas in the mountains, the family was not very high up. Our hike was thus rated medium.

The Titus family is famous. According to his Wikipedia page, Titus was a silverback mountain gorilla observed by researchers almost continuously over his entire life.

Titus was named by US primatologist Dian Fossey. His fame first came with his part in the film of Fossey's life, Gorillas in the Mist (1988) and later as the star of a BBC documentary The Gorilla King (2008).

Titus sired more children than any other gorilla on record, and by 2004 controlled the largest known gorilla troop in the world. He died in 2009, at the age of 35. We were going to visit his children, grandchildren and other relatives.

At the bottom of Bisoke mountain at Volcanoes National Park, we hired porters to carry our bags and give us a hand up the steep slippery stretches of the climb. The terrain was slightly muddy at the start, and became swampy by the time we were nearing the area where the gorillas were.

After about two hours of steady climbing, Jerome received word that we were close. The porters stayed behind with our bags and we went ahead, cameras in hand. And there they were.

The family is now led by the silverback Pato. The group has two silverbacks, Pato and Urwibutso, but Pato is the dominant one.

A third male, Segasira, aged 12, will soon become a silverback. The youngest of the family, baby Macibiri, stayed close to mother Kurudi.

The family was relaxing, some slept while others chewed on succulent leaves. Gorillas get all the water they need from plants. They made crunchy yumyum sounds while chewing, clearly enjoying their stinging nettles and bamboo shoots.

Kick in the back!

We watched them for a while. Macibiri stayed close to Kurudi who was mostly minding her own business. Segasira was the most active; he stood up and beat his chest to remind us who was boss in this territory. He pranced around and at one point, when we were lined up taking pictures about 15 metres away, he came bounding towards the group.

Mountain gorilla

Mother Kurudi and baby Macibiri from the Titus family, in Mt Bisoke. PHOTO | SUSAN MUUMBI | NMG

We crouched down, as Jerome had instructed us earlier, to show that we were no threat. Between Laura and I, we gave him way. But as soon as he had passed, he stretched out his back leg and kicked Laura in the lower back!

Jerome assured us that this was normal teenage behaviour, and Segasira was just showing off. However, Laura, a city girl from Los Angeles, was having none of it and that was the end of her visit.

A few off us continued to follow the gorillas a few metres further, and hung out with Urwibutso who was sitting a few metres away, chomping on leaves.

Too soon, our hour was up, the gorillas sauntered away, and we started our descent.

Halfway down, the rain came down — continuously — it didn’t help that some of us had neglected earlier advice to take our raincoats with us.

Feeling highly accomplished and totally drenched, we got back to the tour vehicle that was waiting at the bottom of the mountain.

The gorilla population in the Virunga mountains that cover parts of Rwanda, Uganda and the DR Congo has risen to more than 1,000, according to the latest census.

This is good news for the critically endangered species, but if their habitat cannot handle the increasing numbers there could be serious fighting for space. Mountain gorillas live inside the protected park. Outside the park, however, the land is surrounded by human settlements and farms, which have reduced much of the original forest cover.

Some organisations are helping to increase the park land. In January, African Wildlife Foundation handed over 27 hectares of land to expand the habitat of mountain gorillas. The organisation has supported Rwanda’s mountain gorillas for the past 40 years. The 27 hectares added to the park’s 16,000 hectares.

Wilderness Safaris, which operates Bisate Lodge near Volcanoes National Park, reforested the park near the lodge.

“In 2017 and the first half of 2018 we planted nearly 20,000 indigenous trees adjacent to the park on a 42-hectare piece of land,” said Chris Roche, Wilderness Safaris chief marketing officer.

Rwanda certainly treasures its gorillas heritage for posterity.