With its exceptional biodiversity of flora and fauna, the Kahuzi-Biega park is home to some 136 species of mammals, with the eastern lowland gorilla being the most prominent, according to a site dedicated to its conservation. Among the mammal species are twelve species of primates, amongst them eastern chimpanzees and colobus, as well as forest elephants, leopards, civets, gennets, otters and many antelope and duiker. Thirty of the 336 species birds found in the park are endemic to the Albertine Rift, including the Rockefeller’s sunbird, Ruwenzori Turaco, Grauer’s broadbill, Grauer’s warbler and Shelley’s crimsonwing, there are a further 69 species of reptiles and 44 species of amphibians.
The park is also hotspot for endemic plant varieties; 1,178 species have been identified in the high altitude sector alone. It is one of the few places in sub-Saharan Africa where a full and stunning transition of vegetation stages can be found, ranging from the low altitude sector at 600m to the peak of Mont Kahuzi at 3,308m. The park whose conservation has been disrupted by wars and unrest, is one of the five World Heritage Sites in DR Congo. The park was gazetted by the Congolese government in 1970 to conserve the Grauer’s gorilla, the world’s largest gorilla species. It remains the only place in the world where visitors can see these gorillas in the wild.
The park covers an area of 6000 km2 and protects a mountain forest in eastern DR Congo, which is the most densely populated region of the country. The park is named after the two spectacular extinct volcanoes which dominate its high altitude sector, Mont Kahuzi (3,308m) and Mont Biega (2,790m).
Eastern lowland gorilla (history of gorilla tracking)
The Eastern Lowland Gorilla (gorilla beringei graueri) were the first sub-species of gorillas to be visited by tourists in the early 1970s. In the Kahuzi-Biega National Park, two gorilla groups had been adapted to social manifestation by the efforts of one of the Park’s co-founders, a Belgian man called Adrian Deschryver, and his dedicated team of Congolese staff. Those habituated gorillas were silverbacks called Casimir and Mushamuka.
The impact of gorilla tourism was a positive one for the communities around the park and generated good incomes. Tourists bought locally-made souvenirs, local food, stayed in hotels, paid to have their shoes repaired, etc. Unfortunately, Casimir, one of the first habituated silverbacks, died in 1974. But by the 1980’s the Kahuzi-Biega National Park had four habituated gorilla groups. The silverback leaders of these groups were Mushamuka, Maheshe, Ninja and Mubalala. Gorilla tracking became famous after the release of the film ‘Gorillas in the Mist’ in 1988. Tourists came from all over the world to visit both the Mountain Gorillas in the film and the Eastern Lowland Gorillas too.
Gorilla families in Kahuzi-Biega national park
Kahuzi Biega National Park has 9 Gorilla Families and they have habituated only 5 gorilla groups which are open for visitors, with one Silverback that is staying in the local community that broke away from the Chimanuka.
Kahuzi Biega National Park always remained open for tourism and never experienced the political instability which affected the North Kivu region of Congo (and particularly Virunga). The park offers among the best experiences of gorilla trekking (the low-land gorillas only) and only the bad image of Congo as a whole contributed to discourage tourism to Kahuzi Biega. However, we must encourage tourism in Kahuzi Biega because the park is safe and because tourism will always help the conservation of the low-land gorillas. In 2013 there are a total of nine gorilla families in the park, of which two gorillas families are open for tourism, Chimanuka (with 37 members, 19 baby gorillas and 17 females with one silverback) and Mugaruka (one member only, Mugaruka). Two other families are under habituation: Mankoto and Mpungwe families. In 2011 the total estimated number of low land gorillas was 140 individuals. In 1992 the park was counting 25 gorilla families and a total of 284 gorillas, but later on the instability of the country at the end of the Ninetieth also affected the park; fortunately, the recent years of instability elsewhere in Congo are not affecting again Kahuzi Biega.
Magnificent Mugaruka and Chimanuka are rare wild gorillas in DR Congo. Both are massive, powerful ‘silverbacks’. Gorillas are peaceful vegetarians living in close-knit families. Mugaruka lost a hand in a deadly wire snare. A born Free gorilla was adopted to help keep them safe from poachers.
Mugaruka and Chimanuka are eastern lowland (or Grauer’s) gorilla silverbacks, living in the high altitude sector of Kahuzi-Biega National Park. Despite the work of the dedicated park staff, the pressure on the park is intense, and since the civil unrest that began in the mid-1990s protecting these animals has been an uphill struggle. Their slaughter for trophies or meat, or simply out of fear, has affected many of the gorilla families in the park and the wider area.
Chimanuka and a young Grauer’s gorilla in the Democratic Republic of Congo, the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund has been working with staff of Kahuzi-Biega National Park to study the only habituated group of Grauer’s gorillas, whose population in general has been facing severe decline. This group is led by a silverback named “Chimanuka,” who is quite an interesting leader.
At an estimated 30 years old, Chimanuka has a special history. Half of the gorillas in the area where Chimanuka lives were killed during the most violent part of the conflict in eastern Congo (1996-2003). Chimanuka is one of the few silverbacks who survived. He was then a solitary male but formed his own group in 2002 and rapidly acquired adult females from a neighboring group, where the silverback was not as strong. Chimanuka has since had a number of offspring, and he now leads a group of 23 individuals, with four adult females and 18 younger members. It is very unusual that he has twice sired a set of twins, and two of the twins are currently being monitored and doing well. He also has a special personality. Chimanuka is the most peaceful gorilla and he is extremely tolerant toward humans. He’s also known for his immense size, which was actually measured this year (using measurements based on photographs) and compares in size to mountain gorilla silverbacks Isabukuru and Musilikale, the largest silverbacks we monitor in Rwanda. Yet, like Isabukuru, he also exhibits great patience with the younger gorillas in his group.
The Silverback is about 30 years old and a handsome gorilla. Tear-shaped lump near his outer right eye First gorilla to be found (in around 2002) after civil unrest in region – his name means “good fortune just when you need it” Partly-habituated (came from one of the previously habituated gorilla families in the high altitude section of the park) Was spotted with some habituated females when first seen Family is now at 23; 4 females, 18 offspring of varying age 2 offspring known to have left group: Mushoho (female), Bonané. Bonané is now a solitary silverback. Very calm temperament, gentle with park rangers, tourists and scientists and known to be very affectionate with his young offspring (often seen resting with a group of his infants) Regularly grooms younger infants (including Koko and Marhale)
Mugaruka acted as the group leader, although he was not yet fully mature. In 2000 at age of 13 he became a fully developed silverback, and for the next few years defended his group successfully against several other aggressive males. On June 8th, 2000 he had a son, named Chubaka, and then several months later another called Maendeleo. With a large group of females and two offspring, Mugaruka’s scarred childhood was healing into a healthy adult life. In September 2002, however he had an encounter with Chimanuka. Chimanuka was born in 1986 to the silverback Maheshe, who occupied the same area of the park as Mushamuka. Maheshe was one of the most well-known gorillas in the park, was visited by many tourists and film crews, and in 1991 he appeared on the 50,000 Zaire note. In 1993, however, he was killed by poachers who took his head and attempted to sell it for 200 US$. Maheshe had not tolerated any sub-adult males in his group while he was alive, and after his death the lack of a potential leader caused the group to gradually dislocate and fall apart. Chimanuka ended up living on his own as a blackback until he matured into a silverback and began searching for females with which to form his own group. In September 2002 he found Mugaruka, fought with him, and won, thus taking charge of a group of 14 individuals including many fertile females. Mugaruka was the clear loser of this battle, which also took the life of his young child Maendeleo. He was left with only one female Lushasha and his older son Chubaka. A few months later, however, he encountered Chimanuka again, losing the fi ght once more, and his one remaining female also switched to his rival’s group. This left Mugaruka with no females, but still accompanied by his 2-year-old son – a very unusual social arrangement. He spent all of 2003 in this way, but in 2004 he had a very fortunate encounter with a group of females that had no silverback, and of which he consequently came to be leader. These females had probably been the group of Mishebere, a silverback who went missing in early 2003, and whose body was found shot several months later. Once again Mugaruka had a group of his own, but before he had time to produce any offspring, he separated from them in mid-2005 and began travelling alone, apparently after a challenge from one of the blackbacks in the group. This time Chubaka stayed with the females, leaving Mugaruka in the traditional role of a lone silverback. Despite challenging another silverback on Christmas Day 2005, at the time of writing this article this was still his situation, whilst Chimanuka remained at the head of a large and productive group. However, the story of these two young adult males, still only 20 years old, shows how the fate of these animals can turn for better or for worse at any time. The rivalry between Mugaruka and Chimanuka is typical of the life history of the species as we understand it, and they seem to be acting, and breeding, as normal. It must give us hope to see individuals whose early lives were so devastated by human intervention now exhibiting natural behaviour, and we can all thank the dedicated and professional park staff (past and present) for providing these animals with the opportunity to live as gorillas should. Those who have the chance to visit the Kahuzi-Biega National Park will recognize the silverback Mugaruka by his missing right hand. Born in 1987, into the Mushamuka family, he got his hand caught in a snare in 1991. He carried the snare around with him until his hand withered and fell off. In 1997, the male Ninja left the group peacefully (i.e. without interactions) taking with him 4 females, one of which was Mugaruka’s mother. On October 30th, 1997, Ninja was killed near Kakala by a Rwandan soldier who had stayed in the Tshivanga guard post the previous night. The surviving gorillas re-grouped under the lead of a female called Mugoli (which means “queen”) because Mugaruka was not yet old enough to lead the family. In 1999, Mugoli accepted power to Mugaruka even though he was still a blackback male. In the same year, his family started to tolerate the presence of human visitors.
Mugaruka was born in July 1987, a son of the silverback Mushamuka. At the age of only 3, he was caught in a snare and lost his right hand, giving him his characteristic stump. He had 5 elder brothers by the same father: Mubalala, Ninja, Bwana, Lambchop and Mint Sauce, all born between 1973 and 1981. These were all dead or missing by 1999, with 4 known to have been killed by poachers or soldiers. Mushamuka died in 1997, and from 1999 on ensured the education of these children for a further year with this generous donation. The Mugaruka is locally known as the gardener because of its propensity of spending time in the tea plantations which fringe the park and eating large quantities of fresh herbs which grow among the tea. Thought to have lost several females to Chimanuka several years ago. Currently solitary sometimes attempts to “steal” females back from Chimanuka, so far unsuccessful Very calm, well habituated like Chimanuka.
Mpungwe Family is the young father, about 30 years’ old named after a river which flows through his favourite territory, and waters the urera and myrianthus plants and trees which are the source of his favourite food. The Family is younger than Chimanuka’s and has very “smooth” rostral area. His lines are not very defined perhaps slightly larger than Chimanuka. Several females currently living in Mpungwe’s group were previously with Chimanuka, meaning he must have some charms. He has a tendency to charge at people and make a lot of noise (newly habituated) impressive but not dangerous. All the gorillas have distinctive lines on their nasal area which helps to distinguish them, as well as torn ears, bumps on their face, or old scars.
Marhale Family also known as the Orphan Born in 2011, and according to park sources Mother Makali (means fiery-tempered) was killed during an interaction between Chimanuka and Mugaruka. Marhale was orphaned when very young, a little over one and a half years old, and still highly dependent on his mother. He started following Chimanuka around as if he was his mother. His hair is somehow brown (due to lack of nutritional milk from when he was orphaned, as well as stress), eyes are close together, he’s somewhat stunted in growth and his limbs are short. The Chimanuka family is very patient with Marhale, and protects him as his mother would. Chimanuka took to grooming Marhale, occasionally so did Mwinja and no one thought he would make it, but he’s a survivor. Rarely plays with other gorillas enjoys grooming from his father.
Mwinja Family commonly known as the Mum, probably late 20s has a distinctive orange-tinged fore brow. Its Name means “favorite wife” and she has at least 2 children in the family, possibly 3 youngest. Mwira, little over 1-year now is very calm. Female Good mother, keeps a close eye on her baby and sometimes seen grooming Marhale, the orphan.
Mwira Family also known as the Baby and youngest infant in family, just over 1-year-old outgoing and playful. Regularly solicits play from his siblings, especially Mulenge, Karibu, and Pori (closest in age to Mwira, all still with mothers). Still not quite eating adult food items and highly dependent on mother Mwinja for moving around (carried on back or belly). Owing to his age, he gets a lot of attention from other members of group.