Bwindi Impenetrable National Park covers an area of 332 sq km which span three districts of Kisoro, Kanungu and Kabale in southwestern Uganda.
Bwindi situated at the edge of the Albertine rift valley, is an estimated 2.5 million years old! The forest has remained undisturbed and contains highest levels of biodiversity. It was designated a world natural heritage site in 1991 by UNESCO. This amazing forest is home to half of the world’s mountain gorilla numbers, more than 400 individual gorillas. It also supports 345 species of birds including 90% of bird species endemic to Albertine rift valley. There are 220 butterflies, and 120 mammals such as forest elephants.
Bwindi is surrounded by indigenous communities of Bakiga, Bafumbira and the traditionally hunter gathers Batwa pygmies whose survival depends on the wildlife they have lived in harmony with wildlife for generations.
Bwindi was gazetted as a national park in 1991 to conserve mountain gorillas, which are critically endangered species listed in the IUCN Red Data Book. Gorillas are endangered due to human diseases, poaching and habitat loss resulting from human encroachment.
And due to the precious gorilla conservation status, the Batwa who originally lived in the forest were evicted and land use activities such as collecting water, medicine herbs, harvesting honey, cutting timber were largely regulated by Uganda wildlife Authority which is responsible for managing Bwindi and the rest of Ugandan national parks.
Gorilla tourism was introduced in 1993 with gorilla trekking safaris allowing visitors to see gorillas in their natural habitat. Bwindi has for 4 gorilla trekking sectors which include Buhoma, Ruhija, Rushaga and Nkuringo. They are also centers of community tourism. Taking part in community tourism activities is perhaps the most direct way to gain an insight into the local culture, customs and traditions.
Gorilla tourism generates huge revenues in dollars which are used to fund conservation of gorillas and empower the local communities above to fight against poverty and benefit from tourism. For example, Uganda wildlife authority initiated revenue sharing scheme where 20% of the proceeds from gorilla trekking are shared with adjacent local communities to improve their lives. That money is invested in building schools and education, health care centers, to provide better living conditions. Gorilla tourism provide source of employment to locals who are employed by Uganda wildlife authority as rangers, trackers and guides.
Despite gorilla trekking being the main tourist activity in Bwindi, gorilla trekking safari is as much about visiting the local communities as it is about trekking gorillas themselves. That is because gorilla tourism exists to keep generating revenues that help to balance conservation and community tourism development.
Uganda hosts 17 different gorilla families which are ready for gorilla tracking and in each group only 8 members are allowed to track in each group. One gorilla family is available for research purpose and that’s the Kyaguriro group. The groups listed below are those currently available for gorilla tourism let us examine one by one of these habituated Uganda gorilla families;
Buhoma Side of Bwindi Impenetrable Forest
This is the oldest habituated gorilla group in Bwindi impenetrable national park. The first habituation stated in 1991 and it received its very first visitors for tracking in 1993. This group Mubare was named since the group was first sighted in the Mubare hills, very deep in the impenetrable forest. By the time of writing the group consists of 8 individuals including one silverback called Ruhondeza who is in charge of any activity taking place in the group. By the time this group was discovered it had 18 members and it was led by a dominant silverback, unfortunately over the years the group lost some of its members due to constant attacks by other wild animals, moving to other groups by some members and loss of babies. The group is now steady and open to visitors.
The group was name because it was first seen near a swamp in Bwindi Impenetrable Forest National Park hence its name Habiyanja. The word comes from a Rukiga work ‘’Njanja’’ meaning “a place with water”. The group was first habituated in 1997 and it was ready for tracking in 1999. The group consists of 17 members including two silverbacks, the group initially had a huge group and it was led by two brothers Rwansigazi and Mwirima who shared power but this could not continue, since Rwansigazi was so adventurous who like travelling so much yet Mwirima was so interested to stay at a small range. Due to this, it was inevitable that they could live together anymore; they separated in 2002 without any fight. The group that followed Rwansigazi maintained the name Habinyanja and those that followed Mwirima come to be known as the Rushegura family. These tow group still live peacefully and on many occasion they come across each other.
The Rushegura group consists of 19 individuals including 1 silverback, they were seen and habituated in 2000 and it was ready to receive visitors in 2002. Rushegura is the name of place where the separation of this group from the large family of Habinyanja took place in February 2002. The group started with 12 individuals including 5 females however, due to new birth and new members from other groups its now one of the large habituated gorilla families in Bwindi impenetrable national park. Rushegura gorilla group is a calm family and usually stay near buhoma village and sometimes even wander through the gardens of the lodges don’t get surprised to see them near the lodge especially the younger gorillas that are not shy.
Ruhija region of Bwindi Impenetrable Forest
This group is regarded as one of the newest introduced habituated gorilla family in Bwindi impenetrable forest national park. The habituation process started in 2007 and they were ready to be tracked in 2008, hence the habituation process lasted for only 15 months which is significant, since the habituation process normally lasts 2 years. The group consists of 14 members including 4 silverbacks where the second youngest silverback Ndahura is the leader. The group normally found and roams the lush forest within the Ruhija area and it was named after a river where the group was first sighted.
Oruzogo Gorilla Family:
This is one of the groups with very many family members about 25 individuals including 2 silverbacks and the leader of the group is called Tibirikwata. Oruzogo is located in the Ruhija side of the impenetrable forest national park and it’s the 2nd habituated gorilla family in the area being opened for tourism in mid-2011 and since then it has experienced growth due to very many birth in the group. It is one of the group families where a set of twins births are recorded in March 2012 and the mother is called Kakoba
Rushaga sector of Bwindi Forest
This habituated gorilla family was named after the river Nshongi close to the place where the gorilla family was first sighted. The group was officially opened to tourism in September 2009. The group had 36 members before it separated in 2011where a new group Mishaya and Bweza started their family, and by the time of writing the group has 26 members including 4 silverbacks and seven black back, several females and infants. This group is currently regarded as the biggest habituated gorilla family in Uganda.
This group was initially part of the Nshongi gorilla family but it decided to create its own family in July 2010. He was able to gather females from other groups and he expanded his group to by now 12 individuals including one silverback 5 females 3 black backs and 3 infants. these two gorilla family still live within the Rushage. The leader of this group is known as a fighter who often stage wars with other gorilla families. In April 2011 he conflicted again with a non-habituated gorilla family, which resulted into serious injuries for himself and a 2-year old infant. However, the injuries were treated by veterinarians from the Mountain Gorilla Veterinary Project.
Bweza Gorilla Group
This was originally part of the Nshongi gorilla members that used to be the largest ever habituated gorilla family in Bwindi national park, however a silverback Mishaya decided to leave the group and two years later Bweza another silverback also separated from Mishaya and started his own family, apparently the group live with 9 members including one silverback. Rangers from Uganda wildlife authority thought that the group will return back to Mishaya gorilla family but since then they live as a group and it was opened for tourism in 2012.
Kahungye Gorilla Family
This group is located in Rushaga area of the park and 13 individuals live in this family. It’s the most recent habituated gorilla families in Bwindi since it was opened to tourism in October 2011, unfortunately this group did not last for long together, in less than a year it had separated creating a new gorilla family called Busingye. Before it separated it had 27 individuals among which included 3 silverbacks. The group now live with 13 individuals including 3 silverbacks led by a dominant silverback Gwigi locally means ‘’door’’
Busingye Gorilla Family
Rushage is where this group is located it’s a family of 9 individuals including 1 leading silverback, silverback busingye split away from the Kahungye gorilla family in June 2012 and established his own family. Busingye is a Rukiga word which means ‘’peace’’, however, this silverback doesn’t live to its name since this aspiring silverback is known for his fabled fights with other gorilla groups. He likes showing his power and whenever encountering a wild family he hardheartedly grabs a female to add to his own family.
Nkuringo Region of Bwindi Forest
This gorilla habituation family consists of 16 members including two silverbacks, it derives its name from the Rukiga word for ‘’round hill’’ referring to the hill where the group was first established. The group was opened to visitors in 2004. The group was majorly found in the vicinity of the local communities and they caused problems to the local communities by destroying their crops and other product; it was majorly for this reason that the group was habituated. The community was protected and they directly benefited from the tourism and the gorillas too were protected by opening up the gorilla family for visitor. The leader of the group Nkuringo died in 2008, although left two silverbacks, the group expanded and later a special birth of twins were announced Katungi and Muhozi unfortunately Katungi died at the age of 1-5 years. This gorilla family is regarded as of the most challenging hikes in Uganda although it’s the most pleasing.
Nyakagezi Gorilla Family:
This is the only gorilla family found in Mgahinga gorilla forest national park and it has a group size of 10 members including 3 silverbacks however the group is led by Mark a dominant silverback who likes traveling and keeps on crossing borders between Uganda, Rwanda and Democratic Republic of Congo. This makes difficult to track in this group and before booking tracking in this group you are advised to confirm with your tour company agent organizing your safari whether the group is available, however there is possibility that the group will stay for a while because since it came back in November 2012 it has never crossed back either to Rwanda or DR Congo they received a newborn baby gorilla
Kyaguriro Gorilla Family
This family is located in Ruhija side of Bwindi impenetrable national park, it houses 15 individuals including 2 silverbacks, ever since this group was habituated, it’s not visited by trackers, and it’s put a side for research only. Due to research conducted under this group, many conservationists have been able to learn a lot about the mountain gorillas of bwindi, including some remarkable differences with the mountain gorillas that live in the Virunga Volcanoes.