When the name Rwanda comes up, at least in tourism circles, gorilla tracking comes to mind, first and foremost, as the Land of a Thousand Hills is indeed best known for offering well organized Eco tours Rwanda to see the prized animals in their natural habitat. The Rwanda Development Board’s Tourism and Conservation Department in fact acknowledges that in spite of concerted efforts over the past years to diversify the tourism products and introduce new attractions, inside and outside of the three national parks, gorilla tracking remains the highest profile activity for now, though birding and hiking, especially in Nyungwe Forest National Park, have started to make an impact in the statistics. Culture is also growing tourism product in Rwanda and the Rwanda tourism board has launched the Musanze cave for cultural tourism which you can visit on your Rwanda tour, Eco tours Rwanda.
The Virunga massif, a trans-boundary ecosystem located in Rwanda, Uganda and neighboring Congo DR, is home of – going by the latest figures available – some 400 mountain gorillas and has been described as the world’s only stable great apes population. It is here, that on the Rwandan side some 11 habituated gorilla groups are available for tourism purposes, the 11th only named 10 days ago during the annual Kwita Izina naming ceremony, when a “breakaway group” gained their own recognition, name and status. Additionally there are 10 other habituated groups which are strictly reserved for research and monitoring, outpacing the other two gorilla range countries. The gorilla groups in Rwanda include: Susa—the largest group with 41 gorillas. This family is the hardest to trek as it tends to range high into the mountains but RDB Tourism & Conservation trackers will know well in advance where the group is located. The group is also well known for having rare 5 year old twins named Byishimo and Impano. Sabyinyo—Sabyinyo is an easily accessible group led by the powerful silverback Guhonda. There are fewer members within this family than in the other groups however they are equally impressive as a family. Amahoro—led by the calm and easy going Ubumwe, Amahoro is made up of 17 members and means “peaceful”. To reach Amahoro one must endure a fairly steep climb however the climb is well worth it once in contact with this tranquil group. Group 13—when first habituated this group had only 13 members hence its name. Now the group has approximately 25 members, a very positive sign for conservation and the efforts put forward by RDB Tourism & Conservation to protect the gorillas’ habitat. Kwitonda—this 18-member group is led by Kwitonda which means “humble one” and has two silverbacks and one black back. Having migrated from DRC, this group tends to range far making it a moderately difficult trek. Umubano—a family of 11, Umubano were originally Amahoro members but broke off after the dominant silverback was challenged by Charles, now the leader of Umubano. When a young silverback challenges the dominant silverback he must steal some females from the existing group in order to form his own family; thus Umubano was formed. Hirwa—this group emerged recently and was formed from different existing families, namely from Group 13 and Sabyinyo. Eventually more gorillas joined. Come witness this family continue to grow and Karisimbi– a family of 15, a new group.
The Ruhengeri province in Rwanda is a city where all gorilla trekkers have their overnight before and after budget gorilla trekking. At this area you can stay at luxury, mid-range and budget lodges Sabyinyo silverback Lodge/Virunga safari lodge/ Mountain Gorilla View Lodge/ Mountain Gorilla Nest Camp/Lebombou Lodge/Laplame Hotel/Muhabura Guest House/Kinigi Guest House respectively. The Rwanda Development Board and conservation NGOs are working hand in hand towards a common goal, protecting the mountain gorillas while at the same time ensuring that tourism pays many of the bills this mammoth task incur month after month.
The Greater Virunga Trans-boundary Cooperation, in short GVTC, is a trilateral body, based in Kigali, comprising RDB, UWA and ICCN, which coordinates conservation and management matters, shares research results and coordinates security measures put into place along the national frontiers between Rwanda, Uganda and the Congo DR.
There is GRASP, the Great Apes Survival Partnership, which falls under the UNESCO/UNDP framework of conservation partnerships under which all institutional bodies come together to share information and rally to preserve the ever shrinking habitat of great apes around the globe.
Gorilla Doctors bring veterinary doctors together who volunteer their time to assist, largely free of cost for their professional services, to rush to the scene should the trackers, who spend much of the day with their charges up the volcanic mountains, call for medical support.
The International Gorilla Conservation Program, in short IGCP, is a partnership devoted to the conservation of the mountain gorillas by the African Wildlife Foundation, Flora and Fauna International and the World Wildlife Fund for Nature, best known as WWF.
And then there is the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund International, the local headquarters based in Musanze, which is arguably the highest profile organization of them all, the offices in white and green highly visible for everyone who drives through what used to be Ruhengeri. The fund emerged from Dian Fossey’s DIGIT Fund, renamed in Dian’s honor in 1992 as the DFGFI.
Dian Fossey, immortalized through the film “Gorillas in the Mist,” which portrayed her life’s work and dedication to the cause of protecting the mountain gorillas of Rwanda and Congo, back then still known as Zaire, was killed on the 27th December 1985, but left behind a legacy which lives on and has grown from strength to strength. Controversial as she may have been in life, she was an outspoken opponent of using habituated gorillas for tourism purposes and had reported run ins’ with fellow researchers, too, in death she became a uniting factor for gorilla conservation and her name, and that of the fund, continue to be magnets to raise money, material contributions and attention around the world. Today, the gorilla population, which was seriously endangered when Dian was still alive and working in the field, has significantly increased in size, to now around 480 overall, but with an estimated carrying capacity of around 800 gorillas, some in fact say up to 1,000 while others put the capacity of the Virunga massif to lesser numbers.
The fund operates the Karisoke Research Centre, headed by Felix Ndagijimana with over 150 staff in Rwanda and across the border in the Congo DR, plus a number of volunteers and collaborating scientists. The main thrust of activities is, as previously mentioned, research and monitoring of the gorillas, conservation education among school children but also the adult population living around the national parks and last but not least community outreach programs include health and education interventions.