- Last Updated on Monday, 15 April 2013 09:01
One of the characteristics and special features of gorillas is their life in stable families and their advanced social structure; forming the basis for the rich social interactions.
Well, imagine a family of gorillas that has a specific name up in the volcanoes that was habituated to human presence and regularly monitored since the 70s-80s and has lived in the same territory: Like any family, it has registered events such as births, deaths, immigration and emigration, and most interestingly the leadership succession, etc. Particularly, male dominance and group leadership make the relevance of the BIG silverback in the life of a gorilla family. However, in any society, leadership benefits correspond to a certain level with responsibilities.
The absence of the leader in the gorilla family means instability, until the complex social interactions reveal a new (promising) fate for some family members, a prolonged uncertainty for others! Three days passed members of Urugamba moving around, showing grieving signs to the dead Silverback Urugamba. On the third day, the gorillas without the leader approached one of the neighboring groups, Ntambara. Fortunately, the gorillas in both groups share the same history; the members of both Urugamba and Ntambara families previously formed the same group Shinda, which was disintegrated after the death of the old and charismatic Shinda in 2009.
The familiarity is hoped to facilitate the integration. After many hours displaying stress and tensions, as well as some aggressive behaviors addressed to some gorillas by the leader of Ntambara group (to impose his leadership and call for submission from new members), gorillas opted for peaceful settlement, particularly the young started playing together.
However, two particular cases of females with infants were subject of concern. When a different dominant silverback takes over, there is risk of infanticide; the females with babies will be reluctant to expose their young offspring to the risk of being killed by the new leader. One of the females, Pasika has known the new leader in Shinda group when both Urugamba and Ntambara were together, and although her baby has not been fathered by the Ntambara silverback she can count on his tolerance and acceptance.
Unfortunately for Bishushwe and her baby, it is different story. She joined Urugamba after it splits from Shinda and the silverback of Ntambara does not know her, she is worried about the infant on her back, she is stressed, she can easily read the new silverback’s different attitude to her. She has already received a couple of aggressive behavior from the Silverback, and she has to take a different direction to save her baby.
On the days following Urugamba gorillas’ integration in Ntambara group, female Bishushwe and her infant were found on their own. The female showed abnormal stress and she did not seem comfortable with human presence: the trackers she has known for many years. But something is unusual about her: she is not with the family, most importantly she is worried about her baby, and his father has died. She has gone back to where the father of her baby died, but he is no more!
The possibility of a female mountain gorilla living by her own and her infant is improbable, Bishushwe has continued moving alone with her infant, but she must be thinking, and hoping that nature will determine her own fate and her infant.
Gorillas have responded well to our efforts of conserving them, including the tolerance to the tourism that ultimately benefits both gorillas and humans, but there is little we can do change their natural behavior. Actually, our philosophy of gorilla conservation is based on the minimum intervention and the respect of their natural behavior!
Volcanoes National Park
The Chief Park Warden
- Last Updated on Monday, 15 April 2013 07:53
Many people have wondered and still wonder why gorillas have attracted so many people, and why we seem to be doing more than a lot for them: the annual gorilla naming ceremony (one day, a family called and complained that we have picked all their family names…), the special and publicized birth of twins…the death of the Gorilla King and the ceremonial burial the other day!
Yes, gorillas are famous and have made their habitat famous too! Many visitors, including the most famous people have visited gorillas in Rwanda. Some of of them, who whispered to us their intimate and discreet opinion “wished all Rwandans could know how gorillas and their country habitat are so special”.
WHAT is special about gorillas?
A few days ago there was an unfortunate death of the dominant silverback in one of the research groups named URUGAMBA! He was named so because he was born during the insecurity period of early 1990s in the volcanoes area. Urugamba did not die of old age; but for now let not dwell on the causes of his early death but rather on the fate of his group members following him passing away.
Gorillas live in a structured family composed of compulsory one dominant silverback (group leader), females, juveniles and infants. The dominant silverback is a really leader; he takes responsibility of protecting the group members, decides the group’s movements. He is a truly center of attention in the family life managing both internal interactions among group members and external interactions with neighboring groups. Urugamba group its self was formed in 2009 following the natural death of Shinda, the then dominant silverback. Subsequent to Shinda’s death was disintegration of his group into three groups, led by his ex-subordinates Ntambara, Ugenda and Urugamba.
Urugamba was proclaimed dead by the group trackers on 25th January 2013. Without a subordinate male to lead the group, the fate of his females and infants was a subject of concern to all of us!
On 25th; remaining family members composed of 6 gorillas woke up and started the day without the leader. After a couple of hours moving and searching for food away from the dead body of their leader, gorillas made their way back to the site, surrounding the body and making different vocalizations, crying! Gorillas mourn their dead leader! There would come to see him, chase away the flies on the decomposing body and make different vocalizations, they don’t bury the lost, but show signs of grieving!
In this kind of situation, where the group does not have the leader, and the fact that Urugamba family had two close neighbors in group Ugenda and Ntambara; the assumption was that either the gorillas will move to join one group, or the later will move towards the unstable family. However, it is not as simple as it seems! When a different dominant silverback takes over, there is risk of infanticide; the females with babies will be reluctant to expose their young offspring to the risk of being killed by the new leader.
MORE ON THE FATE OF URUGAMBA GROUP NEXT TIME….
Prosper UWINGELI/The Chief Park Warden
- Last Updated on Monday, 15 April 2013 07:48
One part of my work and perhaps the most enjoyable is taking part in a gorilla tracking exercise with gorilla experts; THE TRACKERS!
Today, 27th January I joined the Sabyinyo group trackers led by Nkanika and with the group was the park veterinary officer Elizabeth Nyirakaragire. The specific tracking mission for today, that attracted myself and Elizabeth was to check the respiratory problem in the group and help trackers identify two gorillas they failed to locate in the group yesterday, the subordinate silverback (second in the group hierarchy) Gihishamwotsi and young female Urumuli. Urumuri has recently joined Sabyinyo from Agashya group and she is a close friend of the second in command (Gihishamwotsi), often observed by trackers moving and resting together!
During the 2h30 observation of the members of Sabyinyo group, most of them were observed with mild coughing, only a couple of them did not cough. However, during most of observation period all gorillas were on normal activities: feeding, traveling and resting! Since the respiratory problem was detected five days ago, the veterinary team has treated two gorillas with antibiotics. Today, the overall assessment was that there was no new severe case to require an intervention.
As for the two gorillas that were not seen in the group yesterday, only the Silverback was identified today. After failing to see her all sides in and around the group, we decided to find the night nests and conduct a thorough counting! Given the fact the group is composed of 15 members Urumuli included, normally trackers count 11 nests, three babies and one juvenile are still sleeping with their mothers or with another adult. We managed to observe 10 nests and we made sure we deposed a stick in each nest identified to avoid a double counting. This made us confidently confirm that Urumuli is not with the Sabyinyo group. Since trackers have not seen her for three days, their suppose she has left for another group or lone silverback, and perhaps that is the reason Gihishamwotsi was not with the group yesterday, trackers think he was chasing another group that was following Sabyinyo group, but inevitably Urumuli found her way out! There may be other reasons why Urumuli is not observed in the group, she could be back tomorrow, and hopefully we will see her with other groups soon!
Finally, as we were leaving the group we found another young female Karema, who was staring at the young silverback Shirimpumu. The later was relaxing down, resting but he looked a bit weak, because of coughing! The lead tracker Nkanika believed and elaborated that Karema was soliciting copulation, and he was quite chocked that she did not care he was sick!
I like joining the trackers on their routine work. There seem to know all gorillas, not just by name but also by their individual characters. Most interestingly, I like the way they like to relate the gorilla personality, the behavior to ours as human beings! Today it was a story of female Karema staring at the seemingly uninterested Shirimpumu, tomorrow it is one of competition among males, another day one story about females competition, or how gorillas, or particularly the dominant silverback knows better conflicts management than humans …the stories never end!
Make an effort to understand their language, and just be willing to listen!
Prosper UWINGELI/The Chief Park Warden