Volcanoes National Park also known as Parc National Des Volcans in French is a must-stop for anyone visiting Rwanda for a safari or even for a conference here is Guide to Gorilla Tracking in Rwanda. The park is located in the north of Rwanda in Musanze/Ruhengeri and is believed to be the oldest Forest on the African continent. The park is part of the Great Virunga Volcano Conservation Region which includes areas of Mgahinga National Park Uganda and Virunga National Park DR Congo which are just a continuation of the park and are named different just because of geographical territories but it’s the same forest. The Parc covers an area of 160km square with the forest being home to birds, animals and among which it is famous for are the Gorillas and Golden Monkeys. The park is located at the border of Uganda and DR Congo and this makes up the largest gorilla conservation area with Virunga National park in DRC, and Mgahinga NP and Bwindi Impenetrable National Park with over 1800 gorilla as per the census which makes up more than half of the worlds Gorillas. The park also has other wildlife and primates among which the majestic and beautiful Golden monkeys which are also found in Mgahinga National Park in Uganda, only and only these two places will you find them in the whole of East Africa. Other animals include Buffalos, Hyenas, Elephants, Duikers and 178 bird species among others. The vegetation of Volcanoes National Park is comprised of mainly Savannah grassland, bamboo forest, vent swamps and volcanoes(Muhabura, Gahinga, Sabinyo, Karisimbi and Bisoke) and these are great spots for one day hiking experiences for those interested in visiting the park.
Gorilla tracking is the most famous activity in the park which makes it attractive to visit with an estimate of more than 600 gorillas and 10 Gorilla Families habituated for luxury gorilla travel for anyone visiting the region. The region is also famous for the work of conservationist and American zoologist Dian Fossey who moved from DR Congo to establish her research centre in Karisimbi in 1967, this was after her work had been threatened by insecurities in Congo. She lived here and did a lot of research work on Gorillas and also had a great hand in spearheading the fight on the campaign to conserve the mountain Gorillas which faced extinction from Poachers who killed the Gorillas and others for smuggling them. She stayed here until when she was murdered in 1985 and was buried at the research centre next to the grave of favourite Gorilla which was called Digit. During her research, she studied the Gorilla Family of Susa which lived high up on Mount Karisimbi so anyone visiting Gorillas this is one of the best families to request to visit. The parks tourism was paralyzed for many years due to the civil wars in Rwanda from the 1990s to 1999 and this upset the tourism of the park as the war partly took place in the area.
The park is located in a small village called Musanze also known as Ruhengeri and can be accessed either by public transport from Kigali (Airport) or Gisenyi. Those that prefer to have their trips to be arranged through travel companies this can be arranged for you in a 4×4 vehicle to and from the park. The drive from Kigali is a 2 hours’ drive and this makes it very possible for one to drive directly from Kigali and track Gorillas and then return and take their flight out provided they make it to the park before 7:00am Rwanda time and book flights out that depart at least later after 6:00pm.
Unfortunately, there are no flights directly from Kigali linking to the park but even if you are travelling luxury there are luxury vehicles that can be arranged which are installed with AC and mobile refrigerator to call your drinks while on the move. The country has a national currier which makes travel easy as they fly to very many destinations hence eliminating the tedious connecting flights and constant changing of flights while travelling to Rwanda.
Also, the park can be accessed from Uganda for those doing a much longer trip or if you are live in Uganda, the drive from Kampala is approximately 9-10 hours’ drive long but very scenic one to do with many stops along the way, at the Equator for photography, Igongo Cultural Centre and through the rolling hills of Kigezi and crossing the border at Cyanika Border. Many people who travel here are from either doing a trip in areas of Bwindi Impenetrable National Park, Lake Mburo National Park or Kibale and Queen Elizabeth National Park which connecting through Kabale is just a 2 hours’ drive.
With flights from Entebbe either using Areolink Uganda or Kampala Executive Aviation are options that one can use to Kisoro Airstrip which is an hour’s flight to Kisoro and connect to Kigali by a drive which is 2 tours in a 4×4 vehicle. This saves you on the time spent on the road for the 10 hours’ drive on the road for those who hate long drives.
Like Uganda, Rwanda’s Gorillas are also fully habituated and are in groups which are tracked by not more than 8 people per day. Which makes a total of 80 permits per day. A gorilla family can only be tracked by once as per the rules of the Rwanda Development Board.
The Gorilla permit price in Volcanoes National Park is by far the most expensive of all National Parks where tracking Mountain Gorilla tracking permit goes for USD1500.00 per person per trek, there are also special discount rates for anyone who visits at list 3 national parks in Rwanda for a discounted rate of USD1050.00 per person per trek and USD1275.00 per person for those on conferences in Rwanda. Compared to its neighbours Uganda and DR Congo which sell its permits at USD700.00 per person per trek and USD400.00 per person per trek respectively.
This is so to prevent the gorillas from being overwhelmed by many tourists which may cause anxiety and force them to react by attacking them. These Gorilla groups are 10 are Susa, Sabyinyo, Karisimbi, Umubano, Agashya, Amahoro, Kwitonda, Hirwa, Bwenge, and Ugyenda gorilla Families. One group Titus is reserved for Gorilla research purposes.
Susa Gorilla Family
This group gets its name from the Susa River that runs through the area and this group is a very famous and historical one. The group is one that was studied by famous zoologist Dian Fossy since 1967 until her death in 1985. The group is the largest and the hardest group to track in the volcanoes National park, the group lives on a high altitude on Mount Karisimbi. At the time of habituation, the group had about 42 members but due to fights and death in the group it has been reduced to now 28 gorillas with 3 silverbacks, the group also prides as amidst its members are the twins of Impano and Byishimo. This is the hardest group to track because of the altitude at which they stay but can be an interesting group for those who love hiking and adventurous.
Sabyinyo Gorilla Family
This group was named after mountain Sabinyo which is located in the area where the group is found, mountain Sabinyo and mountain Mgahinga which are shared by both Uganda and Rwanda but the gorillas stay on the Rwanda side. This is one of the easiest groups to track located nearby the park headquarters. The group has the biggest Silverback called Guhonda weighing up to about 220kg and keeping its main challenger Ryango away from the group. 3 adult females, 3 juveniles makes it among the best groups to visit for any tourists.
Karisimbi Gorilla Family
This group is led by silverback Nyagakangaga and like its name, it is derived from Mount Karisimbi which is where the group lives now. This group split away from the Susa Gorilla Family in 2009 and it’s the reason for why the Susa group remains with just about 26 members from the original 42. Nyagakangaga broke away from the Susa group with 13 members and was first called Susa B and later in 2010 the name was changed to Karisimbi Gorilla Family. Currently, the group consists of 11 members with 3 females, 4 silverbacks, a black back and 2 infants.
Amahoro Gorilla Family
The group is made up of 18 members with the dominate silverback called Ubumwe which means togetherness, the group has two silverbacks, 2 black backs, 5 juveniles, 5 females and 4 young gorillas. The name Amahoro is a Rwandese word to mean peace and the family is a very peaceful one indeed as many who have visited the family testify to this. The group is found around the slopes of Mount Visoke and if you are interested in this group to expect a fairly medium trek to see them hence requires some level of fitness.
Umubono Gorilla Family
With 13 members and 2 silverbacks, the group is led by dominate silverback called Ubumwe with means “live together”. This group was previously part of the Amahoro group and broke away and was headed by Charles before he died and the group was taken over by Ubumwe.
Agashya Gorilla Family
This group was formerly known as the 13 Group because it had 13 members living together as a family for a long time. Initially, it was dominated by Nyakarima and was overthrown by Agashya the Silverback. With better conservation, the group has now expanded to 25 members with 1 silverback, 12 females, 3 Juveniles and 7 young gorillas. The group is normally found roaming the foothills of mount Mgahinga and Sabinyo. Agashya is very protective and is known to command his group to move uphill every time he senses danger.
Kwitonda Gorilla Family
This group moved from the Democratic Republic of Congo crossing into Rwanda in 2003 studies suggest that it might have moved because of pressure from other Gorilla groups for territories or even the possibility that it moved for food and ended up south in Rwanda. The name was adopted from the dominate silverback of the group by then, now the group is led by Akerevoru who was the younger silverback after dismissing Kwitonda from the group. Kwitonda died in 2012 and was found dead after 10 days of running away from the group, he is believed to have died a natural death after the postmortem was done. The group is made up of about 23 members.
Hirwa Gorilla Family
This is one of the newest group with 16 members with one silverback, the group was formed from two groups of Sabinyo family and the Group 13. The group is found between Mgahinga and Sabinyo Mountain. Hirwa means “Lucky One” and it’s among the few blessed with twins in the family.
Bwenge Gorilla Family
The group is found around mountain Visoke areas, the group is comprised of 11 members, this is the easiest group to trek and for those looking for something much easier and for the elderly, this is the group to trek. The group is headed by silverback Bwenge who had moved away from his original group and was later joined by 2 other females. The group experienced a dark time when 6 of his infants died at once. It’s also another easy group when it comes to trekking.
Ugyende Gorilla Family
This group is made up of 11 members with one silverback. Its name Ugyenda means “on the move”, this group is very mobile and always on the move, the group resides around Mount Bisoke and roams these areas. This group gives you a relatively harder trek due to the fact that it lives high on the slopes of Mount Bisoke
Titus Gorilla Family
The group is derived from silverback Titus who was born during the time when Dian Fossey was still doing her research at Karisoke Research Center, Titus witnessed the death of his entire family by poachers and was left as the only sole survivor, he endured a lot of hardships, he was drawn in by another family at a very young age, he grows up to become a very dominate silverback and later broke away with other males like Beetsme and 5 females to form there own group that is now known as Titus. Titus fathered 20 children and but they kept breaking away as he grows old, Titus died at the age of 35 years. This group is the most successful story of the Volcanoes National Park recalling the humble background of Titus to where the group now is. The group is set aside for research purposes and only available for tracking just in case of shortage of permits and if it’s a special request and authorized.
If you are interested in tracking Gorillas in Rwanda, there are rules and regulations that you must observe even after you have secured the Gorilla permits and these are as below;
It should be noted that gorilla tracking is done in groups which trek families, each family is tracked by a group of 8 visitors per day and this is done to minimize human disturbance to the gorillas and also reduce the risk of Gorillas being exposed to human-borne diseases.
Visitors to Gorilla tracking should ensure they have checked and treated of any contagious disease like flu and cough before coming for Gorilla tracking being that they have the closest DNA to that of human beings the chances of them getting these diseases are high.
Check that you have your Gorilla permit with you and that you have carried your identification documents with you.
Wash your hands before going for Gorilla tracking.
Rules and guidelines have been carefully developed to try to protect the mountain gorillas’ health and safety. As mentioned previous, Gorillas are extremely susceptible to human diseases and infections and become stressed if too many visitors arrive or approach too closely. Remember that they are wild individuals, and very protective of their young. To remain healthy and survive these apes need to be undisturbed by visitors and allowed to eat, rest and socialize with their own species.
RULE 1: Ill tourists are advised to recover before coming for Gorilla tracking to reduce disease exposure to the Gorillas, the staff at the park can stop you if they find that what you have could be contagious to the Gorillas.
RULE 2: A Gorilla group is tracked by a maximum of 8 visitors per day and that group can not be tracked twice, Gorillas get agitated hence this is done to reduce behavioural disturbance and stressing of the Gorillas which may result into the Gorillas charging towards you.
RULE 3: The general rule on age is persons of 15 years and above are allowed to track Gorillas as long as they are in good health and capable to do the trek. Children are discouraged mainly because of ther childhood diseases and that many children get scared very easily and may act out when they see the Gorillas.
RULE 4: All visitors are allowed to spend a maximum of one hour with the gorillas when they meet them, reasons are mainly related to behavioral, stress and possible risk of infections as gorillas cannot be controlled to stay the recommended 7 meters.
RULE 5: Photography is allowed but flash photography is not allwed as this might upset or frighten the Gorillas to charge out and become violent towards visitors.
RULE 6: Visitors should stay at list 7 meter away from the Gorillas and if the gorillas come closer which is usual with the baby and juvenile, visitrs are advised to move atleast 5 meters. If its not possible to move you will be advised by the rangers and wildlife staff on how to proceed from there.
RULE 7: Tourists should observe a tight group so that the gorillas have enough space to move around as they feed. If you are spread around Gorillas may feel threatened and charge towards you to protect their territory.
RULE 8: You are advised to seat or porch if you get to see the Gorillas, Gorillas mainly the silverback fills threatened if you are standing close and taller than them and also the baby Gorillas are easily attracted to those standing.
RULE 9: Body language is important, and visitors should not raise hands or arms, or point, nor stare at them. Gorillas mainly communicate through body language and you don’t know what the sign or gesture you make would mean to the Gorillas.
RULE 10: It’s not advised to clear vegetation close to the Gorillas, they may be frightened and feel threatened. Guides will advise you on how it should be done when clearing sight view.
RULE 11: when the silverback beats his chest, or displays signs of charging towards you, DO NOT RUN AWAY, the guides will advise you on how to approach the situation. Sometimes they do these to see your reaction and if you are a threat or not.
RULE 12: Eating, drinking and smoking are not permitted near the Gorillas, or within 200 meters of the Gorillas, this behavior could be disturbing and cause problems to the Gorillas. Those Parked lunches will be advised on where they should eat from.
RULE 13: All visitors should be as quiet as possible, and whisper. If bitten by Safari ants or struck by stinging nettle, do not scream. Avoid frightening gorillas as they may move away. Being quiet makes you even observe them better.
RULE 14: Anyone sneezing and coughing should turn away and do so, covering while doing so is advised. This minimizes the spread of airborne diseases from you to the Gorillas which might unknowing catch them and become fatal.
RULE 15: All faucal materials must be buried. A machete may be borrowed from guides, a 30cm hole dug and then the hole filled. These are highly infectious and carry allot of diseases not only to Gorillas but also to other animals in the wild.
RULE 16: Avoid loitering of rubbish around the park, any remains should be kept in your pockets and bags and disposed off after departing from the Forest. Animals can eat these and they become harmful and also they are degrading materials to the environment.
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