Congo: Rugabo Revisited

Twenty one months after my initial meeting with Rugabo, in August 1995, he made international headline news when his body was discovered, shot dead along with an adult female. The motive appeared to be kidnap as the poachers had made off with a baby gorilla, although it was subsequently retrieved a few days later near the Ugandan border and successfully returned to its family. The perpetrators were rounded up and six men were prosecuted and sentenced to between 15 and 20 years in prison. However, the damage had been done and the following years saw what was left of the Rugabo family slowly decline in numbers.

At the end of November, 1996, the national park infrastructure on the Zairean part of the Virunga Volcanoes was destroyed in the civil war and a number of guards killed. The gorillas were not directly affected, but the temporary disappearance of tourism will have seriously impacted any anti-poaching measures that were in place at the time.

Life after Rugabo

At first, following Rugabo’s murder the family scarpered into the surrounding forest and became unapproachable, but after only a few weeks they allowed park rangers close enough for them to be observed again. An ageing female had initially taken on the dominant role and had led the family to safety before submitting leadership to a Blackback male called Lulengo.

Things went well under Lulengo’s leadership until early 1998 when a lone Silverback by the name of Mapua roamed into the fringes of the family’s home range and attacked Lulengo. The confrontation lasted for 15 days and resulted in Mapua successfully splitting off a young adult female and a juvenile. They were followed out of the range a short while later by another female and her baby. In September of the same year, Lulengo’s family were caught in the crossfire of the ongoing military operations that had plagued the region for the previous four years. Two young gorillas were killed, including the one that had been kidnapped as a baby and reintroduced following Rugabo’s death.

By the end of 1998 Lulengo had finally matured into a Silverback but his family numbered only 5 males following the departure of the last remaining female in October of that year. In all of this time, no babies were born.

In February 2002, one of the remaining males, Pilipili had matured into a Silverback and departed the group, taking Karema, an adult Blackback with him. The last report to come from the Virungas, regarding Lulengo’s group says that the two remaining Blackbacks are expected to become solitary animals, thus rendering what remains of the family dysfunctional. In short, Lulengo has fulfilled his duty to ensure the young would grow up.

Group Dynamics

The family history since Rugabo’s death in August 1995 is as follows:

– beginning of September 1995: 23 individuals
– end of September 1995: 17 individuals
– June 1996: 13 individuals
– July 1996: 11 individuals
– December 1998: 5 individuals
– December 2001: 3 individuals
– May 2002: 4 individuals. The fourth gorilla was a solitary animal who joined the family but only stayed for a few weeks before moving on, evidently unimpressed by the shortage in numbers and the total absence of females.

Research shows that against all odds, the population of Mountain Gorillas has grown by 11% since 1989. This was in no small part down to the concerted efforts of the park rangers who continued to carry out their duties even while civil war raged around them.

A war in which over 70 of those rangers lost their lives. In July 2003, the total number of surviving Mountain Gorillas was estimated to be at 672 and some might be optimistic enough to say the future looks bright. But as long as this part of the world is ravaged by corruption, despotism and civil unrest, the future of Gorilla gorilla beringei is likely to be as dark as the continent they live on.

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