Training the Park rangers- Gorilla Habituation and Identification

The current Chief of the Site of KBNP, Mr. Radar Nishuli appreciated that I could be training the rangers to identify gorilla individuals and nests in order to review the genealogy of the existing groups and maintain the record updated. Thus, as a joint program between POPOF and the KBNP, the training started early July and it has completed recently. I feel honored to play this important role for the park and I hope this will also contribute to the communities in the long term.

I would like to write a bit about the history of gorilla habituation from my perspective.

There are two subspecies of gorillas in the central Africa, they range in the high altitude areas of DRCongo and Rwanda. Mountain gorillas (Gorilla beringei beringei) range in DRC (Virunga N.P.) and in Rwanda (Volcanoes N.P.), up to the altitude of 3,600 m. And Eastern lowland gorillas range in the Kahuzi-Biega N.P., Maiko N.P. and Itombwe Forest in DRC, up to 2,600m.

Habituation by Dian Fossey and Adrian Deschryver:

Pioneers Dian Fossey and Adrian Deschryver tracked gorillas in the end of 1960s. Although both of them had no trainers, they did their best to habituate gorillas. Fossey habituated mountain gorillas in the Volcanoes N.P. for scientific research purpose while Deschryver habituated the gorillas in Kahuzi-Biega N.P. for tourism purpose.

These pioneers used different methods to approach the gorillas. Dian Fossey as a female she used always to hide her face, cut down some leaves pretending that she was eating them, making noise with her throat, looking a side every time when the silverback male called Digit charged towards her.

Deschryver, on the other hand, as a male used to talk, looking straight in the eyes, showing the right hand to the silverback male that he called Casimir. And he called him always by his name like “Come, come, Casimir”. Deschryver also would pluck some leaves, putting them in his mouth to look as if he was also feeding or sharing the same foliage with the male Casimir.

As a result of the tireless effort of both pioneers Deschryver and Fossey, the silverback males in each sides got accustomed to the gestures of habituation of these masters. Caismir got used to Deschryver’s gestures and Digit got used to Fossey’ gestures of habituation. Now visitors who visit gorillas in Rwanda will notice that trackers in Volcanoes N.P. always hide their faces when they are with the gorillas while trackers in Kahuzi-Biega N.P. always look straight in the eyes of the silverback male and talk to him when charging.

Deschryver, my uncle:

The brave Deschryver whom I shall pay my respect forever was married to my aunt Agnes Bujiriri. Agnes is my mother’s younger sister. I remember that I was about ten years old when I first saw a film, in which uncle Adrien was playing with the silverback male Casimir. It was a film produced by Anglia Survival in 1975. Uncle had a young orphan baby female gorilla called Julie. He attempted to reintroduce this baby in the group of Casimir in those days. Unfortunately she died after ten days, which was narrated by David Niven.

After seeing that film, I became very ambitious to work with the Kahuzi-Biega Gorillas just as uncle Adrien did. Thus I went to the Ameircan Peace Corps Training Center in Bukavu to learn some English before I could go to face the gorillas. Luckily, uncle did his best and I was engaged as translator and gorilla guide on October 1st, 1983. I was too young to face the huge silverback male Maheshe, a son of the late Casimir. I could not even command the team of aged trackers. But slowly and slowly, I got accustomed to the gorillas because I remembered I saw uncle get closer and finally mastered the group of Casimir.

Start of my years with the gorillas:
My first day I led a group of English tourists who came by the overland truck called Guerba Expeditions. The couple of drivers, Gordon and Joy Blackie, was so kind to us. I was very inspired to be taking notes from what I see everyday. I got a tip from this couple and I went down to Miti center 7 km from the park where I bought some candles, kerosene lamp, and a liter of kerosene. In the daylight I spent time with the gorillas and in the night I wrote some notes and draw the map and gorillas’ movement that I saw. I took notes in a popular school student exercise book called Kasuku Exercise Book. Slowly, I attempted to produce private weekly, monthly and yearly reports. My daily observations consisted of the demography changes, deaths, births, transfers of members due to interactions, gorilla individual names, identification of members etc.

I spent 20 years tracking different gorillas in the mountains of Bugulumiza in Kahuzi-Biega N.P. in 1983-2003. During my tracking and other guiding works, I became able to recognize the silverbacks, adult females, black back sub adults, juveniles and babies. As a result, I could name 155 gorilla individuals during the 20-year period.

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