As nations around the world grapple with the thought of how to sail clear of the “unprecedented times” caused by the COVID-19 pandemic (the novel coronavirus), and while airline fleets around the world, for the first time in more than half a century remain stationed, the travel and tourism industry faces one of its toughest challenges.
However, this widespread essence of somber doesn’t seem to be the case in the UNESCO World Heritage Site, Bwindi Impenetrable National Park, as Uganda welcomed two (2) healthy mountain gorilla babies during lockdown.
Having exclusive access to the news, I heartily took to my social media accounts earlier this week to break the story, following a chat with Uganda Wildlife Authority’s (UWA) Executive Director, Mr. Sam Mwandha.
Details of the births were later on confirmed in a statement released today by UWA.
“The infant gorillas thought to have been born on April 25 and May 1, 2020 have caused excitement in both families. Mother Kabagyenyi and Silverback Bweza and Nshongi are tightly guarding the baby mountain gorilla, while in the Muyambi group, silverback Muyambi and unnamed mother are soothing and warming their new family member,” the statement read in part.
We are yet to know the sexes
It is normal for mountain gorillas to be very protective of the mother and her little one at the birth of every new baby. This is largely why the sexes of both babies remain unknown, but the daily team of trackers and vets who monitor the mountain gorilla families will reveal more details about both infants in the future. This will however take a while as the mothers and silverbacks often take a while to loosen up the tight security.
The Nshongi mountain gorilla group is located in the southern sector of Bwindi Impenetrable National Park called Rushaga and was the first group to be habituated in this area.
This is also the very first mountain gorilla group I ever tracked with friends a few years ago when we launched a tourism awareness campaign dubbed “Rediscovering Wakanda, Uganda Is Lit”. CLICK here for some of the moments.
Muyambi mountain gorilla family can be found foraging around the northern and perhaps busiest region of the park called Buhoma. As of today, it is the newest group to have been habituated and opened to gorilla tourism in Uganda. It was opened up to tourists on gorilla tracking safaris in 2019.
About the two mountain gorilla mothers
For both mothers, this is their first baby, and we all know how special that feels like, judging by the DNA similarity between humans and the gentle giants.
The birth in the Muyambi family, a name the group gets from an adult silverback, comes as a surprise because the mother had not even been named yet. She is recorded to have joined the Muyambi family from a wild mountain gorilla group, after the Muyambi silverback had split from Mubare; the very first mountain gorilla group to ever be habituated and opened up to tourists, to form his own family.
On the other side of this forested gorilla kingdom, the baby born to 10-year old Mother Kabagyenyi of the Nshongi family is a normal occurence, at least for mountain gorilla standards.
“Kabagyenyi joined the Nshongi family from a wild group when she was a sub adult. Later, the Silverback called Bweza, who is the head of Nshongi group, started mating with her,” Hangi Bashir, UWA’s Communication Manager elatedly revealed.
At the time of its discovery, the Nshongi mountain gorilla group had at least 35 individuals. This large group has unfortunately split over the years, leaving only 10 members today, including the new infant.
About Mountain Gorilla births:
On average, female mountain gorillas begin to produce little ones at the age of 10. They are able to carry one or two babies at a time and give birth after a 8.5-month gestation period; quite similar to the 9-month’s human pregnancy. In general, mountain gorilla mothers will bear between two to six offspring in a lifetime. Unlike their powerful mothers and fathers, newborns are tiny, weighing on average, four pounds and are only able to cling to their mothers’ fur. The infant will ride on mom’s backs from the age of four months through the first two or three years of their lives. SOURCE: National Geographic
Tour operators welcome the new births
Gloria Tumwesigye the CEO of the Association of Uganda Tour Operators (AUTO) welcomes the birth of new mountain gorillas as a moment of hope in these strange times and a testimony to Uganda’s successful conservation efforts. “We commend the efforts of conservation bodies both in the public and private sector, and we look forward to bringing many more tourists to Uganda’s rich wildlife areas and all other tourist attractions soon,” Gloria added.
The population of mountain gorillas is on a continuous rise
In 2018, the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) reclassified the mountain gorilla from Critically Endangered to Endangered.
The recently concluded census for Bwindi Impenetrable National Park indicates that the park had 459 individuals. The number of mountain gorillas in the Virunga Massif stands at 604 shared between Uganda, Rwanda and Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) effectively bringing the total number of mountain gorillas in the wild to 1,063. Uganda hosts over 50% of the global population of mountain gorillas.
“Slowly but surely a solid future for mountain gorillas is emerging proving that long-term collaborative conservation efforts can pull species back from the brink of extinction”, a joint press statement released last year by World Wildlife Fund (WWF), Fauna & Fora International, Conservation International, and International Gorilla Conservation Programme (IGCP) revealed.
Planning a mountain gorilla safari after lockdown? Here are 5 tips for a stress-free gorilla holiday.
Mountain gorilla tourism currently on an indefinite suspension due to COVID-19
All Uganda, DR Congo and Rwanda’s gorilla tracking safaris, chimpanzee trekking holidays, and trips to track golden monkeys among other primates have been momentarily put on hold until the situation subsides. This precautious move comes as the countries monitor the containment of the spread of COVID-19 and its implications to wildlife conservation and tourism in the protected areas.
Sam Mwandha, the UWA Chief, guided that only Uganda Wildlife Authority trackers would still be permitted access to the country’s fragile population of primates, as it is necessary to tightly monitor the mountain gorillas health and safety, a move that has contributed positive results for gorilla tourism in recent times.
UWA affirmed that they would continue to provide all trackers with necessary Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) to avoid passing on any possible infections to the primates.
Value of mountain gorilla tourism to Uganda
Gorilla safaris attract the most revenue for the Uganda Wildlife Authority (UWA), an organization mandated to manage the country’s 10 national parks and 12 wildlife reserves.
“The money collected from the sale of mountain gorilla permits has helped us conserve these special animals as well as support the local communities living around our gorilla parks,” says Gessa Simplicious, UWA’s Public Relations Officer.