Primate Expertise and Wild Earth Allies mobilize funds to habituate two new gorilla families to strengthen Kahuzi-Biega National Park tourism capacity
17 Aug 2021
Since April 2021 Primate Expertise partnering with Wild Earth Allies have been conducting Grauer’s gorilla habituation in Kahuzi Biega National Park in collaboration with the park management in order to consolidate tourism in this World Heritage Site. The park authorities have expressed their wish to increase the number of gorilla families accustomed to human presence. In fact, only two families named Chimanuka and Bonané and alone silverback Mugaruka are today visited by tourists. To fulfil this wish of increasing the number of gorilla habituated, the park asked Primate Expertise and Wild Earth Allies to support habituation of two new families (Mpungwe and Nabirembo).
Mpugwe and Nabirembo, two wild gorilla families in KBNP under habituation process
As far as Kahuzi Biega National Park is concerned, a few criteria must be taken into account before selecting a gorilla family to be habituated. These are the family group size, group composition, home range size, geographic position and security. After screening these criteria, PEx and WEA in consensus with KBNP management selected Mpungwe and Nabirembo families, Mpungwe has 20 individuals including one silver back, one black back, 6 adult females, 6 juveniles and 4 babies. As for Nabirembo, it has 14 individuals including one silverback, 9 adult females, 2 juveniles and two babies. These two families live in a secure area of the Kahuzi Biega National Park in its high altitude sector and move around Tshivanga headquarters where tourists are briefed before tracking gorillas in KBNP.
How do we proceed with gorilla habituation process?
Habituation is done through a regular monitoring on daily basis, noticing all the behavior observed in the group. We specially focus on the dominant male because its behavior may influence the entire groups’. Two teams of 10 people including rangers and trackers were assigned to each gorilla group. To facilitate the gorilla tracking each group was camping within the home range of the gorilla under habituation.
Every day our habituation teams leave the camp at 6:00 a.m. to follow the wild gorilla families. Once in contact with the gorilla groups the team was gradually getting closer and closer and spending more and more time with the families.
After spending a while with the gorillas, the habituation team went back to search for the place where the gorillas passed the night. Once on the nesting site all the nests are counted and georeferenced. In addition, all the feeding remains found on gorilla path are identified to inform on the diet.
Silverback charges as positive signs of habituation progress
To alert the gorilla group of their presence, the habituation team members make noise and wait for the silverback’s reaction. Unhabituated silverback reacts in barking or chest beating as soon as it notices the presence of strangers (by hearing and/or seeing) within its close range.
Once it feels that the team is approaching its family, the silverback will charge towards the habituation team at high speed, sometimes stopping at few meters. This charge may be intensified by the cries from other individual members of the gorilla family. While the silverback is charging, the habituation team members keep a standing position without moving, and soon after different calls are made to calm the silverback, it keeps watching curiously in the undergrowth while maintaining a defensive position.
To calm the silverback, the habituation team members imitate some of gorillas’ behaviors, such as cutting grass and trying to chew it, as well as growling like these apes. Meanwhile, most gorilla individuals continue with feeding. After the silverback has calmed down, the observers sit in an open area to attract its curiosity and that of other individuals. Marcel Bibentyo, the PEx Field Officer records all observed behaviors in an ethogram to later estimate the habituation success of the two gorilla groups under habituation.
After only two months of the habituation process, our field teams report a clear progress, especially the reduction in the number of the Silverback’s charges and the reduction of the distance at which it starts charging. This dominant male is beginning to tolerate the presence of the team members. To date, some females and juveniles in the two under-habituated gorilla families seem to ignore the presence of human observers and continue to go on with their activities even when the silverback is still charging.
Primate Expertise and Wild Earth Allies are proud to be collaborating with Kahuzi-Biega National Park in this amazing Grauer’s gorilla habituation process.