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Even giants eventually must fall, as was evidenced June 28th with the passing of Ruhondeza, the oldest silverback gorilla and leader of the first habituated gorilla family within Bwindi Impenetrable National Park, in Uganda.
The UWA announced news of his death with great sadness, as he represented the beginning of protected great ape tourism within the area. The dignified silverback, over 50 years of age, was the head of the Mubare family in the park when it first became protected in 1991. He was believed to be between 28-32 years old when habituation first began during that year.
Ruhondeza, meaning “sleepy fellow” in local Rukiga dialect, was well-known as a lazy, mild-mannered leader, which caused many to question his ability to stay in charge of the 17 individuals in his group.
Ruhondeza’s reputation for sleepiness eventually caught up with him. Male members of the Mubare family were slowly eliminated from the group, leaving Ruhondeza even more susceptible to losing female members of the group to other families. Through interactions with more powerful wild gorillas families, the Mubare group was reduced to only six members. In March 2012, Ruhondeza was beaten to submission by a wild group, and forced to live the remainder of his life in solitude on nearby private land. UWA management reached an understanding with local communities to let him stay on their land in Rubona village, since efforts to reintroduce him to the park remained unsuccessful. It was there he was monitored until his death.
His remaining loyal black back, Kanyonyi (also believed to be his biological son) has since protected Ruhondeza’s remaining 2 family members, as well as grabbed 4 other members of neighboring groups to keep Mubare together. The family recently was reopened for tourist visits in Bwindi.
Ruhondeza was buried near the park offices, where a monument will be erected by his grave including the rich literature and stories about his life. Even after death, this special silverback will continue to contribute to eco-tourism, education and protection of his species and the environment in which they thrive.
Tracking chimpanzees in their natural habitat, as they swing from the branches in the canopy high above the forest floor is nothing short of exhilarating. The chimps effortlessly cross and scamper through the trees above the gorge, and visitors on the other hand must cross the river using natural bridges in order to keep up with the chimps. So although the walk usually lasts only 2–3 hours, descending the steep gorge and crossing the log bridges over the river requires some agility and fitness.
Chimpanzee tracking is also available in nearby Kalinzu, a forest reserve 30 minutes drive from Kyambura Gorge Lodge where there is a community of about 40 habituated chimpanzees.