Mountain Gorillas of Rwanda is a blog post from the Miscellaneous category.

Mountain Gorillas of Rwanda

Posted by Matt on

Deep in the heart of Africa lies the small, landlocked nation of Rwanda. Known locally as “The Land of a Thousand Hills”, the entire country is covered with deep valleys and steep volcanic foothills. The Volcanoes National Park, in the north of the country, is home to an estimated 250 of the world’s 700 remaining mountain gorillas, and is part of a larger volcanic region known as the Virunga Massif. Since no mountain gorilla has ever survived in captivity (unlike lowland gorillas), the World’s entire population can be found at the convergence of three countries; Rwanda, Uganda and the Democratic Republic of Congo.


Home of the Gorillas - Mount Mikeno in the neighbouring Democratic Republic of Congo.

The Virunga Massif is blanketed by a thick, impenetrable jungle. The gorillas utilise the great diversity of flora found in this region by consuming up to 70 different plant species, including the thistles and giant stinging nettles that force anyone visiting the park to wear gloves and thick jackets! The gorillas inhabit the slopes of the volcanoes up to an altitude exceeding 4,000m. Temperatures here can drop as low as 0 degrees Celsius meaning that mountain gorillas are generally bigger, and have much longer hair than other gorilla subspecies. Adult males can be twice the size of females, with an arm span of 2.25m and a weight of 204–227 kg! They are known as silverbacks because of the saddle of grey hair that adorns their backs.

A huge silverback gorilla towers over one of his offspring.
A young gorilla snacking on ferns.

Gorillas are social animals and tend to live in groups of varying size. In all, there are upwards of 10 habituated groups that live on the Rwandan side of the Virunga Massif. At the start of each day, the park authorities allocate a maximum of 8 visitors to a professional guide who is responsible for leading the trek to the gorillas. On our first day, we visited the Umubano group, a relatively small family of 8 gorillas. They seemed to be quite shy, hiding behind the leaves and never looking towards our cameras. Naturally this made it difficult to take photographs. On the subsequent days we visited the Sabinyo, Hirwa and Group 13 families. Out of these, our favourite was Group 13.

It was an amazing moment when this silverback sat in a forest clearing, illuminated by a shaft of sunlight filtering through the canopy.

Group 13 has around 25 individuals, all led by a dominant male silverback called “Agashya”, meaning “special one”. As alpha male, he has sole breeding rights over the twelve females in his group. The other half of his group consists entirely of baby gorillas under 3 years of age. It was a wonderful experience to watch these young gorillas play fighting and tumbling around in the foliage! For an hour, we followed the family through the jungle, photographing them as they snacked on bamboo shoots. Due to the alcohol content of the bamboo, the young gorillas became progressively more rowdy in their play (even the massive silverback was noticeably tipsy!). They would climb up the trees and swing from the vines, and on a number of occasions they fell to the ground in a heap of leaves and fur!

Two gorilla babies play fighting.
A young gorilla swinging from a vine.

It was a constant struggle to try and photograph all the action without getting distracting branches or vines in the frame. The dense foliage eliminated most of the ambient light, forcing us to use wide-apertures and high ISO speeds. One of the most valuable tips to remember when photographing gorillas (or any animal that has black fur) is to set your camera’s exposure compensation to around -2/3 or -1. This is because your camera is tricked by the black fur into thinking the conditions are darker than they actually are.

A very young gorilla baby looks at us inquisitively.
Agashya, the silverback of Group 13

Rwanda is a densely populated country, and almost every inch of the uninhabited or unprotected land has been transformed into a patchwork of fields and terraces. Farms and settlements push right up against the stone wall boundary of the National Park. The pressure on the gorillas’ habitat is clearly visible. However, Rwanda has a stable tourist infrastructure in place and puts much emphasis on the conservation of the gorillas and the preservation of their habitat. Ecotourism provides the necessary funding to initiate conservation and much of the money generated from the purchase of park permits goes into paying for guides, guards, trackers and also local community projects. Ultimately, if the local people benefit from gorilla tourism, there is less incentive for them to poach.

Matthew photographing a silverback gorilla

Matthew photographing a silverback gorilla.

Rwanda is a beautiful country that has experienced a troubled past, but the kindness and willingness of its people to accept visitors to their country does not go unnoticed. We came away from this trip feeling privileged and humbled that we had seen both Rwanda and the incredible mountain gorillas.

View the gallery: Mountain Gorillas

7 Comments

  1. Tony Walton said: October 31, 2009 at 7:24 pm

    Great report and some fantastic photos. I have a trip booked to the same area myself early next year and the tips will definitely come in handy.

  2. John Doyle said: November 1, 2009 at 1:00 pm

    Sounds like a very interesting trip.. great pics

  3. rushh said: November 1, 2009 at 9:38 pm

    Interesting trip with great captures…
    Like the part when the gorillas got rowdy with alcohol content. Keep it up guys…

  4. Nikki Martin said: November 2, 2009 at 9:42 pm

    Loved the detail along with the shots..

    The capture of their eyes was fab. for me..

    I take it that your top tip on ‘BLACK FUR’ is the same for dark skinned individuals? In Turks and Caicos and will be taking shots of local people……

    Could I ask how you achieve your name and copyright on the photo – being new to all of this!!!

    Having fun

  5. Millie James said: May 12, 2010 at 4:55 am

    Love the new format of your website… the narrative is appreciated. It’s nice to have some info about the picture….

  6. Esther Scott said: June 25, 2010 at 11:45 pm

    I was really pleased with my own photos of the same gorilla family when I visited Rwanda last year… Until I saw these!! Fantastic photos and great narrative

  7. Amanda Ainley said: July 13, 2010 at 2:59 am

    Fantastic photos and story.
    I’ve been wanting to go to Rwanda for sometime however i was told that general visitors are not allowed to take photos on the guided tours. Is this true? are you aware of any restrictions on photographing the gorillas?

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