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A trek to see the Agashya Gorilla Family

February 10, 2014 East Africa Bush Tails
5:15 AM
A knock on the door wakes me up and I get up to open the door. Peter my room steward comes in and places a tray of hot chocolate and some home-baked cookies on the coffee table. He cheerfully asks me how my night was and I give a sleepy mumble in response.

I quickly shower to wake me up and by 6AM I head down to reception where I am fitted with Gators, given gloves, a back pack and a simple snack along with several other guests. Some struggling more than others with the unfamiliar morning routine!

Once ready and checking I had my passport at hand, I popped into the dining room for breakfast. It is too early for me to eat so I force a piece of carrot & banana cake down with a couple of glasses of freshly squeezed juice and add a couple of boiled eggs and an extra piece of banana cake to my snack.

6:30 AM

Now feeling a little more awake I head down to the car park to see my driver Ken who whisks me off to the park HQ. 10 minutes later we are there and Ken requests the warden for me to see the Agashya family which I am fortunately allocated. I then mill about with the other trekkers and watch a colourful display of traditional dancing as I pour myself a final cup of coffee. Finally the groups have all been allocated and Ken leads to an area where my trekking group is congregating to be briefed by our guides Francois and Eugene. I have trekked with Eugene once before and know him to be a very good guide. This was going to be my first trek with Francois and I was looking forward to it.

After everyone had been introduced we were briefed about the Gorilla habitat, basic Gorilla behaviour and routines such as feeding, nesting, grooming and courtship and about the specific dynamics of the Agashya family group.

The Agashya family is made up of 23 Gorillas. Unlike all other families that tourists can see, Agashya has only one Silverback. There are 3 Black-Backs (these are sub-adult males), 7 Juvenile males, 7 Adult females, one sub-adult female (whom Agashya ‘stole’ from the Hirwa group) and 5 babies ranging in age from 8 months to 3 and a half years. We were informed that Agashya was very fortunate because he had 7 mature females to mate with (more than most Silverbacks have to themselves). As a result of this however, most of the sub-adult females leave the group. This is because they are low ranking females and will be denied mating rights to the Silverback by the other females who want as much attention from Agashya as they can get. Females are often also ‘stolen’ by other Gorillas. Agashya is a relatively easy target as he is the sole protector of his family with no other help from subordinate Silverbacks. The most recent loss was of two sub-adult females to a Silverback called Ruheni (or the ‘run-away’) who split from the Sabyinyo family years back and has since built a solid family from such skirmish raids on neighbouring families.

Agashya means ‘Special’ in Kinyarwanda, the national language. The group received this name after the way in which the Silverback called Agashya came to be the dominant and only Silverback in the group back in 2003. That year the last remaining Silverback of Group 13 died of disease, leaving no Silverback within the family to take over. As a result one of the Black-Backs took the role as leader for a couple of short months before Agashya (who had been roaming as an outcast young Silverback) happened upon the Group and seized his unique opportunity to lead his own group. Agashya easily over-powered the leading Black-Back who was no match in size or strength to himself, who quickly fled to become an outcast himself. Another black-back was blinded in one eye and ‘put in his place’. Agashya is also suspected of having killed 2 babies in the process so as to enable him to start mating with the mothers sooner. Subsequently Agashya grew bold and continued a rampage of skirmishes on all of the neighbouring Gorilla families to grow his own. Within two years he had gone from 3 mature females in the group to having 11. He now has a very large family and epitomizes successful, rags to riches story of Silverback Gorillas.

8:00 AM

Once we had been given the low-down, I jumped back in the car with Ken and we drove to the trekking site on the western foothills of Sabyinyo Mountain. On arrival 20 minutes later, I hired a porter and took a walking stick that was offered to me and we started the trek.

8:25 AM

This trek was by far the easiest (although not the shortest) I have done in several. The Agashya family were at this point in time not on a steep section of Sabyinyo Mountain which can be a gruelling trek. Instead we walked for 15 minutes on a very gradual and gentle path to the park boundary before we reached the wall of the park. The next 35 minutes was a very gentle and gradual ascent (roughly a 15 degree incline) through relatively small bamboo forest which is always a beautiful and surreal landscape to trek through. We then had to negotiate 10 minutes of steep climbing (roughly a 50 degree incline) still through bamboo, although now the bamboo was growing more densely and much taller and I began feeling slightly short of breath for the first time in the trek. The next half hour before we met the Tracker Team at the RV was more gradual once again with about a 30 degree incline and my breathing steadied once again.

9:55 AM

We met with the Tracker Team which indicated we were approximately 30 yards from the Gorillas now. This was mildly surprising because whilst we had been trekking for a respectable 1 and a half hours, the exertion levels had been minimal. So we went about our preparations and I was glad to see some dappled sunlight through the bamboo. I attached my 70-200mm lens and checked the flash was switched off before taking a couple of test shots. Satisfied I had a sip of water and we were then told to leave our bags and walking sticks behind with our porters and the rangers as our guides and took us forward to see the family which lay in a bushy clearing amidst the bamboo. As I stepped through the last section of bamboo I was thrilled to see most of the family sitting peacefully in close proximity to one another and relatively ideal conditions for non-flash photography. Just as that feeling was passing through me I was startled as I heard a cracking from the bamboo branches above me. I looked up to see a young Gorilla falling down to the ground on a bamboo branch to the side of me. The whole group of us were in awe as this small bundle of black fur rolled out of the bamboo and on to the ground and then casually sauntered off to be groomed by one of the females.

The proceeding hour was magical. Gorillas were all around us and it was hard to decide where to look and when. Most of the family were very subdued, relaxing, dozing, grooming and eating. However the 3 babies we saw were being much more active and playing constantly with each other and also rotting up some of the older Gorillas who were very tolerant. A couple of times, one particular Black-Back would throw a tantrum and come crashing through the bush screeching and knocking down branches as he came. When this happened a few other females and Balck-Backs would all get up on to their fours and start chanting a ‘ohu-ohu-oho-ohu’ seemingly trying to pacify the aggressive behaviour, which would be very short lived each time before the usual peace and serenity of the setting returned shortly after. Agashya barely blinked an eyelid to any of this commotion which was evidently common behaviour on behalf of the adolescent.