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If you have ever had the chance to see him, you will never forget. Kabirizi is our least habituated Mountain Gorilla Silverback in the Mikeno Sector, and the leader of over 30 individuals. He has the largest family by far in the sector, with lots of babies and infants.

About the Kabirizi Family

Kabirizi was named after an ICCN Director who died in a traffic accident in the late 1990s. Kabirizi was not born into a habituated family of gorillas; he was a wild gorilla who became head of the family in 1998. That is when he was given his name.

The Kabirizi family used to be the Ndungutse family – as you know Mountain Gorilla families are named after the dominant Silverback. But Ndungutse was assassinated in 1997 after being caught in crossfire between the DR Congo army and Rwandan rebels near the Bukima patrol post.

Ndungutse was the son of Zunguruka – who died of old age. Zunguruka means “He who walks in circles”. So why the name? Well apparently when he was being habituated in 1986 he used to walk in circles…

Ndungutse had a younger brother, Salama – that means “Peace” in Swahili. Salama was calm and kind, and always brought up the rear of the group, with Ndungutse in front. In 1994 Kabirizi, who was then totally wild, solitary and wanting females, fought with Salama as he tried to steal some of Ndungutse’s females. The interaction was vicious, and Salama later died of his wounds.

So when Ndungutse was killed by bullets in 1997, there were some 24 gorillas in the family of which 2 were Blackbacks: Karateka and Buhanga. There was also a very large adult female, Nsekuye, who did not want to be led by either of these young males. We think she just felt as if she was the oldest of the group and they were simply too young.

So Nsekuye left the family with all the females, and Buhanga (pictured above), the older of the two Blackbacks, left with Karateka and the young gorillas.

Soon after, in 1998, Munyaga, then a solitary Silverback, took over Nsekuye and her females. At the same time Kabirizi took over the young gorillas from Karateka and Buhanga. Karateka and Buhanga became solitary.

A few months later Kabirizi stole the females from Munyaga – therefore consolidating his dominion over Ndungutse’s former family.

So today Kabirizi would appear to be all powerful and unbeatable. But this is not necessarily the case. When a Silverback has a large family, he becomes scared because he has a lot to lose – he is vulnerable and needs to work hard to protect what he considers to be his. Kabirizi showed his strength when he acquired his family, but now he is afraid.

When Karateka and Buhanga want to fight with him he runs away. We noticed this in August 2007 when Kabirizi and his family covered an unusually great distance to get away from Karateka. There are other solitary Silverbacks in the vicinity too – Bukima, Mareru, Pili-Pili. These solitaries want a family, and they are willing to fight for it. This is how it all works however – should gorillas not interact and change females, inbreeding would become a major problem.

Kabirizi still likes to show his strength nevertheless. Once he pulled a tree down onto the head of a ranger and gave him a nose bleed. This kind of thing happens sometimes, but it is normal for us because it is our job. Another time a Ranger had a watch – the make was Disco – and it had flashing numbers. Kabirizi grabbed the ranger’s wrist and broke the watch with his fingers, smashing the glass. Then he just slumped away.

This family was also the victim of attack in June 2007, when a female was shot and killed and her orphaned baby left clinging to her breast. This orphan, Ndakasi, was looked after by Gorilla Doctors and carers from ICCN in Goma until December 2009 when she was moved, along with fellow orphan Ndeze, to the Senkwekwe Centre, a purpose built orphanage near Rumangabo.

Watch the video below of the Kabirizi family of gorillas. This was taken in late November 2008 – after almost 15 months of Ranger absence from the Gorilla Sector due to the war. There were 5 new babies in the family!

Fifteen months after this footage was filmed the family was again rocked by tragedy when one of the babies, Nsekanabo, died after being caught in a poacher’s snare. Rangers found and freed the baby gorilla and Gorilla Doctors Magda and Eddy intervened to remove the remains of the snare from Nsekanabo’s ankle and stitch the baby gorilla’s face. The next day rangers reported that Nsekanabo was dead. The Gorilla Doctors suggested that the most likely cause of death was the unavoidable toxic shock that the animal experienced following the removal of the snare. Nsekanabo’s mother, Tumaini, carried her dead baby for days before rangers could retrieve and bury the body. Nsekanabo lies in the Gorilla Cemetery at Rumangabo.