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The Mapuwa Family is led by Mapuwa and Nvuyekure. They have had more than their share of trouble – interacting as they have with solitaries, other gorilla families and one another. They have also been on the periphery of several armed conflicts and at the very centre of one. The history of the Mapuwa Family is truly an epic story of survival.

Mapuwa seems calm and sociable but his right hand, which is missing two fingers, is a clue that this Silverback, like all the others, has acquired and protected his family by violent struggle. He was born into the Rugendo Family, along with Ruzirabwoba, Humba, Senkwekwe and Kwitonda. Mapuwa left the nest in September 1995 and then, in August 1998, started his own family when he took two adult females – Kanepo and Kagofero – from Lulengo. In July 1999 he added another two females to his family – Jicho and Mafaze.

In 2002 Mapuwa fought with Pili-Pili and took three individuals from him, leaving him solitary. Pili-Pili spent the next five years trying unsuccessfully to win females to form a family. All that changed in February 2007. A team of Rangers were conducting a patrol to find the Mapuwa family near Bikenge. They were concerned because Bikenge was a dangerous place at the time – Karema and another solitary silverback had been shot there, and there had been a lot of fighting between armed groups. The patrol found the Mapuwa family, but four individuals were missing from it. The rangers’ initial fears were dispelled when they saw the clear evidence of an epic fight between Mapuwa and Pili-Pili – both animals had tooth wounds on their bodies. The behaviour of the two silverbacks was telling: Mapuwa was completely subdued but Pili-Pili was still very much on the offensive. It was clear that Pili-Pili was the victor and that he was delighted with the spoils of war: two adult females – Mafaze and Maganya – and a sub-adult female: Bavanyuma. Pili-Pili had a family again and he wouldn’t let the rangers go anywhere near it.

Keeping a gorilla family together in the area between Bikenge and Jomba at this time was a tough job. All the gorilla families in this part of the park were highly unstable because of the large numbers of lone Silverbacks in the area. Mapuwa faced stiff competition and it showed. In July 2007 he suffered a deep cut on his nose when interacting with Mareru. And if the solitaries were not enough to contend with, there was always Pili-Pili with whom he had had an interaction the month before.

Sadly it was not only gorillas that threatened the security and stability of the Mapuwa Family. In Bikenge in August 2007 there was heavy fighting between the FARDC and forces loyal to Laurent Nkunda and, as a consequence, it became increasingly difficult for the rangers to monitor the Mapuwa Family. The rangers suffered intimidation and violence; rebels stole their radios, GPS equipment, weapons and rations. But, over the two weeks that followed, the rebels seemed to be becoming more tolerant of the rangers and their efforts to track the gorillas. On the 14 September the rangers rediscovered the family and reported that all of its members were well. After this the rangers were prohibited from tracking the gorillas as the rebels effectively hijacked the Mikeno sector until the end of the following year.

The rangers had been relieved when the rebels allowed them to track the Mapuwa Family, but they were also suspicious. A number of the rangers felt very strongly that the rebels wanted to bring in tourists from Rwanda to see the gorillas; to set up their own illegal gorilla tourism business. Jomba is right next to the Rwandan border, and in our neighboring country tourists pay $500 per day to see gorillas. In June of the following year the rangers’ suspicions were validated by clear evidence that Nkunda’s rebels were indeed charging tourists to take them to see the Mapuwa and Lulengo families. We were understandably worried that the rebel “rangers” were not following the proper guidelines – observing a minimum distance of seven meters to avoid disease transmission, keeping the numbers of tourist below ten and so on.

The rangers were overjoyed when they rediscovered the family in December 2008. They were all well and there were two more of them than had been counted in the 2007 census, bringing their total number to 14. So at this point the family looked like this: two Silverbacks Mapuwa and Nvuyekere; four adult females: Jicho, Kagofero, Kanepo and Bitangi; two sub-adults: Mambo and Bikenge; two juveniles: Gourba and Sebagabo; and four babies: Subutimbiri, Dunia, Wathaut and Buzara.

The family was safe, well and growing, but there was trouble at the top. Mapuwa and Nvuyekure were interacting every day trying to gain total control of the group and in September 2009, after nine difficult months of cohabitation, an interaction between the two silverbacks led to an even split in the group. Nvuyekure took seven family members, including three adult females, leaving Mapuwa with one adult female and six others.

Thankfully this situation didn’t last. The family regrouped and in January 2010 rangers at Bikenge patrol post reported that there had been a birth in the family. The happy mother was Kanepo, who was then ten years old and already had two children: Bikenge and Dunia. The Rangers feel sure that the father is the mighty Mapuwa himself.