The Rugendo family is the most habituated family of Mountain Gorillas in Virunga as it was the first one to have contact with humans on a regular basis in 1986. It is also however the most traumatized and brutalized, after several members of the group were massacred in July 2007, including the leader Senkwekwe (pictured here). It was the worst gorilla massacre on record in 30 years.
In 1997, the Rugendo Family was led by the Silverback Rugendo and included 18 individuals. Since this time the group has never been this numerous. The family had two Silverbacks then: Rugendo and his son Humba, one Blackback, called Senkwekwe, eight adult females, one sub-adult female, and 6 infants.
The next year, in 1998, there was a fight – also known as an interaction – between Rugendo and Humba and the group was split into two. Eight family members stayed with Rugendo: Senkwekwe the blackback, four adult females, and three infants.
In 1999, there were two births in the Rugendo group. The adult female Safi gave birth to Katembo, and Neza also gave birth. During this year, Senkekwe also started to become a Silverback – which means he was reaching manhood.
June and July of 2001 saw an increase in fighting between militia groups and the army in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Rwanda and Uganda – but it was especially noticeable in eastern DRC, where the Mountain Gorillas live. On 15 July 2001 the Rugendo group was caught up in clashes between the military and the Interahamwe militia groups. Rugendo the Silverback was shot dead.
Rugendo, who had been habituated since 1986, died just 40 metres from the park boundary. His body was buried at Rumangabo, the headquarters for Virunga National Park, and his son, Senkwekwe, took leadership over the group.
Normally a gorilla male will take his high position within the family not only because of his strength, but also because of his experience and abilities. As young males lack the necessary experience, they often find it hard to lead the group, and can lose the females of the group to other families. In 2002, a year after Senkwekwe took leadership, the adult female Kidole left the group to join the Mapuwa Family, following interactions between the two families. That same year Safi and her infant Katembo also disappeared.
At the beginning of 2003 the group was down to just 6 individuals, after the infant Bahati was killed by the local population at Bikenge, who threw stones at Bahati after finding him in a corn field. At the end of 2003, with the birth of Bavukahe on the 6th December to Safari, and the birth of Noel on the 24th December to Neza, the group was up to eight individuals.
2004 saw the adult female Bilali leave to join the Munyaga Family, taking the group down to 7 individuals. But in 2005 the group was back up to 10 individuals; after interactions with the Humba Family, the sub adult female Mburanumwe joined the Rugendo Family, as did the adult female Macibiri from the Kabirizi Family, and another immigration from the Humba family later on in the year, by the sub adult Mukunda.
In January 2006 the group reached 11 individuals with the birth of Ntaribi, by Macibiri. And in June 2007, the group reached the highest number since 1998, 12 individuals, with the birth of Ndeze by Safari. That was a moment of happiness for the Rangers.
Just a month later, in July 2007, the Rugendo Family was attacked. Three adult females, Safari, Mburanumwe and Neza were killed, and Senkwekwe, the majestic and gentle Silverback who took lead of his family after the killing of his father in 2001, was also shot dead. The remains of Macibiri were found in August 2007 and her infant, Ntaribi, is presumed dead.
The family regrouped after the massacre. When the Rangers caught up with them they found the orphaned Ndeze, on Kongomani’s back. It was a touching scene – a brother trying to take care of his baby sister – but the Rangers knew it couldn’t last: without milk Ndeze would quickly dehydrate and die. So the vets intervened, sedated Kongomani and took Ndeze. The ICCN put her in a house in Goma with another baby orphan gorilla Ndakasi, and the two became inseparable. When the war ended and the Rangers returned to the park the park authorities built an orphanage, which they called the Senkwekwe Centre.