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Uganda’s Oldest Silverback Gorilla Ruhondeza Dies

Friends of the coveted Mounted Gorillas world over are in a sombre mood over the demise of the most celebrated and perhaps oldest male gorilla popularly known as Ruhondeza (The- one- who- likes- to sleep).
Ruhondeza believed to have been well over 50 years old came to the limelight as the leader of the first habituated Mountain Gorilla Family in the Bwindi Impenetrable National Park, South Western Uganda. The robust and imposing Silverback had already grown the silver spray on its back during the habituation in the early 90s as he exercised unquestionable authority over the Mubare Squad while protecting it against any external aggression.
The Gorilla Tourism icon passed who was so dear to the neighbouring communities passed on peacefully in his nest in the community land o June 27. No wonder, hundreds of his human friends accompanied his remains to Buhoma next to the Visitor Information Centre to accord him a deserving send off.

Ruhondeza succumbed to death after a four month spell in solitary life in Rubona village, neighbouring the park. Before he involuntarily relinquished the grip over his throne after he was beaten into submission by members from the wild groups, he had grown frail due to old age and was unable to fight any aggression.

Efforts to get the silverback back into the park were futile till management reached an understanding with the communities who had grown fond of him to let him stay on the private piece of land in Rubona village where he was monitored on a daily basis till he passed on. .

His family name Mubare originates from an area in the park called Mubare hills found South West of Bwindi where habituation started. He commanded a family of about 17 individuals in habituation of the group. By the time of his banishment to solitary life, the family had reduced to six individuals.

His name “Ruhondeza” in the local Rukiga dialect denotes a “sleepy fellow”. Ruhondeza right from the family habituation had manifested himself as a sleepy and lazy character that made many people wonder about his ability to lead Mubare. Many have however been pleasantly surprised that in his sleepy nature, he had managed to take the leadership mantle of the family till old age became a factor. He is believed to have been between 28- 32 yrs in 1991 when habituation started.

His leadership weakness in the long term caught up with him. His leadership style in his hay days shows that many male gorillas in his family were cunningly and systematically eliminated as he feared a future attempt on the popular head of family throne. This largely weakened his defence against other gorilla groups who continued grabbing members from him. This coupled with his inability to successfully service his females led to a gradual reduction of the family size. Females could for example prefer to join other gorilla families with strong males genes perceived superior than remain with him. This behaviour made silverback Makara of Katendegyere benefit from him by grabbing about 3 females.

Give the persistent encounters with other wild powerful gorilla groups, his regime collapsed in March 2012 when he was seriously beaten to submission by a wild group. Ruhondeza was forced to live a solitary life on private land as he was afraid of another fierce battle with strong silverbacks.

His only royal black back (Kanyonyi) safeguarded the remnants of his 2 family members. Kanyonyi due to his strength as a budded young silverback has since grabbed other 4 members from other groups to keep Mubare viable. Ruhondeza is believed to be the biological father of Kanyonyi and other former members of Mubare.

Until his loss of the coveted status of head of family recently, his leadership enabled gorilla ecotourism to develop and grow in Uganda. Ruhondeza’s Mubare group has enabled gorilla eco-tourism to grow and flourish in Uganda and the entire tourism community is saddened by his death, says Mr. Charles Tumwesigye the acting Chief Conservation Area Manager at Uganda Wildlife Authority and former Chief Warden of Bwindi –Mgahinga Conservation Area.
A post mortem has been conducted to ascertain the exact cause of his death (beyond old age).

Uganda Wildlife Authority through its Friend a Gorilla Initiative is compiling all the rich literature and stories about Ruhondeza, which will be placed on a monument by his grave to ensure that even in death he continues to be a tourist attraction to Bwindi Impenetrable Forest a designated World Heritage Site.

Ruhondeza is an icon symbolizing what gorilla tourism has done for Uganda and the Bwindi communities. One of his most celebrated achievements is the development of the Buhoma- Mukono Community Development Association and Buhoma community Hospital as a result of viable tourism.

The life of Ruhondeza.

In his prime, Ruhondenza was a force to reckon with. He guarded his family jealously and fought any blackback that tried to over throw him. Among his initial family of over 18 gorillas and the trackers, he was known as the jealous type.

A trait that saw him fail to groom a successor; that when a young blackback fought him and took two of his women, that marked the shrinking of his family and his size years down the road. The UWA trackers suspected that he killed off any up coming blackbacks who may be tempted to usurp his position.

It is suspected that, wary of being usurped by younger, stronger males, he would get rid of them by means foul, not fair. Trackers recount how most of the blackbacks in the group would often be taken for a walk in the forest by the Sleepy one and he would re-join the group later; alone. The blackbacks would never be seen again.

Once upon a time, Ruhondeza met his match in Makare, a younger, solitary silverback bachelor, who fought and won two of the fairer sex gorillas from Ruhondeza’s harem.

Ruhondenza was the head of Mubare family, the first of the Uganda mountain gorillas to be habituated in 1991. It was first sighted by trackers around the Mubare hills that are found deep in Bwindi Impenetrable forest.

Over the years his family shrunk in number as he shrunk in size. The year 2009 was particularly a difficult one for him. He lost three of the family members. Earlier that year, one of the adult females died of a fracture to the skull. She left behind a wee infant of six months, whom the group tried to care for. The baby was found dead on Ruhondeza’s bed by trackers one morning. As the little mite had not been weaned and could not eat the tender shoots that the other family members tried to feed it, its fate was inevitable. In mid-July one of the older females also lost a baby.

By March 2012, when he was attacked by an unhabituated male, Ruhondenza was too old to fight and keep his family. Losing it left him weak and with no will to join them wherever they had relocated. By the time he died, he had resigned to a solitary life in Rubona village neighbouring Bwindi Impenetrable Park, where he died in his nest on June 27.

Ruhondeza’s leadership of Mubare group, the first habituated gorilla family for tourism in Uganda has enabled gorilla eco-tourism to grow and flourish in Uganda and the entire tourism community is saddened by his death.

Fact sheet:
Ruhondenza: In the local language spoken of the Bakiga and Bafumbira people who live
in south-western Uganda, his name means: “The-one-who-likes-to-sleep.”

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