October 28, 2008

The death of Nkuringo

I recently became aware of the April 2008 death of the silverback Nkuringo, dominant male of the Nkuringo band of wild mountain gorillas that Dana and I tracked in Uganda's Bwindi Impenetrable Forest in February. Megan from New Zealand, who used information from my Uganda posts to plan her July 2008 Bwindi gorilla trek, gave me the news in an email she sent after her trip. (Megan had a marvelous Uganda experience, and I'll share parts of her report in an upcoming post.)

Nkuringo lived 50 years, the average life expectancy of a wild mountain gorilla. When Dana and I visited the Nkuringo band in February it had 18 members, and it still does. After Uganda Wildlife Authority rangers found the silverback's body in the forest, they discovered a new baby born to one of the band's adult females.

When we visited the band, the group's two adult blackback males, Safari and Kisoro, were quite visible, positioning themselves between us and the group's females and children. Perhaps they knew that Nkuringo would soon pass and the role of protector would fall to one of them. I read that Safari, who remained loyal to Nkuringo in past coup attempts by males since banished from the band, is the new chief.

Nkuringo died 60 days after we met him. I was awed by our Bwindi experience even as it was taking place, but now I feel that our hour with mzee -- the old man, the respected elder -- was a rare and special gift.

I stood less than 10 feet from Nkuringo when I took the above photo, one I now realize is among the last taken of him. It's fitting that it shows him walking away.

Click on Uganda in the "Where Do You Want To Go?" sidebar to read more about our journey to Bwindi.