by Jessica Burbridge

Gorilla Doctors is sad to report that 21-year-old dominant silverback Urugamba passed away last night and was found this morning, with no obvious signs of trauma, around 30 meters from his night nest. He only fell ill yesterday and was to receive a veterinary assessment today. The cause of death is yet unclear, but his body will be carried down the mountain to the Gorilla Doctors compound tomorrow for the vets to perform a necropsy. Urugamba was the leader of one of the Fossey Fund Karisoke research groups, and KRC staff hopes that this extra day will allow some time for the other six group members to come to terms with their leader’s death.

Dominant silverback Urugamba.

Gorilla Doctors Regional Veterinary Manager, Dr. Dawn Zimmerman, reports that the other six gorillas in Urugamba’s group (subadult male Inkumbuza, juvenile Igisubizo, adult females Bishushwe and Pasika and their infants, Amatwara and Turate) looked well this morning, but there is concern for the fate of the group as Urugamba was the only silverback. There are several lone silverbacks ranging in the area right now and could move in to take over the group at any time.

Dominant silverback Urugamba resting with some of his group members.

If one of the lone silverbacks succeeds in becoming their new leader, Bishushwe’s 14-month-old infant Amatwara could be at risk for infanticide. This often times occurs when an unrelated silverback takes over a group and he wants to bring the females back into estrus so that he can sire his own offspring.

Bishushwe with her 14 month old infant , Amatwara.

“As always, it will be extremely important to obtain samples that we can test for potential pathogens and examine for lesions [during the necropsy], so that we can determine why this gorilla died. Such information helps us better understand what are the health threats to mountain gorillas and how we might be able to prevent them” says Gorilla Doctors Co-Director Dr. Kirsten Gilardi.

Urugamba was an impressive, gentle, and relatively young silverback and his death is a tragic loss for the mountain gorilla population. Hopefully the necropsy tomorrow will provide some insight into this silverback’s sudden and unexplained death.


The following video was shot by Dr. Dawn in July 2012, showing Urugamba defending his group members from Kuryama group in Volcanoes National Park, Rwanda:


Update as of 1.28.12 – 

In an unexpected turn of events, Urugamba’s remaining group members appeared to be merging with Ntambara group today after spending three days without a lead silverback. The interaction between the two groups lasted for at least four hours, during which the three silverbacks in Ntambara group, Ntambara, Ugutsinda, and Twibuke displayed towards females Bishushwe and Pasika, both of whom have infants. According to the Fossey Fund’s records, both females spent some time with the Ntambara silverbacks while they were apart of the former Shinda group. This familiarity may make the group merging more peaceful and could potentially spare the infants from infanticide. Sub-adult male Inkumbuza engaged in play behavior with many of the Ntambara youngsters and females and seemed to adjust to the merge easily. The Fossey Fund Karisoke trackers for both Urugamba and Ntambara’s groups will trek to the group today to see if the groups nested together last night and determine whether the group has settled peacefully into one cohesive unit. 

Update 1.29.13 –

Karisoke trackers found all of the remaining members of Urugamba group, except Bishushwe and her infant, with Ntambara group this morning. Both Bishushwe and Pasika’s infants are still alive. Bishushwe and her infant are ranging in the same area as yesterday and evidently, did not follow Ntambara group as they traveled further up Visoke yesterday afternoon. Trackers reported that all of the gorillas were calm in the newly expanded Ntambara group. 


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