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Historic gorilla trackers: From father to son

Fossey Fund trackers play a critical role in the conservation of mountain gorillas, ensuring the well-being of these magnificent creatures and contributing to our knowledge about them. Many have devoted their lives to this work, none more than Jonas Nubaha, who started out working with Dian Fossey in 1979 and eventually retired in 2019. 

Now, we are delighted to announce that Jonas’ son has been appointed as a tracker too, extending the family legacy! Marcel Habumugisha, 23, says he was always captivated by his father’s stories about gorillas and commitment to his work. This first led him to focus on drawing and painting animals, especially gorillas, and now he is in the forest every day, seeing and protecting the gorillas up close.

“Some of the information my father shared with us about gorilla life helped me realize how much dedication is needed to track gorillas,” says Marcel. “I believe that’s what motivated him to work as a tracker for such a long time.”

Above: Long-time gorilla tracker Jonas Nubaha

Becoming a gorilla tracker

Marcel says his first week tracking the gorillas was fascinating, especially learning their noseprints, which we use for positive identification, similar to the way fingerprints are used in humans. And he quickly developed a favorite gorilla group, led by silverback Musilikale. “It is a large group with a lot of diversity – silverbacks, females, infants, juveniles. And lots of opportunities to see how they interact with one another.”

Tracking gorillas comes with challenges, of course. “It can sometimes take many hours to reach a group. But working as a team of trackers makes the work easier to accomplish despite the challenges. The experienced trackers provide support and motivation for those who are new, like me.”

“This is an incredible opportunity to have a close encounter with some of the world’s most majestic creatures in their natural habitat,” Marcel adds. “As a gorilla tracker, I can observe these animals in their daily activities and monitor their health and safety. It is a great way to understand the beauty of nature and the importance of conservation.”

Like father like son

We’re not surprised at Marcel’s enthusiasm for his new job. During his 40 years with the organization, his father, Jonas, showed incredible commitment to mountain gorilla conservation and left a lasting legacy.

“Jonas was a role model for others,” says Francois Xavier Ndungutse, who worked with Jonas for over 15 years. “He was a courageous tracker and the whole time we worked together, I never saw him complaining about his work. He had a deep understanding of the importance of his job as a tracker.”

Above: Jonas' son and current gorilla tracker, Marcel Habumugisha

“I believe that what Dian Fossey accomplished can inspire everyone to stand up for a cause in the face of obstacles,” says Marcel. That is something his father witnessed first-hand and that we know his son will carry forward with similar passion and dedication.

Marcel Habumugisha observing gorilla group