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Twenty-five years of gorilla tracking

Jean Damascene Hategekimana, or “Fundi,” as he is better known to his friends and colleagues, celebrates an incredible 25 years with the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund International in January, having started as a camp assistant in January 1993 at our Karisoke Research Center in Rwanda. Before joining the Fossey Fund, Fundi worked for 10 years as a porter for park visitors and even served as a porter for Dian Fossey before she was killed in 1985.

Fundi became a gorilla tracker in April 1995, and was assigned to one of the three main groups at that time, called Shinda’s group. He says he had always loved animals and became very curious about the gorillas during his brief views of them while working as a porter. This led to his interest in becoming a tracker, so that he could observe the gorillas more closely and more often, as well as other animals in the forest.

Fundi says the best thing about being a tracker is being able to see the gorillas close up, every day, and to learn about their social lives and behaviors, how the groups are structured and how they interact with and defend themselves against other groups. He remembers one time seeing a group of gorillas chase away some buffaloes and dogs that were approaching them!

Jean Damascene Hategekimana (“Fundi”)

Favorite gorilla, favorite story

The late silverback Ugenda, who once led Shinda’s group, was Fundi’s favorite. Ugenda became dominant after Shinda died, even though there was an older silverback in the group who could have taken over. Fundi felt that Ugenda was very smart and that the strong bonds he had formed with Shinda helped him to “inherit” dominance from him.

Silverback Ugenda

Fundi also remembers an unusual interaction between Shinda’s group and the large Pablo group that lasted for two days. Usually interactions like this involve fights among the silverbacks and often resulting transfers of females. But this interaction was completely peaceful! The gorillas from the two groups mingled nicely and even spent the night together. “It was amazing to see more than 50 gorillas from two groups resting together without fights,” he says.

What he’s learned

Fundi says he has observed many similarities between gorillas and humans, and is amazed by how the gorillas communicate among themselves. He is happy that the work of protecting gorillas has increased during the years he has been a tracker, and that both gorilla-monitoring and anti-poaching are much more effective than ever. His greatest hope is that these efforts continue, that everyone learns more about gorillas and contributes to their protection, so that they will always be safe.