Wildlife officials in Uganda have arrested four people over the alleged poaching death of Rafiki, a well-known silverback whose name means “friend” in Swahili.
Rafiki, a member of the Nkuringo gorilla group in Bwindi Impenetrable National Park, was first reported missing on June 1. A search for the gorilla ensued the following day when searchers found his body in the Hakato area, according to a statement issued by Uganda Wildlife Authority. A post-mortem report found that Rafiki died after having “sustained an injury by a sharp device/object” that penetrated the abdomen and internal organs.
Among the four arrested was a man from a nearby village who later confessed to killing the gorilla with a spear after the animal reportedly charged him and three others while they were hunting in the park. A second man from the group was found in possession of bush pig meat and “several hunting devices including a spear, rope snares, wire snares, and a dog hunting bell.”
Nkuringo is the first gorilla group to have been habituated in the southern section of the park more than two decades ago and has been under monitor by UWA since 2004, according to Gorilla Tracking Africa. The group was originally named for the founding alpha silverback and Rafiki’s father Nkuringo, whose name translates as “Round Hill”. Silverback gorillas are the leader of the group and get their name from their back fur, which takes on a silver color as the animal ages.
Mountain gorillas, as their name suggests, live in high mountain elevations typically between 8,000 and 13,000 feet, according to the World Wildlife Fund. Decades of civil unrest across their home continent of Africa has led to habitat loss, disease, and illegal poaching that threaten the species. Gorillas are considered endangered by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN). Though populations are generally increasing, it is estimated that there are around 600 mature individuals in the forests of Rwanda, Uganda, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
At the time of Rafiki’s death, the Nkuringo group had 17 members: one silverback, eight adult females, two juveniles, three infants, and three blackbacks, which are young gorillas between eight and 12 years old.