Published: January 2008

Lowland Gorilla Family

Gorillas Feature

In the Presence of Giants

Booming hoots and rapid-fire chest beats announce a patriarch in northern Congo's Djėkė Triangle. Kingo and his family of western lowland gorillas are giving researchers an intimate glimpse into their private lives.

By Mark Jenkins
National Geographic Contributing Writer
Photograph by Ian Nichols

This is the story of a family like no other: the monstrous, solitary patriarch and his four ever competing, ever contriving wives, each with her own needy child, and motherless George—ten beings intimately bound together, in their own world, living each long day in a baroque, sweltering landscape swarming with bugs and butterflies.

Consider the four wives: Mama, Mekome, Beatrice, and Ugly. Mama may be the bossy matriarch, but Mekome is Big Daddy's favorite, and everyone knows it. Beatrice, bighearted and benevolent, cheerfully ignores it all. And Ugly is asocial, avoiding the entire family. Each mother is hell-bent on protecting and promoting her own offspring. Mama and Mekome have little boys, Kusu and Ekendy, boon companions constantly up to mischief. Beatrice and Ugly have newborns, wide-eyed Gentil and long-limbed Bomo, and carry them everywhere.

Today, as every day, the heavy-shouldered patriarch is eating alone. No one is allowed near him when he dines. It is midday, the heat and humidity suffocating. Stingless bees buzz about his ears, flies cover his food, but he doesn't notice. He sits with his belly protruding over his thighs, chews ruminantly, and looks about with a bored expression.

After lunch, it's siesta time. He lies back in the hot shade, throws out his powerful arms, heaves his deeply muscled chest, and instantly falls asleep. Mekome deftly slips up near him and lies down. Beatrice happily begins suckling Gentil, distant Ugly starts nursing Bomo, George settles down alone, and the boys begin to play. Kusu and Ekendy are too old for naps. While their mothers doze, the half brothers cavort near their snoring father. They chase each other round and round, tackling and tumbling, wrestling, screaming with laughter. When their high jinks get too close to slumbering Dad, he growls and they scamper off, but his enormous magnetism soon draws them back.

When sire finally rouses from his dreams, he leads his family on a stroll through the forest. The boys stay close by his side, mimicking his every move. His wives follow behind, intensely and enviously aware of each other. When he stops, they stop. When he moves, they move.

Kingo, a 300-pound (140 kilograms) silverback, is truly king of the jungle.

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