email a friend iconprinter friendly iconLowland Gorilla Family
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This morning the trackers are moving swiftly through the jungle, gracefully ducking vines and leaping roots as they've done their whole lives. It takes an hour to reach the spot where the gorillas were last seen the night before. From there, the three trackers spread out, searching for signs. "They can spot the one leaf on a tiny plant that is turned sideways," Doran-Sheehy had told me, "and from this alone, determine the direction the gorillas went."

I follow in the footsteps of the oldest tracker. He suddenly stops, kneels, picks up a leaf, and points to the ground. Barely visible in the damp earth is a knuckle print. The tracker begins softly clicking his tongue. Another answers with three clicks that go up the scale.

This is a simple language gorilla researchers developed to announce their presence to the gorillas—the tongue clicking tells Kingo and his family, "it's just us, the same strange creatures you see every day, the creatures that will not harm you or take your food or kidnap your wives."

The trackers follow multiple trails, talking to each other through faint tongue clicks. After ten minutes, they have all converged onto one path, trotting in single file. Fifteen minutes later they've found the gorillas.

The whole family is a hundred feet (30 meters) up in a tree having breakfast. Kingo is sprawled leisurely in the crotch of two big limbs, plucking leaves and plopping them into his mouth like bonbons. Mekome is near Kingo. Mama, Beatrice with Gentil, and Ugly with Bomo are all out on a limb. Kusu and Ekendy are perilously racing up and down a branch as if they were only three feet (one meter) off the ground.

The two youngsters, although foraging for themselves, are still nursing. They're each about two years old and won't begin to reach maturity until eleven or twelve. By then they'll most likely be bachelors, living on their own in the forest, hoping to get their own harem started. Females begin to reach adulthood around seven or eight, and will start looking for a mate. Calculating Kingo's age is guesswork, but Mongo thinks he's around 25 to 30 years old. If western lowland gorillas have life spans similar to those of mountain gorillas, Kingo should live into his mid-30s.

"There is still so much research to be done," Mongo says under his breath.

The age of the females is unknown, except for George, who is about eight (and who was mistaken for a male when she was little, hence her name, which the crew got used to and kept). The sole adolescent, George is the lowest ranking female, an unenviable position. Her mother, Vinny, possibly feeling sexually neglected (it can be difficult, even for the most hairy-chested silverback, to satisfy a harem), followed the lead of estranged wife number one, Ebuka, who left in 2005 and ran off to find herself a more responsive mate. With Vinny gone, Beatrice noncommittally looked after George when Beatrice's first baby, Mercredi, mysteriously died. But the moment Gentil was born, Beatrice turned her attention to the newborn.

Females usually give birth to a single infant after a gestation of eight-and-a-half months and nurse for about three or four years. When nursing ends, they are ready to mate again. Infant mortality can be as high as 50 percent (all of Kingo's known wives have lost at least one child), and when a mother loses a child, she resumes her estrus cycle immediately. That's how Ugly became pregnant with Bomo just two months after Samedi was killed by the leopard.

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