email a friend iconprinter friendly iconMore Years With Mountain Gorillas
Page [ 4 ] of 10

A good example of their gentleness and sense of mischief occurred one day when Bravado, a young male, tried to climb past me down a tree trunk where I had settled myself on a limb to observe and take some pictures. Bravado made his way up easily enough, brushing past me as if I were not there. But on the way down he apparently decided I was in the way and should move. Once his head filled my viewfinder, I decided it was time to turn my back to him. Just as I got a good hold on the tree, I felt two hands on my shoulders, pushing down.

I had often seen gorillas do this to one another when they wanted the right-of-way on a narrow trunk. Not wanting to risk a fall, I refused to budge. After another moment of gentle pressure—only a fraction of the mighty shove he could have given me—Bravado moved back. He beat his chest, then jumped out onto a side limb. He hung there by two arms, bouncing deliberately, knowing that his weight would break the branch and thus provide a satisfactorily loud snapping noise. He succeeded; the branch broke with a crash and Bravado landed eight feet below, where he calmly began feeding.

Learning to Sound Like a Gorilla

In my years of study I have watched nine groups of gorillas, but for closeup contacts have concentrated on four. The groups vary in size from 5 to 19 members; the average is 13. In my field notes I identify groups by numbers, and individuals by names I have chosen, usually trying to match names to the personalities of the animals.

Each group is ruled with unquestioned authority by a dominant male—a silverback, so-called because with age a gorilla's dorsal hair turns silvery gray. Below him may be one or more subordinate silverbacks, then the younger mature males—blackbacks—the females, juveniles, and infants.

During my observations, I have learned much about the animals' feeding habits, their range and movements, their bickering and play. I have watched them build day nests to rest in and night nests to sleep in—crude beds of boughs, leaves, moss, or even loose dirt—sometimes in trees but generally on the ground.

Page [ 4 ] of 10