Published: January 2008 Lowland Gorilla Family
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

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.

Kingo and his family of western lowland gorillas live comfortably in a tract of protected jungle that spans the border of the Republic of the Congo and the Central African Republic. Buffered by Nouabalé-Ndoki National Park to the east and the Dzanga-Ndoki National Park in the Central African Republic to the west, their homeland is one of the last chunks of pristine rain forest left in the Congo Basin. Even so, nearby forests have been logged, which often opens up access for poachers, who kill gorillas for bush meat. Without the efforts of Diane Doran-Sheehy, a professor of anthropology at Stony Brook University in New York State, Kingo's jungle would already be gone.

Since 1995, Doran-Sheehy has spent up to six months a year studying the gorillas. The area she chose was part of a logging concession, but in 2004, in collaboration with the Wildlife Conservation Society, she helped persuade the forest products company Congolaise Industrielle des Bois to give the gorillas a 39-square-mile stretch of primordial forest called the Djéké Triangle.

During her first year, with grants from the National Geographic Society and the Leakey Foundation, Doran-Sheehy established the Mondika Research Center, along the Mondika stream, and hired a crew of BaAka Pygmies from the Central African Republic to track the animals. Unlike mountain gorillas of the Virunga Mountains where Rwanda, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and Uganda meet, which number fewer than 700, western gorillas inhabit swampy forests a few hundred feet above sea level. (Gorillas are classified into four subspecies: mountain; eastern lowland, or Grauer's; Cross River; western lowland; plus Bwindi, an eastern gorilla subpopulation.) Nobody knows how many there may be, but they are declining at an alarming rate. Ravaged by the Ebola virus and squeezed by habitat loss, their population may have been cut by more than half since the 1990s, when the best guesses put it at about 100,000. In September 2007 their status was changed from endangered to critically endangered. Even though all gorillas found in zoos around the world are western gorillas, little is known about their behavior in the wild.

Doran-Sheehy came to the Congo Basin to find out how the search for food shapes the gorillas' social behavior, reasoning that western lowland gorillas must eat a different diet than their cousins in the mountains. Mountain gorillas have long, thick, black mossy hair to keep them warm in their cool climate, while western lowland gorillas have thin, short hair that can be brownish to brilliant red on top.

Shy, hyper-wary creatures, gorillas flee from encounters with humans, one of their few natural predators. But to study them, you must be able to observe them. To observe them, you must accustom them to your presence. As Dian Fossey, the celebrated mountain gorilla researcher, found out in Rwanda, this takes years of closely following a silverback and his family—essentially living with the gorillas. It took six long years for Doran-Sheehy and her crew just to locate and track Kingo's family, to which they gave names. It took two more years to win the family's trust.

"Habituation could not have been accomplished without the BaAka trackers," Doran-Sheehy says. "The BaAka know the forest, they understand gorillas, and their skills as trackers are stunning and essential."

Patrice Mongo, an indefatigable Congolese researcher with a master's degree in anthropology from Stony Brook, is the field director at Mondika. He oversees the daily activities of the BaAka Pygmy trackers and has an almost mystical faith in their abilities.

"They evolved in the forest," he says one night in the Mondika camp, slapping at flying ants in the flickering candlelight. "They can see things we cannot see, smell things we cannot smell, hear things we cannot hear."

Mongo, 38, explains that the word kingo means "voice" in Mbenzele, the dialect of Mondika's trackers.

"At the beginning of habituation, without even seeing him, the trackers could distinguish his particular vocalizations from that of other silverbacks in the area. That's how we first got close to Kingo. He had a particularly deep-chested roar."

Doran-Sheehy soon confirmed, as she and others before her suspected, that the western gorillas' diet is radically different from that of mountain gorillas. Mountain gorillas eat mostly herbs—wild celery, nettles, bedstraw. Western lowland gorillas have a more diverse diet of fruit, leaves, and herbs. They also consume termites, as well as waxy green ngombe leaves and the bark of favorite trees. During certain times of the year, western gorillas are practically fruitarians, seeking out jungle delicacies such as bambu, a seedy red fruit the size of a peach, or mobei, a large yellow fruit that resembles a pineapple. At such times, fruit can make up 60 to 70 percent of their diet.

In search of their favorite fruits and other foods, western gorillas typically travel about 1.2 miles (2 kilometers) every day, almost four times as far as mountain gorillas. This extensive search shapes family dynamics, Doran-Sheehy has learned. Individual western lowland gorillas are more independent than mountain gorillas. Although they show affection to one another, there's little mutual grooming or other physical contact, and each individual spends considerable time alone. Which means that the females, and even the youngsters, can sometimes be relatively far away from the safety of the silverback—sometimes making it hard for Kingo to protect his family.

"One morning the trackers went out at dawn, as usual," Mongo says at the Mondika camp. "Suddenly they came running back into the camp shouting about an attack. When I got out there, I found Ugly's baby, Samedi, lying on the ground. Blood everywhere and deep gouges in the ground. Samedi had been mauled by a leopard. We radioed the wildlife vet, but Samedi was too far gone."

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.

Once Kingo has eaten all the food he can lazily reach, he descends, grabbing a hawser-size vine and sliding down through midair like a fireman. In minutes, the rest of his clan, one by one, have all twirled down the mighty vine.

Their path through the forest is frustratingly erratic. Left, right, looping left again, Mongo recording each change in direction on a GPS device. But Kingo knows where he's going and shortly reaches his destination, a gigantic Gambeya tree. It's the end of the dry season, and there's little bambu fruit on the ground. Kingo tears open a small red globe, chews out the flesh, discards the rind. Kusu, right on his heels, takes up the rind and gnaws away. Ekendy gets Kingo's next leftover. Still, there's not enough fruit to keep Kingo's interest, and he moves on.

They are nonchalantly grazing their way through the forest when George happens to discover a mobei fruit on the ground. She hungrily begins ripping it open with her teeth while simultaneously trying to keep quiet about it and sneak away from her relatives. No luck.

Kingo, keenly aware of food of any kind, either smells the fruit or hears George eating. Instantly he is pounding through the jungle, bellowing. George cowers, and he knocks her down and snatches the fruit from her grasp. George whimpers and scuttles away while Kingo sprawls out on his fat stomach, props his elbows up on the ground, and gorges. "Food is everything for Kingo," Mongo whispers.

Eat, sleep, move. Eat, sleep, move. That's the life of a gorilla.

The total range of the Kingo family is about six square miles (15 square kilometers), sections of which overlap with the ranges of other gorilla families. At least nine other groups inhabit parts of Kingo's home range. Western lowland gorillas are not territorial, and their relatively frequent encounters with other groups of gorillas are often surprisingly peaceful. By contrast, groups of mountain gorillas are almost always aggressive with one another, with chest-beating, screaming, and charging. Doran-Sheehy has shown that dominant males in western gorilla families may be related (such as brothers, half brothers, or fathers and sons), which may help explain their remarkable tolerance of one another.

Late that afternoon, Kingo is traveling fast—no stopping, no dawdling—his huge arms pulling him through the tangled verdure. His family races along behind him. To keep up, Kusu hitches a ride on Mama's back, Ekendy piggybacks onto Mekome, Gentil and Bomo cling like ticks to their mothers' breasts.

They're moving so fast we lose them in the jungle. But the trackers are not worried. They know where Kingo is going: to the swamp.

The next morning it takes two hours to reach the gorillas. The trail descends into stagnant pools of green water and crotch-deep mud beneath a ceiling of thorn-encrusted lianas. And yet, when we finally break out into a clearing, it's a scene as idyllic as the jungle gets.

Butterflies the size of birds flit about in the sunshine; spiders as big as a child's hand are sunning themselves on roots; frogs are belching, dragonflies darting, bugs humming, and all manner of birds piping or cawing, hooting or cooing. And right in the middle is Kingo. He's up to his chest in a pond, pulling up the stringy roots of kangwasika swamp herbs, washing them in the water, then sucking them down like spaghetti. Seated smack in his own salad bowl, he couldn't be happier.

Actually, the whole family appears pleased. None of them can get near Kingo, of course, but they've each found their own place in the sun. Ugly is a little distance away, gently holding Bomo as if she's about to give the baby a bath. Kusu and Ekendy are heard but not seen, crashing gleefully through the reeds. George is unseen and unheard. Beatrice is nursing quietly in her own serene patch of swamp. Mekome is seductively edging into Kingo's pond. And Mama is up a tree nimbly popping termites into her mouth.

Just one big happy family.