Published: January 2008
Ian Nichols
Interview by Glynnis McPhee

How long did you spend with this group of lowland gorillas?

I was out in the field for a total of two months. The first trip I went for eight days and the second for a little over a month.

Where did you stay while you were on assignment?

There is an established campsite where you can put up a tent, so I stayed there with my Congolese guides and the Pygmy gorilla trackers who would take me out to the gorillas each day.

How did you find the gorillas each day?

Every morning I'd wake up at sunrise and go with the Pygmy trackers to locate the gorillas. They're experts so we would usually get to the gorillas in a few hours. We'd leave at sunup and maybe find them by 7 or 8 a.m. There was one day it was so difficult to find them; I don't think we got to them until 10 a.m. It's a tough job for the Pygmies. They are away from their families, and they work long hours.

How close could you get to the gorillas?

This group is used to being studied, so they have seen humans before and they recognize the sound the Pygmy trackers make when they approach. The trackers communicate to each other through a noise made by clicking their tongues. There's a law that a person has to stay eight meters (26 feet) away from the gorillas at all times, because we can give them diseases. I would move around in order to get to places where there was good light. Getting good light could be difficult, because in the jungle there is a thick cover from the trees.

Did the gorillas ever mind your being there?

They knew we were there, but they didn't seem to really mind. There was one time we were following Kingo, the patriarch, to the swamp, and he obviously was annoyed we were coming. He turned and charged and swiped at me with his hand. He came within inches of my foot, but it was clear he purposely didn't hit me, because he easily could have if he'd wanted to.

Do you have a favorite gorilla in the group?

I can't really say I have a favorite. I guess I liked Beatrice, because she was a great mom and not all of the moms were. Most of the moms just weren't very patient with their kids, and they would leave them with Kingo a lot. I also like Kingo. He may come off as an aggressive patriarch in the story, but he really wasn't that aggressive.

Was there anything that surprised you about the gorillas?

I guess how they interact—that they really are a family. I never would have thought Kingo would have had so much responsibility for the kids. With chimps it's always the mom with the kids; the father isn't around. With lowland gorillas the moms have the kids when they are babies, but maybe it's when they are too heavy to carry that the moms leave them with Kingo. Like with Kusu, who is about two, all he did was follow Kingo around. One time when Kusu was left behind, he just started screaming, and Kingo was the one who came to get him, not the mom. Even when Kingo's trying to rest, he has the kids around him, and they're always slapping him on the back or poking at him, being curious. I never saw him push them off like you would expect anyone who is sleeping to do—even the moms do that. Kingo is always patient with them. Every once in a while I'd see him grabbing their feet and playing with them.

What would you want people to know about lowland gorillas?

I guess that they are complicated, that they have relationships with each other. Looking in their eyes or seeing them giggle and laugh, you can see that they are a lot like people—or we are a lot like them. They have a full range of emotions. Like George (one of the females) gets pushed out of food a lot by the other females, and you can see she'll get really sad. A young gorilla acts just like a two-year-old human would. The kids sit and watch how the moms eat termites and get the termites from the nest. You can see that they are watching and learning.