Silver back gorilla

by Susan

My chosen animal for research is the Gorilla, the largest living primate. Gorillas live in troops of between 5 and 10 but can number as many as 30. Their gestation period is about 8 months and babies cling to their mothers for nursing for about 4 - 6 months but can also chew vegetation at 4 months.

The Western Lowland Gorilla, Gorilla gorilla, is endangered but the Mountain Gorilla, Gorilla gorilla gorilla, is, sadly, now considered critically endangered. There are only about 720 Gorillas in total in the wild, half of which are in the Virunga National Park, the oldest national park in Africa set up in 1925. Mountain Gorillas have long shaggy fur necessary for retaining body warmth for the high altitudes they reside in can be up to 13,000 ft while the Western Lowland Gorilla's habitat can stretch up to 4,000 acres.

The Mountain Gorilla was brought to prominence in Sir David Attenborough's famous Life on Earth series of 1979 which showed his close encounter with a family in Rwanda. He was included, by the mother, in the play and grooming of her offspring which episode delighted all who hold an eternal love affair with these great beings. Sir David compared Gorillas with us. Their senses of sight, hearing and smell mean that they see the world much as we do and live in similar social groups. The silverback's strength comes to the fore when protecting his family and violence is rare within the troop. Their social network, though mostly friendly, is hierarchical and each knows his or her place. The silverback can weigh up to 42 stone and be as tall as 6ft. Male Gorillas acquire silver backs when reaching maturity giving them authority over the harem. They maintain order and control over quarrelsome females and keep over-enthusiastic bachelors in check. The silverback maintains discipline and harmony within the troop, a challenging task when the juveniles may even be his own offspring. Sir David stated that it is man who is aggressive and violent and not the Gorilla and penned his experience with the mum and her offspring as one of the most exciting encounters of his life.

Delicacy is not something associated with such lumbering giants, yet, to see a Gorilla peel a peanut with massive leathery hands is something to marvel at. Such daintiness from a 40-stone male is an awesome sight. Acrobatic precision could be of great assistance when searching for food, and, although perfection in this field is not always found, their mission through the trees is a daily necessity to seek out fruit, leaves, roots, stems, branches, seeds, soft bark, fungi and even termites.

Curiosity seems to be a female characteristic anywhere and is particularly noticeable within a captive Gorilla compound. I knew a female Gorilla who was fascinated by a human baby; watching it crawl along outside the glass of her day room, she was astonished when it abruptly plonked itself down for a rest and then just as quickly crawled off once more.

Regarding faithfulness, a silverback promoted to another zoo for their breeding programme, took with him his current wife and soon grasped control of his new family numbering about 20 in total. The wife, though, showed reticence at feeding times and it was surprising to note his care of her. Each day at food delivery times he collected enough fruit and vegetables for both of them to share, something he had never done before.

Gorillas make nests at night. In their natural habitat they gather foliage placing it high in the trees making comfortable beds. In captivity they drag heaps of straw that carpets their indoor enclosures piling it into corners or dragging it high up onto wide shelves ensuring comfort for the night's sleep. Some collect leftovers from supper, hugging as many bananas as they can, and, gripping oranges under their feet, they still manage to clamber into their nests to stash away these midnight snacks.

Timidity can be found in females who are second or third wives. A spinster introduced to her husband's harem can experience their jealousy and sometimes shows fear, but, if an established wife befriends her, a fondness often develops between them. Communication between Gorillas can be by sign language, even looks from one to the other convey messages.

Chest beating is the most familiar communication recognised by us. It is usually practised by males stating their supremacy or by challenging juveniles whose efforts are soon curtailed by the silverback still in post, unless he has become old and ready to concede defeat. Grunting is something the human is privileged to hear especially if in close proximity and being observed by them. It means they like you and accept your presence and we must learn to grunt back to reciprocate their message of approval.

The Gorilla in the wild is in a precarious position fighting for survival against poaching, and, for those scientists studying a family of Gorillas in Virunga some years ago, to find all 7 of that family massacred was a shocking experience and they mourned the loss of the family to whom they had become endeared.

Regarding danger and courage, I recall a television programme on forestry reclamation whereby a dirt-track road had been made splitting the forest and a silverback, obviously aware of danger from vehicles, played lollypop man. He stood in the middle of the track ushering all his family to safety before joining them on the other side.

My last word is on the care shown by a silverback in 1986 in Jersey Zoo who protected a 5-year-old boy who had fallen off a wall down into the Gorilla pit. The silverback, called Jambo, quickly despatched the other Gorillas from the scene and stayed guard until finally he was coaxed away by keepers and the child taken to safety. The persona of this proud creature has been much maligned by the film industry in its production of King Kong in 1933 and remakes in 1976 and 2005, whereby he is shown as fearsome and ungainly, which words, with reference to the incident at Jersey Zoo, can now, hopefully, be replaced with noble and caring.


Life on Earth1979Sir David Attenborough
ANIMAL Complete book2001David Burnie, Editor-in-Chief
ANIMAL Mammal InfoDr Juliet Clutton-Brock (dec'd 2015) late-Managing Editor, Journal of Zoology
Personal photos2007Susan Hughes (author of essay)

Mother gorilla with infant

Other comments

The word "gorilla" comes from the history of Hanno the Navigator, (circa 500 BC) a Carthaginian explorer on an expedition on the west African coast to the area that later became Sierra Leone. They encountered "a savage people, the greater part of whom were women, whose bodies were hairy, and who our interpreters called Gorillae". The word was then later used as the species name, though it is unknown whether what these ancient Carthaginians encountered were truly gorillas, another species of ape or monkeys, or humans. (from Wikipedia)

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