WILD LIFE | 01.23.18
The Forest Between Us
Western lowland gorillas dwell deep in the forests of the Congo Basin, but their days may be numbered if we can't bring them into the light.
That’s no easy task with an animal as shy and elusive as the western lowland gorilla (Gorilla gorilla gorilla
). When University of Stirling primatologist Liz Williamson first traveled to Gabon to study this subspecies in the 1980s, she could hardly find them. “I completed my Ph.D. without really seeing the gorillas,” she says. Some 30 years later, scientists like Williamson still have more questions than answers about these fascinating animals—creatures with whom we share the vast majority of our DNA.
Researchers don’t yet know, for example, the typical lifespan of a wild lowland gorilla. They don’t understand why lowland gorilla family groups always include just one male, whereas mountain gorilla families may contain up to three. Scientists are also still struggling to gain insights into lowland gorillas’ cognitive skills, their social dynamics, behavioral aspects of the group (often referred to as culture), and even simple facts about their population size and structure.
Because of this history, habituation is ethically complex. In the short-term, it can be extremely stressful for the animals. But it offers researchers, conservationists, and tourists better access, which ostensibly improves the chances of implementing effective conservation measures in the long run. The more people are able to see and understand these magnificent primates, the more likely that they will be motivated to spend time and money trying to save them. That’s the theory, at least. And that’s why Shah and Rogers spent six weeks following a family led by a silverback that researchers call Makumba—one of just a handful of families of western lowland gorillas that have been habituated to humans. The photographers were determined to find and document the daily lives of the great apes and to share their enigmatic existence with the world.
Dzanga-Sangha National Park, Central African Republic
When the small team did eventually find Makumba, he glided between the trees, disappearing and reappearing as he moved almost effortlessly through the greenery, underscoring just how out of place the humans were. Shah and Rogers were lucky to catch even a glimpse of the silver on his back or the reddish hair on his forehead.
Over time, though, the photographers saw more and more of Makumba and his family, and gained insights into their habits and family roles. As a silverback, Makumba sat at the center of lowland gorilla social life. It was his job to protect the group. Estimated to be in his early 30s, Makumba was generally calm but, weighing more than 400 pounds, he readily demonstrated his power and aggression whenever circumstances warranted.
The name Makumba means “with speed” in the local BaAka language.
Aside from occasional disruptions like these, most of the gorillas’ daily life was calm, spent trekking through the forest in search of food. As the apes adjusted to the photographers’ continued presence, the silverback seemed to conclude that Shah and Rogers were harmless enough. The rest of the family followed his lead, especially the youngsters, which eventually began approaching the pair with great curiosity.
Despite similarities in their appearance, western gorillas, which include the lowland subspecies, are distinct from eastern gorillas, such as the mountain gorilla (Gorilla beringei beringei). The two species are separated geographically by more than a thousand kilometers (well over 600 miles), with mountain gorillas confined to the highlands of East Africa and western lowland gorillas occupying the more expansive lowland forests of western Africa. The species are also genetically distinct. The two last shared a common ancestor some 2 million years ago, and today are at least as different from each other as chimpanzees are from bonobos.
Mountain gorillas have proven easier to habituate than their lowland counterparts, mainly because of their habitat. In fact, most everything that differentiates mountain and lowland gorillas is driven by differences in their habitats. Mountain gorillas live at high altitudes, and enjoy a leafier diet. “They live in a salad bowl,” Williamson says, “so they don't travel very far.” This makes them much easier for tourist guides and researchers to locate. Plus, the rugged landscape with sparse trees makes it easy for a group of humans to sit on a slope, across the valley from a group of gorillas foraging on the opposite slope. Everyone can see each other, but at a safe distance. Over time, the distance can be decreased until eventually they realize that humans are not a threat and become disinterested. Mountain gorilla tourism has therefore taken off in their range, with as many as 50,000 people making the journey to East Africa each year.
This issue of isolation is changing, though, for better and for worse. At one time, most lowland gorilla territory was extremely difficult to access. But logging and mining concessions first granted in the mid-1990s have resulted in the construction of an extensive network of roads through previously intact forests. Those roads, combined with minimal law enforcement, offer easy access for poachers aiming to kill gorillas and other animals, and to smuggle bushmeat and ivory out of the forest.
Those same roads could usher in more tourists to observe western lowland gorillas, which could ultimately help to protect the species, at least in principle. But it's a tough sell. Local and national governments stand to see higher revenues, at least in the short term, from logging and mining operations than from investing in the development of tourism infrastructure. And up to this point, few tourists have been willing to contend with the mosquitos and threat of malaria not present in mountain gorilla territory. Still, the efforts continue.
Still, primatologist Martha Robbins, from the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology, argues that habituation is necessary. She points out that scientists must understand western gorillas well enough to protect them. “If we said ‘No more habituated gorillas,’ I think it would really be a step backwards for gorilla conservation,” she says. “If we can't explain to people the details of wildlife, there will be zero interest in protecting it and conserving it.”
The tourism experiment can’t fail.
Robbins also thinks that local communities are more motivated to protect gorillas when they know there's an economic benefit from tourism. Combined with the extra medical attention they receive, this could explain the overall population increase recently observed for the critically endangered mountain gorillas.
At least one thing is certain: Without a history of habituation, Shah and Rogers would surely not have been able to glimpse the quiet lives of these forest giants. Nor could they share the animals’ amazing, if perilous, existence with the rest of the world. “Once they work out that you are harmless, then you have an unbelievable experience,” Shah says. Despite having photographed many intelligent creatures, including big cats, he says great apes are unique. It’s eerie, he says. “You find that they are studying you. I love that the tables are turned.”
ABOUT THE Photographer
Anup Shah received his firstNational Geographic
assignment in 2003, followed by seven more. He has since published four best-selling photography driven books. Shah has been named one of the five best wildlife photographers in the world byHorzu
magazine, and was one of ten photographers included in the book, "Masters of Nature photography." His work has also been featured in the book, "The World's Top Wildlife Photographers.”
ABOUT THE Photographer
Fiona Rogers's photographs have been published as full-length features in leading magazines includingNational Geographic, The Smithsonian, National Wildlife, Geo
. She is the co-author of the book, "Tales from Gombe", published by Natural History Museum, London.
ABOUT THE Writer
Dr. Jason G. Goldman is a science journalist and wildlife reporter who covers stories in animal behavior, wildlife biology, conservation, and ecology from around the world. He has written forScientific American
,Los Angeles Magazine
, the BBC, and elsewhere. Goldman co-founded SciCommCamp, a science communication retreat and workshop series, and edited Science Blogging: The Essential Guide.
Anup Shah and Fiona Rogers Jason G. Goldman
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