Jambo sana! I am Amy Porter, a wildlife behavioural ecologist and conservation biologist with a special love of primates and birds. I am from the US (Pacific Northwest) but I have worked all over the world, and recently I spent four years studying Grauer’s gorillas and bonobos and working on community conservation projects in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC).
Due to the decades-long civil unrest in Congo, much less is known about Grauer’s gorillas compared to mountain gorillas. Thus, there is need for intense study of their habitat requirements, social characteristics, and demographics so that the best methods for their conservation can be established and implemented. Some of the things we have learned so far are:
• Grauer’s gorilla groups have only one silverback whereas mountain gorilla groups often have two or more
• Grauer’s gorillas have larger home ranges
• A variety of habitats are needed for Grauer’s gorilla conservation, such as primary forest for fruit trees, open canopy areas for terrestrial leafy vegetation, bamboo forests, and swamps
• Grauer’s gorillas often nest high up in the canopy (similar to chimpanzees) whereas mountain gorillas only nest on the ground
Throughout your Gorilla Highlands Experts membership, I will be sharing with you some of my experiences and stories from the field. Some will be funny, others sad, hopefully some will be inspiring, and some may even strike up controversy. My intention is to help give you a deeper insight into the lives of gorillas and bonobos, the people that live near them, the people that risk their lives to protect them, and the complex conservation challenges that affect them.
I want to show you the amazing success stories but also the struggles and failures to help you better understand the realities of conservation work on the ground. Of course, you will be getting one person’s perspective (mine) but I hope that through engaging dialogues and shared comments, we all become better informed, more thoughtful and receptive to different perspectives, and that we all have a deeper appreciation for DRC and all of the country’s inhabitants.
To start this journey with you, I want to tell you a little bit about my background as a primatologist and highlight one of my early encounters with the gorillas that I think captures the spirit of field work and the joy I find from living with animals.
From a very young age, I have been fascinated with wildlife and animal behaviour. I was drawn to study primates because they are very social animals (with some notable exceptions), which offers incredible opportunities to directly observe many facets of behaviour.
Prior to working with gorillas, I spent many years studying small and cryptic monkeys, little furballs that spent a lot of time hiding in dense canopy tangles. The work was challenging, it required persistence and exceptional patience to get good/clear observations and I frequently went through many consecutive days unable to even find the monkeys. I loved the challenge though and I loved those monkeys but I have to admit, in my moments of extreme frustration, I sometimes daydreamed of one day working with primates that were slightly easier to observe. And then came gorillas and Kahuzi-Biega National Park.
Kahuzi-Biega National Park (PNKB), named after Mt. Kahuzi (3,308 m / 10,853 ft) and Mt. Biega (2,790 m / 9,150 ft) is located in the South Kivu Province in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo. It is home to a diverse array of flora and fauna, including one of DRC’s endemic and critically endangered great apes, the Grauer’s gorilla (Gorilla beringei graueri).
PNKB was first established in 1970 in an effort to protect Grauer’s gorillas and in 1980 it was designated as a World Heritage Site by UNESCO. This is the only place in the world where visitors can see habituated Grauer’s gorillas. In the high-altitude sector of the park, there are currently three habituated groups, Chimanuka, Mpungwe, and Bonane, named after the silverback in each group.
I am not sure I can fully describe the contrast of experiences. It was like going from one extreme to the other — tiny monkeys to gigantic apes, shy and cryptic to gregarious and totally exposed in open areas on the ground (at least a good portion of the time). There was also the added bonus that gorillas eat primarily vegetation (leaves, pith, shoots), which requires a long time to digest, and in turn, leads to gorillas spending a lot of time resting. Resting bouts were among my favorite moments with the gorillas. It is an excellent time to observe social interactions like grooming and playing. These moments are super fun to watch and they also provide valuable information about relationships, friendships, and personalities.
One of my most treasured memories with the gorillas was a moment I shared with a blackback male (adult male but not yet a silverback) named Nabanga. I had been following the gorillas for about one month at this point and although I could confidently identify the individuals, I was still learning a lot about different personalities and temperaments. The group had just settled down after a long feeding session and several animals passed by me while seeking out their preferred spots to rest. Then came along Nabanga and I was expecting him to follow suit and snuggle up to one of the other animals in the gorilla pile just ahead of me. Instead, he laid down right next to me, just 7 metres away. Not only did he choose to rest close to me, he positioned himself so that he was lying on his belly with his head resting on his hands and his eyes fixed on me but with a very soft/gentle gaze. I have no way of knowing what he was thinking, he could have been wondering who this crazy lady following him was or daydreaming about something that had nothing to do with me, but it felt very intimate and special. It didn’t matter what he was thinking or if he was thinking anything at all. For me, it was that incredible and beautiful energy you feel when you are in the company of a wild animal and there is total calm and trust between you. In that moment, I made a promise to Nabanga that I would do everything in my power to help protect Grauer’s gorillas and that for the rest of my life, I was committed to sharing with the world how incredibly special they are.
I want to close for now by saying how excited I am to bring more of these stories to you. This opportunity is helping me fulfil my commitment to Nabanga. I welcome all thoughts and questions and I am looking forward to hearing more about what you are interested in.
featured photo by Amy Porter/DFGFI/PNKB