My Commitment to Nabanga

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, ChimanukaMpungwe, 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

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Responses

  1. Great stories.
    Am personally eager to hear your stories and learn more about another specie of gorillas.
    Well done Amy

    1. Thank you! I am very grateful to have this platform to share some of my experiences. I look forward to engaging more with you (and everyone!)

  2. Truly inspiring! Looking forward to reading your next articles, to learning more about the Grauer’s gorillas, your work, and connections you build with the animals and the people you work with. Thank you for sharing!

    1. thank you 💜🦍 and please let me know if there are specific things you want to hear about because I have so much I want to share, it will help guide my focus!

    1. Happy you enjoyed the story, Tuyisenge 🙂 Let me know if there is something in particular you would like to learn about mountain gorillas.

  3. That is eye-opening information, I didn’t have much of a clue on these gorillas.
    Thanks @Amy . Do locals in DRC come to visit the grauer’s gorillas ? Is it affordable for them or are locals interested ?

    1. Hi @Jane, Yes, locals in DRC do come to visit the gorillas and they get a discounted price for the gorilla tracking permits. There were also internship opportunities with local students that worked on many different projects, not only with the gorillas but also with vegetation surveys, ecotourism, water sampling, etc. Local youth groups frequently visited the park and although they were not allowed to visit the gorillas (there is an age limit to visit gorillas in all parks and these kids were too young), they did get to learn about the gorillas from videos/lectures offered by park staff and they were able to explore the park and learn about the natural history of all the flora and fauna.

  4. Wow, thank you Amy! Especially to hear about in which way the Grauer gorillas are different to mountain gorillas was very interesting to me. Do you have any idea how many Grauer gorillas exist in Congo? Are they just living in Congo at the moment, or also in other countries? I am looking forward to read more from you in the future 🙂

    1. Hi @Kath, it is very challenging to get accurate population estimates for Grauer’s gorillas because they mostly occur in non-protected areas where there is still a lot of civil unrest/armed group activities. One of their biggest threats is from bushmeat hunting by people working in artisanal mines that rely heavily on bushmeat for subsistence. The most recent surveys, done in 2016 by Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS), estimate ~3500 individuals, which is a drastic decline and actually elevated their status from endangered to critically endangered (that count represents an 80% decline in just 1 generation!) WCS was supposed to do another survey this year but with the combo of COVID and continued unrest in certain parts of their range, the survey was postponed. They are only found in DRC and they are restricted to the eastern part of DRC.

      1. Oh wow I can’t believe their biggest threat is from bushmeat hunting, the idea of someone eating gorilla meat is absurd to me. Thanks for the in depth answer, good to know.

        1. @Kath Gorillas are easy targets, especially silverbacks, because they will stay behind to protect their group. They are also huge and therefore lot of meat. Another (equally) big threat is habitat loss from land conversion to agriculture and from logging. Eventually I will write a post that discusses all of this in more detail.

          1. Yes, the first thing that would come in my mind regarding a threat is land loss through agriculture. A maybe comparable well-known example are orang utans lossing their land because people burning down the rainforest in Indonesia to make space for palm oil plantations…. The bushmeat hunting insight was an eye opener for me, thank you. Looking forward for your article about the threats in more detail. For sure a sad one, but important!

  5. Waw, what an amazing experience that must have been, to be having that intimate moment with one of these beautiful creatures. I’m slightly regretting that I didn’t go for studying biology… haha! It’s really great to have some news from the other side of the border, I’m looking forward to learning much more from you, about the Grauer gorilla’s and about the DRC in general. Thanks for sharing this story Amy!