Marhale and His Gift of Joy

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One of the most rewarding parts of studying the social behaviour of animals is getting to know individuals and watching their personalities come through. For gorillas, we begin identifying each one using a variety of characteristics, such as unique nose prints, ear shape, and scars. For example, notice the notches on Pilipili’s ear and the scar on his lower eyelid:

Pay attention to the flat horizonal line just above Karibu’s nostrils …

… and the two dots above Uhuru’s nostrils.

In addition to physical characteristics, different personalities can sometimes help us recognise individuals. Pori, a juvenile female, was assertive and sassy. This photo captures her spirit perfectly! 

Nabanga, an adult male, who you may remember from my previous Daily Dose, was known to me for his incredibly calm and gentle personality.  

One Grauer’s gorilla I want to bring special attention to is Marhale (the juvenile male in the featured photo) who had a personality that would often bring me to tears with joy and laughter. In fact, I regularly described him as a vibrant furball of joy. To fully appreciate Marhale’s joy, you need to know a little more about his story. 

Marhale’s mother died when he was one-year-old, a very sensitive time for his survival because gorillas are generally nursed for at least two years (although they begin ingesting solid food around eight months). Chimanuka, the group silverback and Marhale’s father, instantly became his primary caregiver and source of emotional support, grooming and playing with him, and sharing his night nest. 

The trackers told me that after Marhale’s mother passed away, he lost weight, his fur changed colour from black to brownish (a sign of malnutrition), and he seemed depressed. He did not want to play or interact with the other young gorillas in the group, he only wanted to be in proximity to Chimanuka. Without the care and attention his father provided, Marhale surely would have died. Slowly, over the next few years, things began to shift for Marhale and the heaviness from his loss began to lighten. 

Marhale was four years old when I met him and he very quickly showed me his transformation. The Marhale I came to know was a plump and healthy gorilla, both physically and emotionally. He was constantly playing with the others and he was almost always the one to initiate play bouts. I have countless memories of Marhale making me laugh out loud but one particular day holds a very special place in my heart. 

Our morning hike to reach the gorillas started out overcast and chilly. The terrain was incredibly steep and rugged and by the time we reached our primate cousins, I was soaked from sweating and freezing as my wet clothes stuck to my skin. When we arrived at the gorilla’s sleep site, many of the individuals were still in their nests waiting to start their day. Within minutes of our arrival, it started raining, making the already chilly morning uncomfortably cold.

I envied the gorillas still cozy in their nests. However, I quickly forgot about my physical discomfort and started laughing while observing the different strategies/responses some of the gorillas had for waiting out the rain. One gorilla had his arm draped over his head to block the rain, another used a large and broad leaf like an umbrella, a few others sat with their arms folded across their chests and their heads bowed. 

A thick fog rolled in and enveloped the area, muting the lush green vegetation and accentuating the somber and sleepy mood of the moment. Amidst the gloom, however, was Marhale, up in his nest, rolling around on his back and clapping his hands, playing and welcoming the rain with joy.

The opportunity and ability to get to know these individuals so intimately exists because they were habituated and well protected from living inside Kahuzi-Biega National Park. However, most Grauer’s gorillas live outside of conservation areas where they lack formal protection (i.e., there are no national park rangers to patrol and protect the forests and enforce the law), which makes research and conservation efforts much more challenging. 

In several parts of DR Congo, community-based conservation efforts are proving to be a successful and sustainable alternative to national parks. One example is the Nkuba Conservation Area, which is made up of three community-managed lowland forest concessions in a forest corridor between Kahuzi-Biega National Park and Maiko National Park. This area is home to an estimated 200 Grauer’s gorillas.

Since 2012, The Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund International (DFGFI) has been working with landowners in the region, helping them develop and implement sustainable plans that simultaneously promote healthy and resilient human and wildlife communities. The collaboration of local communities and their engaged efforts to protect Grauer’s gorillas has opened up new opportunities for research, which is beginning to provide deeper insights into the lives of these magnificent animals.

Community-based conservation efforts are critical for protecting DRC’s wildlife, so in upcoming Daily Dose discussions, I will be sharing more with you about my experiences working with communities to help protect both gorillas and bonobos (another one of Congo’s endangered and endemic great ape species). 

Kahuzi-Biega forest by Marcus Westberg; other photos by Amy Porter/DFGFI/PNKB