For the most part the gorillas are sedate creatures. The youngsters tussle. Huge Makumba sometimes tends to the little ones. The family travels often in search of food and listens for the rustle of elephants and leopards. “My impression was that gorillas were a bit more brawn than brain,” Rogers says. “But you can see that they are so thoughtful and conscious of each other. There’s a serenity about them.”
There’s also a fierceness. Makumba may veer toward violence if a strange silverback approaches. He still occasionally charges human visitors, and he once bit an overly intrusive tracker, all the way through the man’s bicep to the bone.
“The mountain gorilla experience doesn’t compare with this one,” says Shah, who has photographed both groups. “Watching mountain gorillas is almost like watching black cows in a green field. These guys are wild.”
Makumba is about 33, quite old for a dominant wild gorilla, and it seems his days as a family leader are numbered. Two of his four original females left over the years, and habituated males have trouble attracting new mates, which is one controversial aspect of the habituation program. Other concerns include the spread of disease between gorillas and humans, heightened gorilla stress levels and the increased vulnerability to poaching that comes with being taught not to fear people. But the habituated animals have given scientists a window into their social structure, feeding habits and movements in the forest.
They are also ambassadors for their species. The Dzanga-Sangha gorillas receive 500 visitors a year, most of them tourists; an hour of observation costs about $400. (The money pays trackers and other staff.) Their forest is not a destination for the faint of heart. The drive from the capital city of Bangui takes 12 to 24 hours. “I’ve never done it with less than two flat tires,” says Chris Whittier, a veterinarian in the wildlife health sciences department of the National Zoo, who has treated the habituated animals. And the hike to find the animals can be grueling.
Many of the western lowland gorillas are in even more isolated areas. In 2006 and 2007, Wildlife Conservation Society workers canoeing the swamp forests of the northern Congo Republic counted tens of thousands of previously unknown animals clustered on little islands of dry land.
The remote habitat of western lowland gorillas likely helps protect them, although they are listed as critically endangered. They are threatened by increased rainforest logging, being killed for bushmeat and Ebola outbreaks.
Whittier is working with colleagues on strategies to vaccinate and otherwise protect the Dzanga-Sangha animals against a number of diseases, including Ebola and respiratory infections, and recently darted Makumba’s family to test the technique.
Aiming his air pistol at Makumba’s expansive back, he was admittedly apprehensive. But Makumba just “pulled the dart out, threw it on the ground and gave us a dirty look,” Whittier says. Then the gorilla went about his business.