20-Month Love Affair with Grauer’s Gorillas

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Amy Porter’s relationship with animals is deep and intriguing. When she was a child, she would tell everyone that she “lived in a tree”. Years later, with an Anthropology PhD from University of California, Davis, and plentiful research experience with monkeys in South America under her belt, she went to the Democratic Republic of Congo… We caught up with her at the end of her stint, while she still stays in Rwanda’s Musanze, the regional office of her employer the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund.

Why Congo?

I went to study the gorillas. My background has always been animal behaviour with an emphasis in primatology and conservation. Most of the projects I worked on before were fantastic field projects but weren’t necessarily from an angle that had direct implications on protecting the animals and that is the direction I am currently pursuing.

What where those previous projects?

I spent about 10 years working in South America primarily with primates and a little with giant otters. I also spent several years studying birds, mostly behavioural ecology.

How did you end up coming to Congo?

In the final stages of my PhD I was on a search committee for a new professor in the anthropology department. It was a tropical conservationist position, and Damien Caillaud was one of the candidates. As I interviewed him, we talked about working in difficult field situations and remote places and he suggested I should visit Congo for a very different experience.

I had always been fascinated by Congo, for its gorillas, for its history and for its impact on people – everybody holds their breath when you mention it. I was always eager to visit but since I worked so long in South America I thought it was going to remain my niche. Then an opportunity came up and I was open and excited about it. In March 2016 I took a position working with the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund in Kahuzi-Biega National Park.

Your loved ones probably reacted with concern?

When you start telling people you are going to live in the Democratic Republic of Congo they often suggest you should re-consider, mostly because of concerns about safety and the stability of the country. However, I was so excited and did not have any second thoughts!

Were you always supposed to be on your own?

Shortly after I arrived, Damien had to leave. I stayed with his assistant for about two months, after which she left too, leaving me to figure things out on my own. At first I was camping in my tent right outside of the park offices but I later moved inside of a clinic building, where I am still stationed. After 3pm and throughout weekends I was there basically alone, with the exception of the gate guards. But that was OK, as I have always been attracted to being in remote and rustic places.

Did you ever feel like going to Bukavu or Goma just to be with people?

Yes and no. Yes because I have good friends in Bukavu, and there is fresh food. No in terms of getting a break from the park. I preferred the calm rural existence to the stressful, chaotic and polluted environment of Bukavu.

What did you do on weekends?

Normally there were no weekends. I would work seven days a week, but I was trying not to go to the forest on Sundays to give the gorilla trackers a break. I would use that time to catch up on computer work since I couldn’t focus on that aspect after a whole day of field work. If I was lucky, power would come over the weekend.

How does it feel to be with gorillas almost every day for a year and a half?

They are like family to me. One day when I was with Chimanuka [silverback gorilla] I started thinking about my time in the field ending and I cried. It was not only about being attached to the work, I know those animals as individuals and they all have different personalities. Nabanga [blackback gorilla in Chimanuka’s group] was the first gorilla I had a very personal connection with. A month after I got here he walked by me and instead of continuing towards the other gorillas, he just laid down right beside me and looked into my eyes. It was a beautiful connection and I told him he had me for life and that I would give all I had to protect him.

I have seen gorillas seven times so far. Each and every time they looked super relaxed about my presence. In short: they ignored me, more or less. Was it the same for you, or did they react when seeing you?

It depended on which group I was in. The way the animals in Chimanuka’s group reacted was different to the way the animals in Mpungwe’s group reacted because the Mpungwe animals are still in the process of habituation [getting used to people]. But you see a dynamic of them recognising you during the habituation process. You go from having an animal scream and charge at you to finally just relax around your presence.

How close to humans are they?

Gorillas are among our closest living relatives and are therefore highly susceptible to human diseases. Ebola, for example, has played a large role in decimating populations and many human respiratory viruses can infect and kill gorillas. It is the reason Kahuzi-Beiga enforces wearing masks when visiting them.

From a personality perspective, I think of gorillas as the peaceful warriors of the forest. Gorillas are incredibly kind and gentle animals, which can easily be seen when looking at social relationships and bonds that develop between certain animals. For example, Koko from Chimanuka’s group was incredibly sick for a while and often fell behind in travel progressions. A particular black back, BB1, would always wait for her, rest in contact with her (often pulling her close and snuggling with her). Even today, now that Koko appears to have fully recovered, you can still see the bond between those two animals who are often always together.

Another instance was when the mother of Mulenge, a three year old female (the second youngest of Chimanuka’s group), transferred to another group. Mulenge was still occasionally nursing and frequently whined when she was separated from her mother. You could sense Mulenge’s distress after her mother left and she began spending most of her time in proximity to Chimanuka. During one resting session, Chimanuka was grooming her gently and then there was a moment when they just stared into each other’s eyes. I don’t know what was going on in their minds but it was a very sweet moment.

Gorillas really are peaceful animals but they can be fierce too. The silverback is the protector of the group. Generally, encounters with other groups are more about impressive displays than physical fights but occasionally animals will become physically aggressive and this can leave severe wounds and can sometimes even cause the death of gorillas. Infanticide [the killing of infants] is a common reproductive strategy among gorillas as well.

You are one of the few who know all these names and personalities. How come?

Identifying Grauer’s gorillas is a bit trickier than identifying mountain gorillas. We use the same techniques, relying heavily on individual nose prints, but they are much more subtle in Grauer’s gorillas. We therefore use a combination of traits, nose prints, ears, scars, body size, even personality. Photographs help a lot with ID as well as field sketches. It is important to learn their features from different angles, different lighting etc. and to constantly observe. In the early stages of identification, sometimes you think a feature is going to be really distinctive, only to find it is a common trait. But with time and repetition features begin to stand out and before long, you can tell who is who with just a glance.

What is the biggest difference between mountain gorillas and Grauer’s?

Grauer’s gorillas are bigger than mountain gorillas but it is not a noticeably huge difference. Grauer’s gorillas are also less hairy and live at lower elevations.

We are still in the beginning stages of studying how they differ in social behaviour. Kahuzi-Biega is the only place in the world where they are habituated and where we can collect detailed behavioural data on their social dynamics.

Another big difference is that in mountain gorillas you can find a group with more than one silverback but with Grauer’s there is always only one silverback.

Grauer’s gorillas also eat fruit during certain months of the year, usually between May and September, and at a point target a fruit called Myrianthus. These trees are scattered through the forest and gorillas will travel long distances moving from one tree to another; they walk quite far in short amounts of time. With groups travelling long distances to find these dispersed trees, there are increased opportunities for intergroup interactions. Intergroup interactions provide opportunities for females to assess the qualities of males (e.g., strength, stamina, health) and make decisions about which male they want to stay with. It is an interesting time to study potential demography changes: how often females transfer and how often it is done in Grauer’s compared to mountain gorilla groups.

How come Grauer’s gorillas have not been much researched before?

Before the DRC wars, Grauer’s gorillas were habituated and studied in the Kahuzi-Biega National Park by a Japanese primatologist, Dr. Yamagiwa. He has been primarily interested in their feeding ecology and from a comparative perspective with sympatric chimpanzees. We know much less about the social behaviour of Grauer’s gorillas.

Did you witness gorilla sex?

Yes. Sometimes when gorillas are having sex it attracts the attention of other gorillas in the group, which will approach and stare. Sometimes other animals will begin “play humping”. I have seen it in all age categories and with both sexes.

How many groups did you deal with?

There are 12 groups that are monitored in Kahuzi-Biega but we have only three habituated groups, Chimanuka, Mpungwe and Bonane, each named after the silverback in the group. The other groups are monitored by ICCN [Congolese Wildlife Authority] daily and mostly track demography through nest counts.

What were the iPads for?

We use an app called “Animal Observer” that was created by the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund staff to facilitate quick and easy data collection and transcription. It is a program that is available for free through iTunes and can be customized for any project examining animal behaviour. [See here for  a quick tutorial on how the program works.]

The goal is to understand the social dynamics between individuals in a group. We collect behavioural data using a system called Focal Animal Sampling, a standard way to collect animal behavioural data. We follow one animal for 50 minutes and every 10 minutes we take a scan sample of the group to record where all the group members are in relation to the focal animal. The app lets you record what your focal animal is doing and any interactions it has with other animals in the group, as well as GPS locations of animals, notes on health, and so on.

Whom did you leave that technology with?

Leandre Murhula Masirika, my Congolese trainee. He lives in Lwiro and was previously doing an internship looking at vervet monkey behavior. He really wanted to broaden his experience and do more field work and conservation. He presented his work at one of our meetings; it was perfect timing because we were looking to begin training a local student. Leandre is passionate about animal conservation and very keen to learn to all the different facets that go into studying animal behaviour. To do the kind of work we do, it requires commitment because it can be very exhausting. In addition to long days in the field, he also needs to become proficient with various computer programs and data management. It takes quite a bit of time to learn how to reliably and consistently identify individuals and subtle behaviours to pick up on.

Please describe your daily routine and challenges…

I woke up at 6:00 every morning, had a simple breakfast, and made sure all the equipment was ready. We usually left between 7:30 and 8:00am, drove to wherever the closest point was on the road to enter the forest where the gorillas were left the previous day, then began following the trails and signs until we located the gorillas. Sometimes it took ten minutes to find them, other times six hours, and sometimes (especially during the fruiting season) it could take us a few days to locate the group. During the weekdays we tried to stay with the gorillas for four hours. I always made sure the trackers were back at headquarters before 3:00pm because that is when the cars leave and take them home. The day basically comes to an end at 3:00pm when the office staff leave for Bukavu. The power also tends to leave around that time.

Kahuzi-Biega was different to other places I worked in; security was generally not an issue, which allowed me to work alone in the forest. At Kahuzi, you are not allowed into the forest without armed rangers and the logistics of going to the field require you to be dependent on many people’s schedules. At most of my previous field sites I was living in the forest so I would just leave my tent and begin my day. In Kahuzi, we often depended on cars to take us to/from the field and when they were not available, we would end up walking several hours, which could be quite exhausting after a full day in the field. If the radios were not working to communicate we needed to be picked up, we often relied on passing motorcycles going in the right direction to send hand written messages asking to be picked up.

A major challenge for the work was limited power. One disadvantage to all of the technological advances with data collection is their reliance on power to charge batteries…

What did you do once all power was off, all gadgets went off and there was no work to be done?

Yoga. I did a lot of yoga and reading. There was not much else you could do. I got into a nice rhythm though. Return from the field, eat, pass my data and charge the equipment, bathe, yoga/meditation, identifying birds, read, and then sleep.

Minus your hairy boyfriend Nabanga, there was no other close relationship to keep you going?

I am human, of course I miss having the companionship of a partner but I never felt lonely. For me, the animals I work with and spend all of my time with are like family. I have had a very special relationship to the forest and animals in general and it is within those relationships that I have always found connection and companionship.

I have a personality and lifestyle that draws people to me, but the reality of my life is actually very difficult. I have always been attracted to working in remote and wild places, which often means I am away for extended periods of time and often without consistent means of communication. Although intriguing, this is stressful on romantic relationships. People often romanticize my life without fully realising the personal sacrifices I have made and all of the difficult goodbyes I have had to endure.

I didn’t pursue my career path because I wanted to become a well-known scientist but because it is in my blood, it is my spirit, and it is everything to me. It is what I was born to do. I have had many amazing experiences from doing field work with different animals and it has always felt like a beautiful gift. It is my turn to reciprocate the gifts. This opportunity to come work with gorillas felt like a way for me to give something back, to really fight for them and to help be a voice for them. I told Nabanga: “You have me for life and I am prepared to give everything to help protect you.”

Would you tell us more about the spiritual connection?

People are guided along their path by all kinds of different things. I have always been guided by my heart. From a very early age I knew my path was to walk with animals.

I am a very sensitive person and I have always felt a special receptivity to the natural world. I grew up in the Pacific Northwest, a very magical place with incredibly lush old growth forests. When I was very young and people asked me my name and where I lived, I would always say I lived in a tree. It was clearly an early sign of things to come. My family still tease me about it!

The more we research animals, the more we realise they are closer to us than what we have expected. What is your take on that?

What hurts me most is that people have become so detached from the natural world. People are consumed with their iPhones and TVs and too many are misguided by the belief that constant “activity” is equivalent with success. The ability to be still and be fully present seems to be a lost art. If more people engaged with the natural world, simply took the time to slow down and observe, I think more people would recognise the connectivity of everything and really appreciate and celebrate the similarities we share with other animals, as well as the beauty in their uniqueness.

interview: Miha Logar; transcript: Shadia Ntwari; photos: Marcus Westberg