This is the first in a series of articles and posts that will chronicle the lives of the gorillas in a legendary mountain gorilla group named after former silverback Pablo. This group has existed since 1993 and is named after a silverback – Pablo — that Dian Fossey studied starting in 1974.
Pablo was the group’s leader for only one year, however, before yielding dominance to another historic silverback — Cantsbee. But the group never lost cohesion and remains together to this day, with various offspring, newcomers and other leaders along the way.
Since it is quite large and once reached the largest size ever recorded — 65 members — Pablo group also has an interesting and well-documented history, and remains fascinating to follow every day, as the Fossey Fund trackers and researchers have continued to do for nearly 25 years so far!
Who is Pablo?
Pablo was born in 1974 and named by Dian Fossey. He lived in what was then called “Group 5” by Fossey, one of the groups she monitored during her pioneering studies. She had a special affection for the young Pablo and wrote in her book, Gorillas in the Mist: “Pablo’s sense of frolic was infectious and his outgoing personality freely expanded within his first year, attracting many other immatures to him.”
In 1993, Group 5 split into two new groups, one of which was led by Pablo, and the other by historic silverback Shinda. Pablo ceded leadership of the group to silverback Cantsbee in 1994, but remained well respected within the group. As the group continued to increase in size, Pablo led a small subgroup for short periods of time, but these did not last long.
In July of 2008, the 34-year-old Pablo was missing from his group and despite searching by our best trackers, he could not be found. There had probably been an interaction with another group at some point after our trackers had left for the day, which we deduced by such evidence as flattened vegetation in the area and serious injuries to the other group’s silverback — Inshuti — who had been nearby.
Who else has led Pablo’s group?
For 20 years, the group was led by the historic silverback Cantsbee, who was also first seen and named by Dian Fossey, in 1978. She came up with this name because she had believed that his mother was a male, until she saw her with this newborn. Fossey exclaimed, “It can’t be,” which turned into the name Cantsbee. He was then monitored by the Fossey Fund for his entire life, until he died in 2017 at the elderly age of 38.
Cantsbee was an exceedingly successful group leader, holding the longest reign and siring more offspring than any other gorilla we have monitored. He was known for his strong but gentle leadership and his human observers considered him to be charismatic and very authoritative.
“He rarely initiated conflicts,” says research assistant Didier Abavandimwe. “On the contrary, he used to end conflicts and was very peaceful. I was impressed by his long tenure as a dominant silverback in such a large group. He was an indisputable leader.”
Gorilla protection and monitoring officer Jean Pierre “Samedi” Mucyo recalls one episode when Cantsbee broke up a fight between two other silverbacks.
“I will never forget the day — Aug. 14, 2013,” he says. “When the two younger silverbacks were fighting, Cantsbee made it clear that the fight had to stop, without making any sound or antagonistic behavior. The youngest silverback then laid down with his face on the ground, as if asking for forgiveness. I’ve never seen such a reaction to other gorillas — the authority of Cantsbee was amazing.”
Cantsbee earned his name once again before he died, since he went missing from his group in late 2016 and despite massive searches could not be found, thus leading our staff to conclude he must have died. Then, a few months later, he showed up suddenly in his group and our staff could hardly believe their eyes! But his age and afflictions must have caught up with him, because he went missing again a few months later and his partially decomposed body was eventually found and definitively identified.
Who leads Pablo’s group now?
Pablo group is currently led by the 23-year-old silverback Gicurasi, who is a son of Cantsbee. Cantsbee actually helped raise Gicurasi, when the mother left the group while he was still quite young. Our staff observed Gicurasi constantly grooming and playing with the little Gicurasi back then.
When Cantsbee disappeared in 2016-2017, Pablo group split into two, with a younger silverback — 18-year-old Kureba — taking a few members and forming his own group. Gicurasi, who had taken over from Cantsbee, led the larger portion of the group and continues to lead successfully today
What’s going on in Pablo’s group now?
Currently the group has 25 members, though there are a few members who have joined or left recently, so this number can go up or down somewhat, as is normal with most gorilla groups. There are six youngsters of about 5 years old or less in the group, so it’s a good group for infant development! In addition to adult and sub-adult females, there are also two other full-grown silverbacks and several blackbacks (younger adult males) in the group.
This diversity makes the group both interesting and active in terms of behaviors, socializing, playing, births and the wide range of gorilla activities that we observe.
The next installment
Stay tuned for the next edition of “Life with Pablo Gorillas,” where we will report on what some of the individual members are doing. Will one of the other silverbacks leave and try to form his own group? How many of the younger adult females will give birth? Will any newcomers arrive from other groups? We’ll let you know next time!