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Celebrating special gorilla relationships on Valentine’s Day

In the intricate social dynamics among the mountain gorillas we observe every day, we have seen that the relationships among adult males and females are fascinating and distinctive. Going beyond just reproduction, they often encompass bonding, protection and enduring connections, demonstrating that certain gorilla male-female pairs are very special. And these relationships, which are particularly strong between females and dominant males, actually shape the dynamics of each group.

Female gorillas seek lasting connections with dominant males, whose main duty is ensuring the group’s safety. This is especially important as the females want to ensure the best protection for their youngsters. Thus we see that large males, who can provide the best protection, seem to be preferred by females. Our research has actually shown that in males, larger size as measured through our photogrammetry studies, is associated with achieving alpha dominance status, the duration of dominance tenure and even number of females in the group. 

Adult males must also consistently demonstrate their strength and protective ability, in order to retain the loyalty of females. If they fail in this, females may leave the group or a stronger male may attempt to challenge for dominance.

But size and strength aren’t all that matter when it comes to male-female relationships and we have often seen exceptional relationships continue for many years, beyond the time when the male’s physical prowess was the key factor. This clearly shows that other characteristics, such as personality and familiarity, also play a critical role. Here’s a look at some of our favorites:

Silverback Pato and female gorilla Kurudi:

Silverback Pato with Kurudi leaning on him: Alliance Umwizerwa

A currently existing example is the enduring bond between senior female Kurudi and Pato in the Titus group. Their connection is evident in their close proximity and their prolonged grooming sessions. Kurudi and Pato’s companionship has remained consistent over the years, even if it is sometimes shaken by the other males in the group competing for the opportunity to mate with her. 

Silverback Segasira and female gorilla Taraja:

In Segaira’s group, a distinctive relationship exists between dominant male Segasira and the senior female, Taraja. Despite his attentions to other females, a special bond with Taraja is evident. On numerous occasions, we have observed Taraja ignoring Segasira’s efforts to displace her, with Segasira accepting her lack of submissiveness. This unusual acceptance by Segasira of Taraja’s special position seems to serve their relationship well.

Silverback Segasira grooms Taraja: Ella Brown

Historic silverback Cantsbee and female gorilla Gutangara:

We remember well the notable and enduring relationship in Pablo’s group between historic silverback Cantsbee and female Gutangara. Gutangara transferred into the group in 1995 and she and Cantsbee produced five infants together. The amazing Cantsbee, who held group leadership for over 20 years, passed away in 2017. Following his demise, Gutangara had three more infants but 

Historic Cantsbee with Gutangara and their offspring: Veronica Vecellio

departed from the Pablo group in 2021. Her relationship with the dominant silverback of the new group does not appear nearly as strong as what we observed with Cantsbee.

Historic “gorilla king” Titus and female gorilla Tuck:

Silverback Titus near lifelong partner Tuck: Veronica Vecellio

Exploring another chapter in mountain gorilla history, we can point out the lasting relationship between famous silverback Titus and female Tuck. Tuck joined the group in 1988, when Titus was only 14 years old and not yet dominant. Tuck’s connection was clear as she stayed with Titus when the group split into two. While many other females moved on to Titus’ younger and stronger son, Kuryama, Tuck stayed with Titus until his death and passed away just a year after him. This touching story reveals the depth of gorilla relationships, showing the enduring loyalty and friendship that can last a lifetime.

Silverback Bwenge and brave female gorilla Maggie:

Silverback Bwenge and the brave female Maggie near each other: Dean Jacobs

Another lovely gorilla story involves the special bond between female Maggie and silverback Bwenge. Maggie joined Bwenge’s group in 2007, becoming his favorite. As Bwenge was the only adult male in the group, Maggie also took on leadership roles among the gorillas, showing her unique personality. 

And, when Bwenge passed away in 2014, Maggie led the group herself, including her young son Gasore, for several weeks, eventually leading them to join another group, which ensured their protection by  another silverback, Ugenda. 

Maggie herself did not choose to stay with Ugenda but instead went on a solo journey. We followed her for a full month until we lost her trace in 2015. Maggie stands out as a remarkable example of gorilla resilience and a strong personality.

These stories and others like them have offered us insights into the fascinating world of gorilla relationships, showcasing resilience, loyalty, and the complex dynamics that shape their societies. In celebration of Valentine’s Day, we remember these special pairs!

This article is part of a series presented by the Fossey Fund’s gorilla program Senior Advisor Veronica Vecellio, focusing on the mountain gorillas the Fossey Fund protects and studies every day in Rwanda. Veronica has worked with these gorilla families for nearly 20 years and shares her deep knowledge and insights about their lives.