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Young gorillas thriving even as mothers leave group

A recent series of events among the members of a mountain gorilla group monitored by the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund in Rwanda has led to two very young gorillas growing up without their mothers, who have moved to other groups. But, in the face of these and other challenges, the members of Kureba’s group have shown remarkable resilience and support for one another, which have been heartwarming to observe.

Starting in December, Kureba’s group suffered the loss of three females within a short period. This began with the passing of female Inziza, likely due to complications from giving birth. Shortly afterward, the only male of the group, dominant silverback Ishavu, began showing signs of illness. He has since been slowly recovering, but during his illness, two of the group’s adult females – Akamaro and Kubana – migrated to a neighboring group, each leaving their young offspring behind.  

Kubana with infant and Ishavu Silverback resting in the field.

The reasons for the females’ decisions to change groups were not immediately clear, but Ishavu’s declining health may have been a significant factor. Both females had just weaned their infants and would have started cycling again. To ensure their own protection, and to find opportunities as well as protection for future offspring, they may have chosen to leave to join a group with a healthier silverback. Taking their offspring with them would not have been an option, as generally the male of a new group does not tolerate youngsters who are not his own.  

Youngest gorilla to survive without mother

The first mother to move was Akamaro, leaving her 2-1/2-year-old daughter Imbaduko behind on Jan. 29, when she joined Mutobo’s group. Despite concerns about Imbaduko’s survival without her mother at such a young age, she has shown remarkable resilience and is thriving with the support of her brother Karame and silverback Ishavu.

At the heart of this story lies a remarkable fact: Imbaduko, who will turn 3 in October, now holds the record for the youngest infant to survive premature separation from its mother. This achievement was previously held by her grandmother – Umwana – who faced a similar situation in 1985.

Infant Gorilla ImadukoImbaduko is now the youngest survivor of early separation from the mother.

Interestingly, Imbaduko’s mother, Akamaro and her uncle, the famous silverback Titus, also experienced similar separations at a young age. Due to this fortunate genetic connection, we have high hopes that Imbaduko will grow into a successful female, with the support of her family.

And a young friend for comfort

On Feb. 19, mother Kubana also moved to Mutobo’s group, leaving her 3-year-old daughter, Mubyeyi, behind. Imbaduko and Mubyeyi have formed an inseparable connection since then, supporting and comforting each other during this challenging time. 

As the health of silverback Ishavu began to improve, he became able to help care for the orphans as well, alongside the only remaining female, Nzeli, and the younger silverback Karame. It was wonderful to see the whole group working together to focus on support and survival. 

This situation is something we have seen in other cases. In fact, one of our recent studies analyzing similar instances has shown that increased social connections among gorillas help them cope with adversities, which is the most significant factor in explaining the thriving of gorillas who faced trauma at an early age and mirrors what we see in our own species.

Watch a Tedx talk about resilience by Dr. Tara Stoinski, Fossey Fund president and CEO/chief scientific officer.

The mothers are doing well too

Mothers Akamaro and Kubana are also doing well and adapting to Mutobo’s group, where we’ve observed signs that they have resumed cycling. This strategic timing supports our belief that their decisions to move involved ensuring that their next offspring will have the protection of a fitter male.

Both Ishavu and Mutobo grew up together in Pablo’s group. It is always interesting to note how gorilla lives may intersect after many years, even in completely different circumstances, enriching the narrative of their interconnected dynamic.

We will continue to keep a close eye on Imbaduko and Mubyeyi during this critical period.  The care and support we see from their family members reminds us very much of another species – our own.  

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.