Early this year, young mountain gorilla Urusobe became an orphan after the death of her mother, Ndamunbanzi. She will turn 3 years old in August and is at a delicate age for infant gorillas, since this is the time period when they learn how to be independent from their mothers, yet still rely on some maternal care. In fact, we have not observed the survival of an infant who lost their mother before the age of 2-1/2 years, which was roughly Urusobe’s age when her mother died.
But Urusobe demonstrated remarkable strength and resilience, supported by the loving care of her group, Kwisanga, a gentle family of 14 gorillas that the Fossey Fund has recently started to study, and which is part of our expanded research program in Rwanda’s Volcanoes National Park.
Group members help out
At first, the second-oldest silverback in the group, named Lisanga, stepped in as Urusobe’s main caretaker. For several weeks, the two were inseparable. Lisanga made sure Urusobe kept up with the group’s movements, groomed her and provided warmth and comfort during daytime rests and at night.
However, the group dynamic shifted unexpectedly when a new adult female arrived from a neighboring group. Lisanga was excited by this and his focus shifted toward the new female, leaving Urusobe bereft of support. Luckily, older silverback Kigoma then took over and became Urusobe’s primary caregiver and focal point.
Other gorillas also contributed to Urusobe’s care. For example, her blackback brother, Ubugeni, and the youngest silverback, Wakawaka, also proved to be amazing babysitters. Plus Urusobe’s grandmothers Mugeni and Okapi, helped out as well, providing additional trusted care for her.
“The story of Urusobe is very inspiring, and I hope that with the support from the adults in the group, Urusobe will have an excellent chance to become a successful adult female herself,” says Fossey Fund research officer Didier Abavandimwe, who is following Kwisanga’s group closely.
Our researchers also noticed that despite having faced adversity at a young age, Urusobe has developed an unusual confidence in exploring her surroundings. After following the silverbacks step-by-step, now she sometimes ventures alone, while Wakawaka keeps a constant eye on her and follows if she goes too far. However, her confidence has its limits, and she quickly returns to the caring embrace of Kigoma or the adult females when she loses sight of her family.
Urusobe has also resumed playing with other youngsters, suggesting that she is hopefully over the worst part of her struggles. She enjoys the company of the other two infant gorillas in the group, who already look up to her as a fun role model for adventurous play.
Studying additional gorilla groups
Fossey Fund Senior Research Manager, Winnie Eckardt, Ph.D., highlights the significance of expanding the Fossey Fund’s research focus to on more gorilla families across the park. “We are very excited about the expansion of our research to additional gorilla groups, which are in previously unstudied parts of the forest.
“This expansion allows us to learn more about their lives, especially their dietary and behavioral flexibility, and to witness incredible and touching stories like that of Urusobe,” she says.
A recently published study by Fossey Fund scientists showed that that early-age trauma like that faced by Urusobe does not prevent a successful later life. The role played by the family group during a young gorilla’s development is of vital importance for the species. (Read more about this study here.)
This latest example showcases the empathy and resilience within a gorilla group, and shows us once again how well a young gorilla can do when faced with early-life adversity.