By Veronica Vecellio, Fossey Fund gorilla program senior advisor
Mountain gorilla Mukecuru, one of the oldest mountain gorillas we’ve ever observed, is now presumed to have died. She showed signs of illness in April and then was missing from her group, along with silverback Agahebuzo, who we believe stayed behind to wait for her. When Agahebuzo returned to the group at the end of the month, we had to conclude that Mukecuru had died.
Mukecuru was a remarkable gorilla female, and we feel fortunate to have observed her life, gaining a unique glimpse into gorilla family bonds and empathy among family members.
Her first appearance
Most of the mountain gorillas we monitor have been observed since birth, so we know their exact ages. Mukecuru, however, was first seen by our trackers when she was already an adult, in 1995 when she joined Pablo’s group. We estimated her to be about 15 years old at the time, though it is possible she was as young as 10. So at the time of her death, she may have been as old as 43, which would be the oldest mountain gorilla ever recorded.
Mukecuru spent more than two decades in Pablo’s group and gave birth to three females there. The first one, Mitimbili, born in 1996, maintained a very deep connection with her mother, while her second and third daughters – Umwe and Isura – were more independent and joined other groups after reaching maturity.
Mitimbili, on the other hand, stayed in Pablo’s group and had three sons there. Together with Mukecuru, they formed a very united family. Mukecuru was always nearby while Mitimbili was raising her infants and continued to stay bonded with them even when they became independent and mature silverbacks.
Strong family bonds despite losses
Unfortunately, during her long life Mukecuru also had eight infants who did not survive. We observed her appearing to grieve as she carried her deceased infants, though her family’s presence seemed to provide comfort. Mukecuru showed even more caring when she stepped in to help three grandsons who, despite being independent, were comforted by the close presence of their grandmother after the death of their mother, Mitimbili.
Mukecuru’s social success was probably due to her ability to avoid conflict, which made her a strong contributor to the peaceful dynamics in Pablo’s group. However, in 2021, after 22 years in Pablo’s group, she followed young silverback Dushishoze and other gorillas in forming a new group, where she lived until she went missing in April.
Mukecuru’s lifetime friend Gutangara also joined this new group. She had shared most of Mukecuru’s life choices, including the initial move that occurred 28 years earlier, when they both joined Pablo’s group. One of Mukecuru’s grandsons also joined the new group with them, and they maintained a strong bond. Mukecuru had great relationships with everyone in the new group, even as her advanced age became more and more noticeable. Her special personality and presence will definitely be missed!