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5TF: 5 Historic Gorillas

Historic Gorilla 1 – Poppy

Before her disappearance and presumed death earlier this year, Poppy, at nearly 43 years old, was the last surviving gorilla who was first studied by Dian Fossey. Fossey wrote about Poppy many times in her journals, calling her Group 5’s “little darling” and saying that she could do no wrong.

At 41 years of age, Poppy became the oldest recorded mountain gorilla to give birth. Poppy taught us a lot about the social and reproductive lives of female gorillas as well as female dominance structures and personality. Veronica Vecellio, Fossey Fund gorilla program senior advisor, has even said, “Poppy broke the mold for what we know about mountain gorilla females – transferring at an older age, joining a very young and inexperienced male, and having a baby so late in life.”

Historic Gorilla 2 – Digit

Fossey first saw Digit in 1967 when he was just a few years old. She ended up forming a special bond with him as he grew into a powerful silverback. She gave him the name Digit when she noticed that one of his fingers was injured, likely from a poacher’s trap. Fossey described Digit as a playful and curious youngster, as well as gentle and trusting even as he grew into a large silverback. She even called him her “beloved Digit.” 

 Digit was eventually killed and beheaded by poachers. While Fossey grieved, she established the Digit Fund, a nonprofit organization aimed at raising funds to fight against poaching, in his honor. After Fossey was killed in 1985, she was even buried next to Digit’s grave in the forest and the Digit Fund was renamed the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund International.

Digit – mirror 1971

Historic Gorilla 3 – Cantsbee

Before his passing in 2017, Cantsbee was the last surviving silverback that Fossey knew. At 38 years old, he set the record as the oldest silverback The Fossey Fund has monitored from birth. 

Cantsbee also holds the record for longest reign of dominance the Fossey Fund has ever observed, serving about 21 years as dominant silverback for Pablo’s group. During his long reign, Cantsbee led the largest  gorilla group recorded with 65 individuals in 2006 – a third record for this impressive historic gorilla!

Along with being a strong leader, Cantsbee  was known as an active and responsible father. Fossey Fund President and CEO Tara Stoinski, Ph.D., remembers seeing Cantsbee “babysit” five or six infants at a time while their mothers were off foraging.

Historic Gorilla 4 – Effie

When alive, Effie was the dominant female of Group 5 (now known as Pablo group). Effie started the family group that has been the most productive of all gorilla groups in the Virunga Mountains! Effie has over 100 descendants and was monitored by Fossey herself. Five of the nine gorilla groups currently monitored by the Fossey Fund are led by an Effie family member. Dian wrote that “Effie endowed her infants with love and security during their formative years and a keen self confidence that carried over into their adulthood.”

17. Effie & Mahafé? 1986 11.2

Historic Gorilla 5 – Pablo

Pablo was born in 1974 into what was then called “Group 5” by Fossey. This was one of the groups she monitored during her pioneering studies and she developed a particular affection for Pablo. He is mentioned frequently in her book, Gorillas in the Mist, where she wrote about his early days saying “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, he formed a group that still exists today and it is one of the most famous gorilla groups. While this group was named after him, Pablo was only dominant of that group for about one year before Cantsbee took over. However, to this day, Pablo is one of the best-known silverback among the gorillas that have been tracked by Karisoke throughout its history.

Pablo 21yrs old. Jan. 27, ’96 by D. #1.143 After Fossey

We just couldn’t choose! Here are a couple more of the amazing historic gorillas:

Historic Gorilla 6 – Isabukuru

Isabukuru was a brother of legendary silverback Cantsbee. He was exceptionally large and was greatly popularity among females, even as a younger blackback; he sired his first offspring while still a subordinate male in Pablo’s group. He broke away from the group led by Cantsbee in 2007, started his own group at just age 14, taking several females and Kubaha with him, and successfully expanded and led his group until his death in 2008.

Historic Gorillas 7 – Coco and Pucker. 

When Dian Fossey knew Coco and Pucker, they weren’t part of the gorilla groups she observed. Both young gorillas (around 2 years old) had been captured for a zoo in an European city. While she disapproved of their capture, she volunteered to care for them until  their departure for Europe. On the verge of death due to improper care, Fossey helped these young gorillas become healthy once again. 

Fossey cared for Coco and Pucker for about two months and turned one of her cabins into a small forest for them to sleep and play. These young ones even caused some trouble with Fossey’s cook, who said he was there to cook for people and not animals. 

Be sure to read Gorillas in the Mist by Dian Fossey to learn more about these historic gorillas and more, including individuals like Maggie and Old Bert!