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October Gorilla Roundup

October 14, 2013

October Gorilla Roundup

The gorillas have been creating some mysteries for field staff at the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund this month. Trackers and research assistants have been trying to piece together information to explain a couple of recent gorilla disappearances.

Pablo’s group goes missing

Pablo's group on the move You might wonder how the field staff could lose track of a group of more than 30 gorillas, but Pablo’s group is known for ranging deep inside the forest at high altitudes, so that it can take trackers hours to reach the location where the group was last seen. Recently, Pablo’s group, which is the largest group of mountain gorillas monitored by the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund in Rwanda and the second largest group of mountain gorillas in the Virungas, went missing for more than 10 days — an unusual occurrence for the group.

The group’s team of trackers joined forces with members of the Fossey Fund’s anti-poaching team, Rwandan Development Board (park authority) trackers, and temporary staff hired specifically for the search to create several search teams and cover more of the forest in hopes of locating the group. They even searched outside of the group’s usual home range. Unfortunately, they did see a poacher during one of the searches, but there is nothing to indicate that poaching had anything to do with the group’s disappearance. It did, however, prompt an anti-poaching sweep of the area to make it safe for gorillas and other animals.

It seems likely that the change in season could have something to do with the group’s disappearance. The Fossey Fund’s Gorilla Program coordinator Veronica Vecellio says, “Other gorilla groups are starting to move to the familiar bamboo zone, so maybe the Pablo group is looking for some undisturbed patch of bamboo somewhere else.” Silverback Cantsbee, the Pablo group leader, is known for ranging in areas where he is unlikely to have to defend his group from other silverbacks, since the group is large and probably a bit harder to manage during interactions than a small group.

Even with a team of as many as 28 trackers, it took field staff 13 days to find the group, but they were located at last on Oct. 11. Vecellio exclaimed, “That relieves us of a huge load of stress! The 35 gorillas are all well. The trackers did an amazing job in the last week looking everywhere up and down the mountains!”

Over the course of the search, Pablo’s team encountered silverback Inshuti and his only female, Shangaza. Both gorillas, even in their unusually small group of only two members, appear to be doing well.

Infant Turate not found

Turate and Pasika in 2012Turate, Pasika’s 3-year-old son, was not seen by trackers during their routine monitoring of Gushimira’s group on Oct. 10. Trackers always account for each gorilla’s presence in the group every day and were surprised when they could not find the infant. His mother, Pasika, was resting calmly with silverback Gushimira, which led field staff to believe that perhaps the infant was merely hidden in the vegetation to find shelter from the rain.

After hearing about the infant’s disappearance, Vecellio said, “We are trying to reconstruct with the trackers what could have happened. Is he missing or just not seen for some reason? Turate is not used to moving alone for long distances, but at the same time is a very independent young gorilla who could have moved some meters away from the other members of his group. The fact that his mother and the entire group were calm makes us assume that he is around somewhere.” Trackers also report that the infant was playing normally in the group the day before and showed no signs of being sick.

Gorillas have relatively high rates of infant mortality, but Turate is reaching the age, after weaning, where he is becoming more and more likely to survive and one day go on to lead his own group. Turate has already shown himself to be a survivor, living through a broken limb, the death of his father Urugamba, and two subsequent transfers between groups with his mother. Field staff were confident that they would find the infant in the group the next day, but unfortunately, again, there was no sign of him.

A special team of trackers was assembled to patrol the area to search for Turate. With so few mountain gorillas left in the Virungas, each individual is a critical member of the population, and painstaking efforts are taken to keep track of them, or in the worst cases, to document the cause of their disappearance. The search team looked for ravines and natural caves where the young gorilla might have fallen, traces of his movements, and any evidence of interactions that might explain his disappearance.

Vecellio says, “At this point our hopes of finding him alive are low, but we are still making all possible efforts to solve the mystery!” The entire field staff is concerned and upset by the loss of this young gorilla, who they have monitored through so many changes and challenges in his life thus far.

We are grateful to the Milton and Tamar Maltz Family Foundation, Oracle, Orange County Community Foundation, Turner Foundation, US Fish & Wildlife Service, and Gorilla Council members, as well as our sponsors, members and donors for their generous support of our protection and monitoring programs both in Rwanda and in Congo. We could not continue our work without the contributions from those who understand the importance of a daily presence in the forest to the survival of gorillas.