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Remembrances of silverback Cantsbee

Legendary mountain gorilla silverback Cantsbee disappeared from his group in late February after showing signs of weakness. Despite massive searches by Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund staff, no trace of him was found. But on May 12, Fossey Fund trackers spotted a partially decomposed gorilla body in a river while on their daily patrols, and arranged for its removal and transport. Examination of the body and especially of the teeth have led Fossey Fund staff to conclude that this is the body of Cantsbee, although genetic analysis will still take place for final verification.

Cantsbee was 38 years old at the time of his death, past the general life expectancy for mountain gorillas. He was first seen – at birth — by Dian Fossey and has been observed throughout his life by succeeding staff of the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund. Cantsbee broke a lot of records during his life, including leading the largest group of gorillas ever observed, remaining dominant for the longest reign ever recorded, and siring the most offspring.

But in addition to these feats, Cantsbee is most known for his unique personality and behaviors, his strong relationships with other gorillas, and the respect shown by other gorillas for his leadership. Luckily, his genes and his influence will be felt for many more years in the gorillas of his group, says Fossey Fund gorilla program manager Veronica Vecellio. The group has since been taken over by his son, Gicurasi.

Silverback Cantsbee

A charismatic, strong but gentle leader

Cantsbee actually helped raise son Gicurasi, whose mother left the group while he was still young. “We saw him constantly grooming and playing with Gicurasi,” says Fossey Fund field data coordinator Francois Xavier Ndungutse (Conseiller), who has held this position with the Fossey Fund since 2004. “Cantsbee was caring and gentle to other gorillas, as well as to us human observers,” he adds. “He was a protective gorilla but he rarely entered fights, often protecting the females while another silverback was fighting. He was a real commander!”

Cantsbee’s son Gicurasi

Research assistant Didier Abavandimwe says: “I’ve known Cantsbee since 2009 and he rarely initiated conflicts. On the contrary, he used to end conflicts and was very peaceful. I was impressed by his long tenure as a dominant silverback in such a large group. He was an indisputable leader.”

Gorilla protection and monitoring officer Jean Pierre “Samedi” Mucyo recalls one episode in 2013, when Cantsbee broke up a fight between two other silverbacks. “I will never forget the day – Aug. 14, 2013,” he says. “When the two younger silverbacks were fighting, Cantsbee made it clear that the fight had to stop, without making any sound or antagonistic behavior. The youngest silverback then laid down with his face on the ground, as if asking for forgiveness. I’ve never see such a reaction to other gorillas – the authority of Cantsbee was amazing.”

We learned much from him

“Cantsbee will stay in our minds as one of the greatest protectors, leaders, fathers and teachers for his family, and also for us,” says Dr. Winnie Eckardt, Fossey Fund research manager in Rwanda. “He taught us about many extremes in gorilla life, such as that a group can hold 65 gorillas and be led by the same dominant silverback for 20 years!”

Dr. Jordi Galbany, research associate from the George Washington University, says he was surprised at Cantsbee’s activities in his elder years. “In these last years, Cantsbee surprised me a lot, because he demonstrated that he was still very strong, moving fast and often in the high-elevation areas.”

“We started learning from Cantsbee when Dian Fossey recorded his birth in 1978,” says Fossey Fund president and CEO/chief scientific officer, Dr. Tara Stoinski. “Cantsbee has been monitored and studied throughout his entire life and his legacy will live on among the gorillas, among all of us, and in the many important research studies that include him and his group over the years. I am grateful to all of our trackers, researchers and others who have protected and studied Cantsbee all these years. He touched all of our lives in the most wonderful way.”

An early photo of Cantsbee from the Fossey Fund archives

Support the Fossey Fund in honor of Cantsbee by clicking here.