The Makumba Group’s History

2000-2002

As the gorilla tracking tourist programme could not be based on one sole group, in 2000, the PHP teams started searching for a second group, building on their previous experience. By November 2000 a group of at least 8 individuals was located in an area adjacent to that of the Munye group.Makumba, the silverback of the current gorilla group open to tourists (Copyright by Angelique Todd) However, unlike the Munye group, it took just over 2 years before the teams could consistently follow them and know more of their home range. Not only did they express the usual fear reaction of unhabituated gorillas, but also follows were hampered by the existence of 2 other groups of similar size overlapping their home range. Gradually though, the teams began to differentiate them from other groups. This was particularly so for the silverback, subsequently named Makumba (“with speed” in the local BaAka language), reflecting the rapidity of his reactions towards human observers.

2003-2004
By 2003, the habituation teams were following the group daily and contact time with the group started to increase but sightings were still rare. Gradually the teams began to piece together the group’s composition, which at that time included Makumba, 4 females, 2 dependant infants, and 4 juveniles. As always, during the habituation process, accidents can happen. By 2004, overall the group was mostly ignoring the habituation teams. However Makumba was still displaying during contacts, characteristically charging to within 5m, and then dramatically lunging forward again. In April this reached its peak, and provoked by the scream of a female, Makumba bit one of the trackers. Fortunately the wound was not too severe Bokata in January, 2009 (Copyright by Angelique Todd)and the tracker was soon back to work. Soon after, the reason behind this increased aggression became apparent, 2 new infants had just been born, and Makumba was simply serving his role as protective father. After this event the teams backed off the group for a while to prevent further incident but by mid-year progress was once again being made. It was at this time, that the first habituated group, the Munye, disintegrated.

2005-2006

In 2005, Makumba started receiving tourists, with the understanding that the group had not quite reached full habituation. Throughout 2005 and 2006, the group of gradually became more habituated but it was during this period that the females really started to provoke the silverback to react. With the group frequently spread, it was relatively easy to make the mistake of stepping between a female and her male.
Malui with Mowane, the first western lowland gorilla birth to be observed in the wild (Copyright by Kate Bracewell)
In the beginning of 2006, a new infant, Bokata, was born to Mopambi but soon after a tragedy occurred. Mapopi, the almost 2-year old infant of Mopatapata was found injured and later died. The most likely scenario is that Mapopi fell from a tree but as the team only heard and not saw the event, one can never rule out excessive intentional or non-intentional aggression from another group member. The group stayed silent around the body for the rest of the day. Mopatapata tried putting the infant on her back, only to see him fall back down. The next day, still near the body, Makumba finally had to force the group away through his displays. Mopatapata left 2 months later. In July, Bombe, the most dominant female gave birth to Mobangi.

2007
In 2007, the number of interactions between the group and other males, increased dramatically. In particular there was an expansion of their range towards the south (Kongana) which proved unfortunate in terms of the ease of access to the group by tourists and film crews but also in terms of increased poaching pressure. It appears these males were especially attracted to Etefi, Makumba’s oldest daughter, then just classified as an adult female. In July, during one of these interactions, Etefi left the group and transferred to a solitary male. Although entirely natural, the habituation teams were understandably sad to see her leave. However, to their surprise, six days later she returned to the group following another interaction – obviously preferring family over her new male.

With Etefi still in the group, interactions with other males continued to occur throughout the year. Probably as a direct result, the group’s home range increased considerably (larger than any group ever recorded) - Makumba at all times aware of the need to protect his growing family and find ‘safe’ areas. It was during a time of peak interactions that Bombe, with the youngest and most vulnerable infant, and consequently a heightened need to be close to Makumba, was at her most defensive against the habituation teams. Her screams provoked some quite serious charges from Makumba but thankfully, though still vigilant of any genuine threats, he gradually stopped supporting Bombe’s unwarranted aggression. In fact, on a number of occasions Makumba even intervened during Bombe’s attempts at charging the team, blocking her path or herding her away.

In December, Malui (second in the female dominance hierarchy), gave birth to Mowane (nick-named Tembo by the trackers after the tree he was born in). This was the first western lowland gorilla birth to be observed in the wild. As witnessed before, Malui is a very calm and proficient mother, however her behaviour can sometimes be quite surprisingly. After only 2 days, she was putting Tembo on her back, a behaviour previously thought to occur much later.

The birth also came after the shortest inter-birth interval ever recorded for western gorillas (at 3 years 10 months), seemingly an overall trend for the Makumba group. If this length of interval was found to be typical for western gorillas, it would have important implications for their socio-ecology and conservation. Compared to mountain gorillas, inter-birth intervals have always been thought to be much longer for western gorillas due to higher levels of competition between females (based on their more frugivorous diet). However an alternative scenario could be that the increased quality of western gorilla diet balances out the increased competition, leading to a comparative birth rate. More data is needed, but this could indicate that western gorillas are able to recover from population crashes (eg. resulting from Ebola), more rapidly than previously thought.

Two weeks after the birth of Tembo, Silo, a sub-adult male, disappeared after an interaction. Whilst it is unusual for a sub-adult Silo, two weeks before he left the group (Copyright by Ollie Wearn)male to be accepted by another group male, transfers of young males to solitary males is not unheard of. However, since Silo had very much behaved as an integral part of the Makumba group, the habituation teams believe that Silo may have become a victim of his own insatiable curiosity, staying in proximity to the male without realising that his family had long-departed. Of course Makumba’s priority during the interaction would have been the protection of Tembo, moving away from the area as rapidly as possible. Interestingly, neither Makumba, nor any of other group member, ever showed any overt signs of missing Silo, but the habituation teams very much hope is alive and well.