The Munye, First Group of Western Gorillas to be Habituated at Bai Hokou

The Munye group (meaning “good thing” in the BaAka language), became well-known in the six years they were followed by the Primate Habituation Programme team (1998-2004). When first contacted, the group consisted of the silverback, Mlima (“mountain” in Swahili), four adult females, two infants, and possibly a sub-adult black back male. They were a group in its prime, ranging close to camp, which greatly aided the initial habituation efforts. At first Mlima tried to discourage the PHP’s approaches with impressive charges, but gradually over the years the team earned his trust and were allowed to gain intimate knowledge on the daily life of his family.

Mlima charging the habituation team (Copyright by Chloe Cipolletta) Mlima in Bai Hokou next to camp (Copyright by Chloe Cipolletta)

The group however, was not without its history. In November 1999, the team found Mlima severely wounded. He had lost two of his females, one with a still dependant infant. The evidence suggested that a leopard, or perhaps another silverback, had attacked in the night. Fortunately, Mlima slowly recovered but two months later, a third female departed, leaving Mlima, his sole female, Matata (“problem” in Swahili), and their infant, Ndimbelimbe (named after a local herb).

During the next years, Mlima appeared to be searching for new females, extending his known home range. His efforts paid off in May 2000 when he acquired a female, Elele (“ciacada”). Unfortunately Elele never seemed to establish herself within the group and emigrated just 2 months after. By the end of 2001, the programme’s goal was finally achieved and the PHP successfully opened the group to tourists. In late 2002, the group unexpectedly ‘disappeared’, the PHP teams searched in vain, thinking the worst. Finally, after almost 2 months, they were relocated north of their previous home range, and from that point on the teams never lost sight of the group again. In April 2003, with Ndimbelimbe growing in confidence daily, Matata transferred to another group, leaving the father and son to roam alone. Thus, through entirely natural events, the original group of 8 was now reduced to 2: the team were beginning to learn that life for a silverback in the wild is not always so easy.

A researcher filming Mlima in the bai (Copyright by Chloe Cipolletta) Ndimbelimbe at 6 years old (Copyright by Chloe Cipolletta)

After Matata transferred, Mlima extended his home range dramatically, his hoots echoing across the forest, whether in search of Matata or for new females is unsure. By 2004, at perhaps 30 years old, tired, and likely blind in one eye (stemming from the earlier encounter in 1999), Mlima seemed at the end of his reproductive life. Yet unexpectedly mid-year he regained his previously magnificent form and acquired a new female named Samba (“second wife” in the local Sango language). At first, Samba was timid, not only towards Mlima’s approaches, but also towards the PHP team, however with time she seemingly accepted her new family and associates. Unfortunately this idyllic life was short-lived, one month later, instead of encountering the Munye at their nests, the PHP team was faced with an agitated, unknown male. The following day, after extensive searches, Mlima was found mortally wounded; he died later that evening.

In attempting to defend and retain his newly-won female, Mlima had succumbed to a stronger male. Samba was never seen again but Ndimbelimbe returned to Bai Hokou camp over Christmas 2004, feeding extensively in the bai adjacent. Unfortunately he too was wounded, with an unusable arm, but at least he had survived. The team attempted to follow him but eventually had to give up: not yet having the full weight of an adult, he left few knuckle-pints to follow. Young and alone it is unlikely that he survived, but the team can never be certain.

Ndimbelimbe, when he returned close to camp in December 2004 (Copyright by Chloe Cipolletta)

Despite this group’s long history of natural, yet tragic events, the PHP, the scientific community (See Published Articles on Previous Research at Dzanga-Sangha: Cipolletta 1999, 2003, 2004, Cipolletta et al, 2007, Todd et al., 2008) and a multitude of visitors learnt much from the Munye. During its time, over 400 tourists visited the group, with their international fame further enhanced by their appearance in 4 major TV documentaries. In conclusion, the strength and yet gentility of Mlima inspired many who had the chance to know him, and the PHP is forever grateful to him for allowing us this honour.