Mountain gorillas embrace coalition politics to survive
October 16 BBC
The world's largest mountain gorilla group has embraced power-sharing
to secure its future.
Modern day politics might seem a long way from the forested slopes of
the Virunga volcanoes in Rwanda.
But on these slopes the largest group of mountain gorillas in the
world is now ruled by a coalition government.
The 46 strong group was featured in the BBC Two series Mountain
Gorilla, and since filming the BBC team has been following the animals'
progress via regular updates from the field.
The mighty 31-year-old silverback Cantsbee has led the group for 15
years and is one of the last gorillas known and named by the pioneer of
mountain gorilla research Dian Fossey. But it looks as if Cantsbee's
time as a great leader could be coming to an end.
Cantsbee has been followed since the day he was born.
Dian Fossey believed Cantsbee's mother was a male, until the female
gorilla gave birth. Upon seeing the tiny little baby, Fossey exclaimed,
"can't be," which led to his name.
This scientific monitoring of mountain gorillas started with Dian
Fossey but has continued for over 35 years.
It enables a fascinating window into their lives and also serves to
protect mountain gorillas as a species.
The gorillas are visited every single day of the year by researchers
and staff from the national parks.
The presence of these gorilla observers detracts poachers from
operating within the gorillas' home ranges.
It also means that veterinary monitoring and intervention are
possible, saving precious gorilla lives in a population that is very
close to the edge.
Researchers estimate that there are approximately 680 mountain
gorillas left in the world.
They live in two pockets of remaining habitat; the forests of Bwindi
National Park in Uganda and the Virunga volcanoes that span the borders
of Uganda, Rwanda and Democratic Republic of Congo.
Surrounding these two forest islands is one of the most densely
populated areas in Africa and the mountain gorillas' habitat has shrunk
fuelled by the growing demand for food by the ever increasing human
These forests are now heavily protected and carefully managed but
still gorillas fall victim to illegal snares and are susceptible to
human diseases that can prove fatal to a species whose immunity to even
the common cold has not developed.
Cantsbee and his group of 46 represent about 7% of the mountain
gorillas left in the world.
Every male gorilla's ultimate aim is to lead a group of their own but
the majority will never succeed.
Becoming a dominant silverback guarantees them access to females but
the responsibility for defence of the group also rests on their
During the BBC's six month period of filming, Cantsbee led his group
with great confidence.
He was supported by an especially large number of younger males; five
silverbacks and a further eight blackbacks who were yet to grow their
silver saddle of hair that develops at about 14 years of age.
Since the end of filming, and as Cantsbee has aged, he has relied
more and more on these other males to ensure group cohesiveness and
But until now his formidable strength has been enough of a deterrent
to rival males.
One of the younger silverbacks, Gicurasi, is 15 years old. At the age
of 31 Cantsbee is starting to look past his peak, whereas Gicurasi is in
Researchers have observed sexually active females showing attraction
to the young silverback. At the beginning of the year the group split
temporarily, and a few females opted to follow the younger silverback.
This subgroup, led by Gicurasi, always rejoined the main group after
one day of independent travel but these group splits represent a first
under Cantsbee's leadership.
Now it seems that the group has reached an equilibrium; Cantsbee had
allowed Gicurasi access to receptive females, which previously would
have been out of bounds. In return Cantsbee gets to keep the group
As researchers from the Dian Fossey Gorilla fund told the BBC, it
could be that: "Cantsbee finds it convenient to allow sexual
opportunities for the young male in order to ensure efficient
collaboration in protecting the group."
It is unclear if this power sharing between the two silverbacks will
work for any length of time - it could be the end of an era and
Cantsbee's time as the leader of the largest group in the world may be
drawing to a close.
For those that have followed him throughout his life it is hard not
to feel sad seeing him enter his twilight years. But for now the
coalition between the two males is an advantage for all group members.
They can make the most of the experience of the older leader and at
the same time benefit from the strength and protection of the younger
It could be that the largest group of mountain gorillas in the world
has found the best of both worlds.