When a Gorilla Dies, a Troup Mourns
Written by Andria Teather, CEO, Jane Goodall Institute of Canada
When world-renown primatologist Dr. Jane Goodall sent her brief email to the director of the Cincinnati zoo, not only did she eloquently summarize the tragic death of the zoo’s silverback gorilla, she included a reference to the animals’ need to mourn in ways very like us when we grieve. “I feel so sorry for you, having to try to defend something which you may well disapprove of. …it is a devastating loss to the zoo, and to the gorillas. How did the others react? Are they allowed to see, and express grief, which seems to be so important.”
One would need to be living in the middle of a rainforest not to have heard of Harambe, the 17-year- old male gorilla who was shot and killed last Saturday after a four-year- old boy managed to slip through the barrier at the Cincinnati zoo’s Gorilla World exhibit.
Falling into a shallow moat, the child found himself face-to- face with the 200kg leader of a troop of western lowland gorillas standing on all fours looking down at him. As seen on footage taken on a mobile phone, Harambe turned the boy around, then dragged him through the water. The animal’s intentions were unclear, and, after approximately 10 tense minutes, a zoo employee shot and killed Harambe.
There is really no point in playing the blame game – is the zoo at fault? The parent of the little boy? However, we can learn something about animal behaviour, primates in particular.
Like us, many animals do grieve. Professor Gisela Kaplan, an animal behaviour expert with the University of New England, has been quoted observing that, “The death will have a vast impact on the entire troop. They’re like human families, you can’t replace Harambe with another male. There’s a sense of love and bonding and the entire troop will be destroyed.”
While more data on grieving among primates is needed, researchers are increasingly convinced that great apes mourn when one of their own dies.
Old Flo was the matriarch of the famous family of chimpanzees that made possible some of Dr. Goodall’s early observations of infant development and family relations. When Flo died in 1972, her youngest son, Flint, was unable to cope and died at the age of eight and a half, within one month of losing his mother.
Barbara J. King, a professor of anthropology at the College of William and Mary, spent two years studying how animals react to death.
She recounts an anecdote in which Bebe, a female gorilla at a Boston zoo suffering from advanced stages of cancer, was euthanized. Bobby had been her friend for many years and, upon seeing Bebe, tried to revive her by placing a piece of celery — Bebe’s favourite food — in her hand. Her lack of response conveyed something to Bobby and he began to wail and bang on the bars of the cage inconsolably.
Gorillas have also been known to “bury” their dead by covering the body with leaves.
To add to our despair at Harambe’s passing, populations of western lowland gorillas, found primarily in the Democratic Republic of Congo, have plummeted over the past two decades.
In 1994, researchers estimated that approximately 17,000 western lowland gorillas lived in what was then eastern Zaire. Since that time, these gentle giants have declined by 77% with less than 3,800 remaining. Two of the leading causes of their disappearance are commercial hunting and infectious diseases, such as the Ebola virus.
Moreover, nearly 80% of the losses occurred over the course of a single generation, a rate three times higher than required to declare an animal on the brink of extinction. Unless this trend can be reversed say experts, western lowland gorillas will be wiped out within the next five to 10 years.
Political instability and the Rwandan genocide have also contributed. The conflict caused thousands to flee to the forests of the DRC where militias and mines have been established. Mining activity in this area is highly lucrative especially for coltan, a key ingredient in the cell phones we use like the one that captured footage of Harambe.
It is not uncommon for mine workers and members of the militia groups to eat “bushmeat” and gorillas, large and non-aggressive, have proved easy targets.
The decline of gorillas and chimpanzees in the eastern DRC is why the Jane Goodall Institute is so active in the area supporting local villagers in finding alternatives to their dependence on the forests and the resources found in them.
Harambe represents more than the loss of a single animal and the impact on his troup. His death is all the more terrible because it highlights the gradual disappearance of his kind.
As we learn more about animals like Harambe, we discover that the divide between us and them does not run so deep after all. And we see with greater clarity how our actions affect them and how wildlife is impacted when we fell forests, pollute water sources or mine the landscape.
If the death of Harambe can teach us more about our genetic cousins, perhaps we can move towards more humane treatment of all animals wherever they live and exercise greater care over the fate of their homes.