From the depths of the roadside bushes, a big silverback gorilla emerges from the jungle. With the utmost confidence, he strides into the middle of the highway, claiming the area as his own. As the crew watches on in awe, there’s further movement in the nearby trees.
There are actually two distinct species of gorilla, differentiated according to their habitat range: eastern and western. Although they’re similar in appearance, member of the east African species have darker coats and grow larger than their western counterparts. However, they do share a tragic similarity.
Specifically, both species of gorilla are classified as “critically endangered” on the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s (IUCN’s) red list. Eastern gorillas are the species most at risk. According to a 2016 study quoted in the New York Times newspaper, fewer than 3,800 now survive in the wild.
Also called Grauer’s gorilla, the eastern species is native to forests in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) in Africa. Drastically reduced numbers of these animals are a result of human intervention. People are destroying the Eastern lowland gorilla’s habitat, but that’s not the only problem.
The DRC has experienced years of civil strife. Not only has this diminished the gorilla’s habitat, it has also relocated many of the local inhabitants. A hungry displaced population has turned, in part, to a ready source of available food: bushmeat.
Monkeys and great apes are a target for starving hunters and soldiers alike. The eastern gorilla is no exception. To further add to the human-ape conflict, gorillas love to eat plants during periods of regrowth. An easy source of such food is farmland.
Unfortunately, some of the raided farms are still active. Thus, the farmers see apes as a threat, and kill them. But plants are just part of a gorilla’s diet. They’re actually omnivorous, and eat both meat and plants, just as humans do.
Not only do gorillas eat bark, fruit, and leaves, they also supplement their diet with insects such as termites and ants. What’s more, their varied eating habits aren’t the only thing gorillas have in common with humans, either. Eastern gorillas are also social creatures just like us.
A troop of gorillas consists of anywhere from two to 30 primates led by an alpha male. Since the dominant animal’s coat changes to a shiny gray color as he ages, he’s commonly known as a silverback. The silverback is the strongest of the group, and his role is defending the family.
A film crew with BBC Earth had the good fortune to spend quality time with a silverback and his family up close. Gordon Buchanan, the team’s cameraman, was filming a documentary about the powerful ape. The resulting footage was uploaded to YouTube in December, 2017.
The gorilla’s name is Chimanuka, and over Buchanan’s time filming, he became close to the gentle giant. The video begins on a road cutting through the Congo’s jungles, where Chimanuka is waiting to cross. However, the silverback appears on edge.
The gorilla’s mood is likely to be a consequence of the trucks that trundle down the road before him. Buchanan reveals that many of the vehicles are loaded with charcoal. The gorillas’ habitat has shrunk as a direct result of the pursuit of mined resources such as this.
But Chimanuka isn’t worried about himself; he’s trying to cross with his family, and they’re his main concern. “If it was just him, he’d be fine,” Buchanan explains. “So he’s just waiting, nervously, for a quiet time to cross with his whole family.”
After a little over a quarter of an hour, the film crew intervenes on the gorilla’s behalf. Consenting to the team’s request, the charcoal trucks stop for the troop. Then Buchanan and his entourage capture the gorillas’ progress as they emerge from the forest.
Chimanuka is the first to cross, and he strides out boldly into the middle of the road. “Now, there you go, that’s confidence for you,” Buchanan narrates. Once he’s in place, the whole troop steps into the road, including Chimanuka’s now-motherless son, Marhale.
The silverback keeps a watchful eye on the stationary trucks until all the infants are across. “The boss,” Buchanan marvels, “showing us that despite there’s a road running through, this is still his jungle.” The cameraman is overwhelmed by Chimanuka’s majesty. “I love it,” he says.
When just one other ape remains, Chimanuka ceases his vigil and crosses, with the remaining gorilla close behind. It’s wonderful to see this protective side of such a powerful ape. Spending time with the troop has educated Buchanan on just how multifaceted gorillas can be.
“As a father you have to be lots of different things,” Buchanan told BBC Earth in January, 2016. “You have to be different things for different members of your family. The same goes for gorillas.” Chimanuka fulfils all those roles.
It seems Chimanuka is variously required, as the alpha male in his troop, to act as everything from leader, through group defender, to caring paternal figure. There’s little doubt, after looking at this and related BBC Earth clips, that this silverback ably fulfils all of these many and varied family roles.
Buchanan concludes that gorillas are eerily close to humans. “When you look at another primate eye to eye,” he confessed, “there’s something that’s very special about that. And unique, because so much of how they look and how they behave is similar to us.”