Gorilla breakthrough: Against all odds

The news that two gorillas born in captivity have bred in the wild marks a huge breakthrough in their struggle to survive. Ed Caesar explores the lives of these uniquely fascinating creatures

In 480BC, Hanno the Navigator, an explorer from ancient Carthage, was on the coast of what is now known as Sierra Leone. He came across a gathering he described as gorillai - Greek for "tribe of hairy women". The name stuck. In 1847, Thomas Staughton Savage, an American missionary to Liberia, named the western gorilla Troglodytes gorilla, and Hanno's slur on women was set in stone.

But if the Carthaginian's labelling of our nearest wild ancestors (gorillas share 98 per cent of our DNA) was unfair to the fairer sex, it was also unflattering to the great apes; they are awesome creatures.

They are also seriously endangered. Because their habitats have been destroyed, because they have been hunted so exhaustively, because of war, and logging, and the Ebola virus, some species are on the brink of extinction. From what was a population of millions, there are now between 50,000 and 100,000 gorillas in the wild in Africa. Of that number only around 600 mountain gorillas, and 2,500 eastern lowland gorillas remain.

For this reason, Monday's news, that two gorillas called Massabi and Koto, had bred in the wild, was greeted with joy. The two gorillas had been reintroduced into protected reserves in the Congo and Gabon along with 43 others by the John Aspinall Foundation, and they were only the second and the third re-habituated gorillas to have produced offspring. It was a small victory in a long war, but one worth celebrating.

Damien Aspinall, the head of the John Aspinall Foundation, has long been aware of the extraordinary charms of the gorilla. On his Kent farm, Aspinall has 88 gorillas, and the foundation that was founded by his late father has bred more gorillas in captivity than the rest of the world put together.

"What we are trying to protect," explains Aspinall, "is a species that in biological terms is barely separated from humans. Gorillas are the most closely related apes we have. It's a crime against nature that gorillas should be hunted to extinction. We're doing all we can to prevent that happening, but we are a tiny drop in a vast ocean."

In Western and Central Africa, there are two major species (although exact classification are debated). These are the western gorilla, found in Cameroon, the Central African Republic, Gabon, Congo, and Equitorial Guinea; and eastern gorilla, found in Zaire, Rwanda and Uganda.

These two classifications are then split into mountain and lowland gorillas. The mountainous variety, who now live in two isolated communities (one in the Virunga volcanoes and one in Uganda's Bwindi National Forest) live at 10,000ft or higher, and eat wild celery, thistle, bamboo and nettles.

The lowland gorilla lives in forests or swamps and has a slightly more eclectic diet, eating insects as well as plants. Massabi and Koto belong to this classification.

"This [success] is enormously important symbolically," Amos Courage, the director of the project, told The Independent. "These are not huge numbers, but they get across a very important message that the great apes are coming back to areas that were once theirs."

There is something in the physique of the gorilla that makes their plight peculiarly tragic. In the wild, an adult male can grow up to 185cm in height and 200kg in weight. In captivity, a male gorilla can weigh up to 270kg.

But gorillas are largely gentle, herbivorous creatures, who live in family groups of as many as 30. At the centre of that community is the silverback. He makes all the key decisions - leading the other gorillas to feeding sites and mediating in squabbles.

Other males start to leave their community from the age of about 11. They travel alone, or with other males, for one to five years, while they look for willing females with whom to breed, and start their own group. Gorillas under four stay with their mothers, but are often tended to by the silverback.

Having said that gorillas live a peaceful existence, one would not want to offend a silverback. The proud knuckle-dragger will fight to the death to protect his young, but only after he has terrified you with an awe-inspiring display of chest-beating, screaming and baring of teeth. Poachers with an eye to capturing a baby ape have often killed the silverback first.

Gorillas are fiercely intelligent. Some individuals in captivity, like Koko, who lives in a reserve in Hawaii, have been taught to use a form of sign language.

In the wild, gorillas' use of tools is widely documented. In footage caught last year, a female gorilla in the Republic of Congo could be seen using a stick to gauge the depth of water while crossing a swamp. In the same documentary, another female was filmed using rocks to smash open palm nuts; another uses a tree stump as a bridge.

"The biggest dangers to gorillas are destruction of habitat and the bushmeat trade," says Aspinall. "In any market in a village in those countries you can see gorilla skulls, gorilla hands, and gorilla meat.

"I've seen gorillas in the wild many times. It's something you never forget. What is even more incredible is seeing gorillas who have been brought up in captivity, who have been released into the wild.."

Given the shocking rate of decline in the Africa's gorilla population, the pleasure of seeing these creatures in the wild may be denied to future generations.

Gorillas by numbers

* Life expectancy of wild gorillas is 20-40 years.

* Estimates of the number of gorillas remaining in the wild vary between 50,000 and 100,000. There used to be many millions of gorillas in western Africa.

* There are roughly 600 mountain gorillas left in the wild.

* An adult male gorilla weighs between 68kg and 200kg. Females are half this.

* They live in communities of between five and 30.