Kingo: Immortalizing a Gorilla Legend

January 4, 2024

It is with heavy hearts that we share that Kingo, a silverback in the first group of habituated western lowland gorillas in the wild, has died at Nouabalé-Ndoki National Park in Republic of Congo. He was in his late 40s and was studied for much of his life as part of the Mondika-Goualougo Triangle Ape Projects.

Below is a reflection from GTAP founders Drs. David Morgan and Crickette Sanz, who believe Kingo taught humans a substantial amount about his species. Kingo had a long life (he was perhaps the longest-living documented western lowland gorilla in the wild) and was such a vital part of the Mondika program. He will be missed. 

Even by gorilla standards, Kingo was a physically impressive silverback, with massive arms and broad shoulders that powered his confident swagger through the dense forests of the Congo Basin. Despite his large size, he seemed to move effortlessly through the lush undergrowth that dominated his home range and fueled is daily existence.

On most days, he could be followed by tracking the brightly sienna-colored crown of hair that topped his head as he stooped under low hanging branches to dash from one food patch to the next. Awe-inspiring views were granted to those who had the privilege of seeing him heave himself up into the canopy of a 50-meter-tall tree to indulge in some ripe fruits or leaves. Generations of silverbacks have visited those same trees over hundreds of years, but it is unlikely that any were as successful in their tenure as Kingo.

Encountering Kingo

While mountain gorillas have enthralled the world since the 1960s, there had not been much information available on their western lowland gorilla (Gorilla gorilla gorilla) cousins. The elusive behavior of these great apes and formidable environmental conditions across large expanses of their distribution in Central Africa contributed to this delay in getting to know lowland gorillas.

It was not until decades later when the difficulties of accessing these areas eased that scientists began earnest attempts to habituate gorillas to human presence and observation in the Congo Basin. Most of the initial efforts were unsuccessful and led to speculation that the temperament of western lowland gorillas, combined with the challenges of working in these remote habitats, precluded them from ever accepting human observers.

Image courtesy of WCS 

The knowledge, patience, and effort of local indigenous people disproved these skeptics, however, and brought insights about western lowland gorillas to the rest of the world. A team of expert trackers working in a forest enclave known as the Djéké Triangle and a field station called Mondika introduced Kingo to science.

In the early phase of a mission to habituate gorillas to humans, the team identified a group of gorillas led by a male with a startling and unforgettable “bark” that he used in warning displays to ward off the approaching humans. The male became known by the name “Kingo Ya Bole,” a phrase meaning “he who has a loud voice” in the local language. Observations of Kingo and the other nine members of his group became less fleeting as they became accustomed to the humans, who politely announced their arrival each morning to the gorilla group and did their utmost not to disturb the gorillas’ daily routine of feeding, traveling, resting, and socializing.

The success of these efforts to follow Kingo’s group each day was truly a landmark accomplishment in furthering understanding of western lowland gorillas and how to conserve them.

A Different Kind of Gorilla

Over the last few decades, long-held assumptions of western lowland gorilla ecology and behavior have finally begun to subside as direct observations and daily follows of Kingo’s group and others in the region started to inform research. For example, many speculated that gorillas rarely climbed trees, when in fact, Kingo made use of the multi-dimensional forest from the ground to the emergent canopy stratum on a daily basis.

These gorillas climbed up the trees to forage and even constructed night nests in the forest canopy, similar to the chimpanzees that coexist with them in the same habitat. Further, detailed documentation of western lowland gorilla foraging behavior revealed that western lowland gorilla diets differ from mountain gorillas in a fundamental way. In addition to consuming huge amounts of herbaceous vegetation throughout the day, they regularly seek out and incorporate seasonally available fruit items.

Image courtesy of WCS

The patchily distributed fruiting trees also seem to have had an impact on their foraging strategies. For example, Kingo and his group showed goal-directed travel to particular trees bearing finite amounts of fruit. He did not randomly or aimlessly travel to find foods, but rather had a heightened spatial awareness of where food resources were located and returned to them year after year.

These frugivorous dietary tendencies also impacted gorilla social dynamics. Over the course of two decades, Kingo was found to have not only strong social bonds within his group, but also extended social networks with other gorillas across the landscape. These findings shattered any notion of gorillas being asocial and replaced such caricatures with those of attentive and socially engaged great apes.

Similar to his mountain gorilla counterparts, Kingo also revealed that the daily life of western lowland gorillas is punctuated by regular breaks to rest and digest. It was remarkable to watch how a silverback could stop, drop, and lay flat on his back in one continuous movement. After having reclined, Kingo would then raise his legs, cross his feet, and doze off while his group members gathered around and followed suit. That is, with the exception of his many offspring, who took the opportunity to play around, next to, and even on top of the gorilla mountain that was Kingo, their likely father.

Kingo as Protector

Such quiet moments could almost lead one to forget what a formidable group protector and dominant force Kingo could be in defending his group. It was during one of these midday siestas that a solitary rival male gorilla approached the group. The lone male had been shadowing the group for days—likely looking to lure one of Kingo’s females away or inflict injury to Kingo during a window of vulnerability.

In a sudden burst, the lone male rushed through the underbrush, screaming and heading towards Kingo, who was sleeping on the ground in the center of his group. While hurtling forward at full speed, though, the lone male was stopped in his tracks by Kingo’s electric speed. Kingo arose to his full height in front of the charging gorilla and immediately reversed the dynamic by chasing the intruder from the clearing.

Other risks to gorillas in these forests include predation attempts by leopards. Since early 2000, there have been at least two such attacks. One ambush happened in the early morning hours near the area where the gorilla group nested for the night and led to the eventual death of one of Kingo’s offspring, who was mortally wounded. The other was likely to have been in a direct conflict with a leopard that left Kingo bearing a scar from a razor-sharp claw that ran down the right side of his face.

Dangerous encounters also occurred with venomous snakes. During a daily follow of the group, observers noted that Kingo was first to detect a deadly Gabon viper traveling through the underbrush. He instantly sprang to his feet and forcibly “herded” his group members a safe distance away from the snake. The researchers tried to maneuver around and record the sudden event, and it was at that moment (to their astonishment) that Kingo focused his attention on them. He began to drive the researchers away from the serpent as if to protect his human followers!

Kingo and the Future of Conservation in the Sangha Trinational Complex

Similarly, the local communities have shown a protective role in safeguarding wildlife and forests, including Kingo’s home, for more than three decades. Over the years, these efforts have expanded to include national leaders from other parts of Congo, scientists, and institutions from around the world, who have engaged in an unprecedented collaboration to conserve this special landscape and the biodiversity within.

In the late 1970s, Kingo was born into a pristine “frontier” forest that spanned the international border between the Central African Republic (CAR) and Republic of Congo (ROC). It was exactly this type of remote forest and megafauna (like elephants and gorillas) that were rapidly disappearing, as more interior regions and wildlife became accessible with the exploitation of highly marketable timber. In fact, the young Kingo ranged in the newly delineated Kabo logging concession on the ROC side, where selective logging had just been undertaken in the south. This development by humans was planned to eventually reach his range.

Meanwhile, to the north in CAR, similar pressures from the forestry industry were making fast inroads. Progressive thinking by conservationists resulted in the creation of the Ndoki National Park in the CAR, which was followed by the designation of the Nouabalé-Ndoki National Park in the ROC side in the early 1990s. These areas were recognized as crucial protected areas when the Sangha Trinational Complex was granted World Heritage status in 2012.

Throughout his lifetime, Kingo regularly crossed an international border and traversed zones allocated for protection and timber exploitation. Here again, a long-term commitment and collaboration between the Wildlife Conservation Society, governments, and local partners including the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC)-certified CIB-OLAM logging company this threat by classifying the intact forests of the Djéké Triangle as a conservation set-aside, decreasing the risk of timber exploitation as part of sustainable forestry.

It also fostered conditions for continued gorilla research and expanded biodiversity monitoring at the Mondika field station. In fact, information from the Mondika site and ongoing research on the gorilla groups would prove important in lobbying for of the Djéké Triangle through inclusion to the Nouabale-Ndoki National Park in 2023.

While Kingo was not aware of the broader impacts of the acceptance of humans into his daily life, the synthesis of these actions has been met by further economic and conservation opportunities aimed at developing international and domestic tourism featuring habituated gorilla groups while aspiring to benefit local human populations. Future tourists will not have the opportunity to come to know Kingo firsthand, but they will likely meet his children and grandchildren in the groups that live in these same forests, which are now protected.

When Kingo and his group members opened their social lives and forest world to scientists over two decades ago, they not only provided the first detailed insights into western gorilla behavior and ecology, but set a foundation for raising local and international awareness about their plight for survival and keys to addressing the conservation threats they face.

More than a dozen documentaries and nearly 50 scientific articles have featured insights from Kingo’s life; some were just recently published following his death. While it is hoped that the local and global community’s grief for this loss will subside with time, it is clear that Kingo’s legacy and impact will live on for years to come.

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