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By Diane Small
Gorillas have long been associated with violence, brute force, and stupidity. However, the reality is completely different. These animals are shy, gentle giants, who exist on a vegetarian diet and would never harm anyone or anything unless provoked.
The largest members of the primate family, they are closely related to humans, with 98% of their DNA identical to ours. Unlike other primates they are terrestrial, meaning they do not climb trees and are land dwelling, inhabiting the tropical rainforests of central Africa.
In the wild, their only predators are leopards, which can attack vulnerable youngsters, but the biggest threat to gorillas by far is man. In recent decades gorilla populations have been affected by habitat loss, disease and mainly poaching, principally for bush meat. As a result, all gorilla species are classified as endangered by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN). Due to the remote areas they live in, is difficult to monitor and protect gorilla populations, however, eco tourism such as packages like these to Rwanda, are certainly helping conservation efforts.
Gorillas don’t have the vocal chords and physical characteristics necessary to produce speech, but they are capable of learning sign language,and indeed, can be quite creative with it: Koko the gorilla, who was born and raised in the San Francisco Zoo, for example, was taught sign language as a baby, and would quite logically call rings ‘finger bracelets’ and named her kitten ‘All Ball’ because she resembled a ball of fluff. When All Ball died, Koko signed the words for ‘bad’ and ‘sad’, and the word for ‘cry’, as she traced tears down her cheeks with her fingers (gorillas have no tear ducts so can’t actually cry).
But are emotions the sole preserve of humans, as some argue, or do other animals feel joy and sadness as we do? It’s hard to look at the images of two gorilla brothers at Longleat Safari Park without thinking that they do. Kesho and Alf, two brothers, were reunited after three years apart. Kesho, the elder by four years, had since become a silverback, and is now about double the size of his younger sibling; but the two knew and greeted each other instantly, with hugs and backslaps, in an absolutely human way.
In fact, examples of human-like emotion are common among great apes. In 2008, Gana, an 11-year-old female gorilla at Munster zoo, was photographed carrying the limp body of her dead son Claudio around with her for three days, apparently unable to accept his death. Last year similar shots emerged of Ruzuzi, a wild gorilla in a Congo national park, seemingly grieving for her baby, keeping it with her for a week. Chimpanzees have also been seen reacting in extremely human-like ways to the death of a relative. Yet some still doubt that such beings deserve to be thought of as more than ‘just’ an animal, claiming that we cannot know if animals can really rationalise, think, or emote. Some even claim that we project our human feelings onto animals.
We believe that Jeremy Bentham, the utilitarian philosopher, put it best when he asked: “The question is not, Can they reason? nor, Can they talk? but, Can they suffer?”
We have no doubt that gorillas and other animals do suffer indeed, and so we urge their protection through donating 10% of our profits at Eluxe to animal conservation. You can also help save the gorilla by clicking here.
All images: Wikicommons