Jo Plumridge has worked as a photographer across a variety of genres, but she maintains a love for wildlife photography in particular. Early in her career she worked as the park photographer on a small nature reserve in Botswana, Africa, where she spent her days photographing and interacting with the residents of the park. We look to Jo for insight on the wild animals that we share out planet with.
When I was just starting my photography career 15 or so years ago, my first job was working as a photographer on a nature reserve in Botswana, Africa. The reserve included a sanctuary with orphaned and injured animals, and I built incredibly strong bonds with many of them. Unfortunately I didn’t get an opportunity to work with gorillas; although the species is found in a number of African nations, Botswana is not one of them. And so when Shutterstock asked me to do some digging on a few of the gorillas in its collection, I was intrigued.
So often we see photographs of beautiful beasts — elephants, leopards, polar bears — without knowing anything about the animals. In my research, I discovered that wild gorillas live for about 40 years, although the oldest captive gorilla lived until 54. They display many human-like behaviors and emotions, such as laughter and sadness, and even make their own tools to survive in the forest.
But, like so many animals, they are endangered in the wild. Western lowland gorillas are faring the best — there are thought to be 100,000 of them in the wild, with 4,000 in zoos, according to the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF). Eastern lowland gorillas, however, are more rare with 5,000 in the wild and 24 in captivity. Mountain gorillas are the most severely endangered, with an estimated population of about 880 left in the wild and none in zoos.
Fortunately, animal reserves, zoos, and parks around the world are dedicated to saving gorillas. I approached a few of these locations to learn about their gorillas, and also spoke with professional wildlife photographer Andrey Gudkov about working with these amazing animals.
Mjukuu from the London Zoo in England
First stop: London Zoo in England, where a beautiful female gorilla named Mjukuu (“grandchild” in Swahili) resides. Mjukuu is a full-grown adult western lowland gorilla born in 1999 at Chessington Zoo, also in the London area. She joined the Zoological Society of London (ZSL) in 2008. I spoke to Teague Stubbington, assistant curator of mammals and one of Mjukuu’s keepers, about Mjukuu:
Mjukuu is one of six gorillas at ZSL, who all live as one troop. They are led by the alpha male, 19-year-old Kumbuka. This is Kumbuka’s first group that he’s led as a silverback and he’s settled into the role well. He has two offspring: His first, a daughter named Alika, was born to Mjukuu in 2014. A year later his son, Gernot, was born to adult female gorilla Effie. Kumbuka’s grandmother, Zaire, is also part of the troop.
Mjukuu often looks after Gernot, the male infant, as per gorilla custom; it’s normal for adult gorillas to help care for other offspring in their troop. The two mums and infants all love to cuddle and play together and have formed an astonishing bond.
“As with humans, gorillas all have their own unique personalities,” says Stubbington. “It takes time for the keepers to understand their individual characteristics, but those of us who have had the privilege of caring for great apes are accustomed to tailoring our care regimes to account for each of their personality traits.”
And also like humans, some relationships start off like you’ve known each other all your life, Stubbington continues. “Others might be naturally introverted and benefit from their own space, and take a little more time when learning new things or changing environment. Mjukuu, for example, is a very intelligent gorilla who likes to be at the center of everything, caring for the younger members of the troop while also keeping Kumbuka in line. She doesn’t tend to need much contact from her keepers — unlike Zaire and Kumbuka for example, who would happily have familiar people around all day. That’s not to say that Mjukuu doesn’t have a funny side — I’ve spotted her playing around, especially with [the] kids!”
Mjukuu’s likes and dislikes
- Loves basking in the warm shade with a belly full of food, surrounded by her fellow gorillas.
- Loves the relaxing environment that ZSL works really hard to create.
- Loves fresh “browse” (leafy foliage).
- Hates snow but fortunately, being in Central London, this isn’t very often a problem!
Mjukuu’s relationship with Stubbington
“My very first day working with ZSL’s gorillas was as a volunteer keeper in 1996. I was really lucky to have the opportunity to work with such iconic animals right from day one. They even get a say in who looks after them — because if they don’t like a particular keeper for whatever reason, they tend to make it fairly obvious!” Stubbington says.
“With Mjukuu, I think we share a good level of understanding for each other and I respect her need to be the social ‘hub’ of our gorilla troop. I see my job as making sure she’s well looked-after and equipped to fulfill her natural calling. Watching Mjukuu raise the children is particularly special.”
Stubbington, who’s spent the past 20 years as a keeper at ZSL, has learned a lot about each gorilla’s characters and how they express themselves. “Watching the social interactions develop amongst our troop is a real privilege and makes me feel very lucky to do this job,” he says.
ZSL operates field-conservation programs in more than 50 countries worldwide, including a long-established project in Cameroon to preserve crucial forest habitats and address the many threats facing the iconic species that call these landscapes home, including the western lowland gorilla.
Kibali from the Taronga Zoo
Next stop, Taronga Zoo in Sydney, Australia. Taronga is home to Kibali, a 16-year-old male silverback gorilla. Kibali was born in La Vallée des Singes, France in 2001, where he continued to live before being moved to Sydney in 2012.
Kibali is the leader of a pack of six gorillas. There are three adult females and two offspring — Mbeli (mother of another gorilla named Mjukuu), Frala (mother of Fabumi) and Johari. The gorillas all live together and are never separated, so that they can assimilate with each other in this “natural” grouping.
Kibali is extremely gentle and very tame. He is young and continually learning the skills and the ways of the silverback. He behaves fairly well with the females, although Mbeli is his favorite female. His relationship with Johari is still developing, and the keepers hope they will develop a stronger relationship as time progresses (and perhaps even have a baby in the future). Kibali also loves playing with both his young sons.
Kibali’s likes and dislikes
- Loves spending most of his time inside the gorilla house.
- Loves interacting with his keepers and participating in training.
- Dislikes being locked out in the enclosure for long periods of time.
- Hates the vets, who he can recognize from a mile away!
Kibali’s relationship with his keepers
All of the primate keepers at Taronga work closely with Kibali and have an excellent relationship with him. He is gentle and has learned to trust them completely.
Ambam from the Howletts Animal Park
My last zoo is actually a safari park with two sites: Howletts and Port Lympne, both located in England. Port Lympne is home to 21 gorillas including Ambam, a 27-year-old male western lowland gorilla whose claim to fame is his preference for walking upright like a human.
Ambam was born at Howletts in 1990 to mother Shamba and father Bitam. Poor Ambam was very ill during his first year, and therefore had to be hand-reared by a keeper, says head gorilla keeper Phil Ridges.
Ambam’s family group
After Ambam was hand-reared, he was introduced to a group of other hand-reared gorillas. When he was seven, he and some of the other males moved to Port Lympne to form a bachelor group. He’s been a bachelor ever since, although his keepers hope he will have a family one day.
“Ambam has a laid-back nature and isn’t easily fazed, making him one of the calmest gorillas we have at Port Lympne. A few years ago he became a YouTube sensation when a video was posted of him walking upright like a human. All gorillas can walk just using their legs, but Ambam is able to stand and walk vertically,” says Ridges. “This trait seems to run in the family, as his sister can do it too. They do it to gain a height advantage to reach things or if their hands are full, as it makes it easier to move around. When standing fully erect he’s about 5’9″. Being a viral megastar meant that he attracted a lot of admirers all wanting to see his famous walk!”
Ambam’s likes and dislikes
- Loves his food and is usually the first to finish his dinner at the end of the day.
- Loves standing erect and walking upright like a human.
- Hates waiting for meals, and can be intimidating when he’s not happy.
Ambam’s relationship with Ridges
“I’ve known Ambam all his life and have had the privilege of going in with him (spending time in his enclosure) on many occasions. He was one of the gentler gorillas I’ve been in with; he preferred to sit calmly, as opposed to rough play which most of the other gorillas like.”
Lessons From Andrey Gudkov, Wildlife Photographer
These magnificent animals are clearly unique individuals, with their own personalities and characteristics. Russian wildlife photographer Andrey Gudkov has worked to capture those traits through his lens for more than two decades. He shared some of his observations and tips for photographing gorillas.
Gudkov has spent a lot of time working with the gorillas at Uganda’s Bwindi Forest National Park since first visiting in 2005. “I knew nothing about gorillas, apart from having read Dian Fossey’s novel Gorillas In the Mist. I had no experience of photographing gorillas, but I wanted to document them. As I spent more time in the park, I met many families of mountain gorillas and spent many, many hours photographing them,” says Gudkov.
He would spend upwards of an hour at a time with a family of gorillas, working with male silverbacks, females with babies and groups of young gorillas. It’s through this work that Gudkov came to be accepted by his photo subjects. “You need time, patience, and accuracy to be accepted by a group of gorillas,” says Gudkov. “I had a case where youngsters were playing at my feet and the mothers didn’t express signs of concern and were, in fact, almost indifferent. I approached an alpha male and was within arm’s length of him, and he accepted my presence. On the flip side, the loud laughter of a group of visitors provoked some hostility in a male gorilla, so care must always be taken.”
“Gorillas are very similar to humans. They have a huge range of emotions and the way they behave in a group and as individuals is very similar to human society,” the photographer continues.
Meeting a group of gorillas requires some level of decorum; after all, you are a guest in their house. Amateur and professional photographers who’d like to photograph these animals would do well to heed some of Gudkov’s advice:
- Don’t make any sharp or sudden movements.
- Don’t stare an alpha male in the face.
- Don’t take away food from a gorilla.
- Don’t try to touch the children.
- Sit quietly with the group so you can observe them and they you.
- Use gentle sign language as indicated by your guides.