A tragic tale of two gorillas

On the second floor of the Finnish Natural History Museum, a female gorilla gazes mournfully at the visitors filing past her. Until very recently, her story remained untold. As it turns out, she is one of Dian Fossey’s “gorillas in the mist”.

Here is how her story begins: in 1969, the Rwandan government decided to sell two gorillas to the zoo in Cologne, then West Germany. Dian Fossey, the American primatologist and conservationist, who was working in Rwanda at the time, was vociferous in her opposition to this plan.

The sale went ahead, despite Fossey’s objections. In the 1960s, international law still permitted the capture and sale of wild animals to zoos. The capture of the two infant female gorillas cost the lives of two entire mountain gorilla family groups.

In order to give the baby gorillas a chance of survival, Fossey agreed to nurse them through their infancy. The babies thrived in her care, growing into healthy young gorillas. A bitterly sad separation followed, as the gorillas, now known as Coco and Pucker, were handed over to the German zoo for which they had originally been captured.

”Words cannot begin to express the pain I felt on losing them”

At the zoo, despite the pair apparently receiving the best care available, they would live for just nine years before succumbing to bacterial infections within a few months of each other, in 1978.

It is thought that their susceptibility to infection was due to a severely weakened immune system, and even the best efforts of the zoo’s veterinarians were not enough to save their lives. The congenital immune deficiency that Coco and Pucker, along with many others of their species, suffered from has been attributed to the high degree of inbreeding among gorilla populations.

In the wild, where gorillas can live to 35–40 years of age, female gorillas do not start breeding until age seven or eight and often don’t produce their first offspring until around 10 years of age.

Remains transferred to Helsinki

During her autopsy, the head and skin of Coco, the first of the two gorillas to die, were removed. With Pucker, the decision was made to preserve her body intact. The remains of both animals were then handed over to the Zoological Research Museum Alexander Koenig in Bonn.

At the time, the museum had close links with the University of Helsinki’s Zoological Museum and, it was through an exchange of animal specimens between the two institutions that the remains of the two gorillas, forcibly taken from their home in the misty Virunga Mountains, finally ended up in the Finnish capital, Helsinki.

Since 1985, Pucker has appeared on public display in the Zoological Museum’s permanent exhibition, as part of a display on gorillas that highlights their precarious existence on the edge of extinction. In the diorama, she stands in a pose not dissimilar to those seen in Robert Campbell’s famous photographs published in the National Geographic. The Finnish Zoological Museum collection also comprises Pucker’s complete skeleton as well as Coco’s skeleton and skin.

The same year Pucker was placed on display in Helsinki, Dian Fossey was murdered at her camp in the Virunga Mountains. It is thought that she was killed by poachers, although no one has ever been convicted of her murder. Fossey was buried in the mountains next to Digit, her favourite mountain gorilla, in a spot where many murdered gorillas have been laid to rest.

Good news for gorillas

It now seems that the deaths of Dian Fossey and countless gorillas were ultimately not in vain. May 2018 saw the publication of the latest joint gorilla population census conducted by the governments of Rwanda, Uganda and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. The results show that the number of mountain gorillas living in the wild has risen above 1,000. More than 600 gorillas live in the Virunga Mountains alone, with the rest found in the Bwindi National Park in neighbouring Uganda.

Despite this encouraging rise in their numbers, mountain gorillas remain under immediate threat of extinction. Their perilous situation is made worse by the fact that their habitats overlap one of the most densely populated areas anywhere on the African continent.

The Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund employs wardens that work as de facto bodyguards for the gorillas. However, climate change and habitat loss are now fast overtaking poaching as the number one risk they face.

For now, however, the most important message is that there is still hope for our closest living relatives and conservation efforts to secure their future remain very much ongoing.
 

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