• Susan Hammons Photography

Featured: Critically Endangered Western Lowland Gorilla (Silverback)

Western Lowland Gorilla often referred to as a "Silverback."

Jump in your car and head to the airport. Destination: Central Africa in Angola, Cameroon, Central African Republic, Republic of the Congo, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Equatorial Guinea, and Gabon. Wildlife seeking: The Western Lowland Gorilla.

The Western Lowland Gorilla is often referred to as the Silverback and this animal is among my favorite to observe and photograph. Countless hours watching this majestic animal and lends itself to patience and a better understanding into their world.

Photographing wildlife is one of the most amazing jobs you can have when you are out in the field, either by yourself or with a group of people, watching, analyzing, and learning about wildlife. It provides time for reflection, thinking, and second guessing so you are ready for potentially the next shot that might come. It is also full of decision making, that sometimes requires split second decisions. Where to move, which lens to use for closeup or further away to catch the terrain, when to shoot and capture the moment or when to be patient and wait. It is also jam-packed with learning as you observe first-hand wildlife in their environment.

From my experience, three keys to wildlife photography stand out in my mind. First, photographing wildlife requires patience. PATIENCE is key. A wild animal is just that....simply wild. They function within their own world and do things on their own time. Working with wild animals is difficult in the sense that you operate on their time. You wait and wait simply because you cannot pose them or bribe them into striking the pose you

want. You cannot get them to move into better light or into an area that the background would look for a more aesthetically pleasing picture. And, so you WAIT, WAIT, WAIT, and WAIT some more. And, when you are done waiting, you must wait some more. You must be prepared to wait to get good images and sometimes you can wait forever that lead into days, weeks, or years, for that one outstanding shot.

While you are waiting, another key to wildlife photography is PREPARATION. Be ready because at any given moment the action can begin whether it is a chase, an argument among themselves, a really cute facial expression, or an interesting look, a distraction, an intruder into their territory, etc.. Be ready. Preparation also includes having the right camera equipment and gear and planned for and prepared your equipment before you go out into the field to actually photograph wildlife. You should think about: What do you need to be prepared with in order to wait, and wait. What camera equipment do you need to shoot with?

In shooting wildlife, a telephoto lens is a must; do you have on or can you rent one? Additional lenses are also recommended in case you can safely move in closer without disturbing the animal or need a lens that shoots wide angle. Backup battery equipment is recommended also since you will be waiting and waiting and waiting. Additional memory cards are a must too; nothing worse than being in the field and having a memory card suddenly fill up or go bad.

Don't forget your tripod or the type of camera mounting system you will need and be using (from the car or setting up in the terrain you will be in outside). Preparation also includes planning for the environment and terrain and what type of equipment and gear do you need to protect your gear AND yourself from the elements (backpack, walking stick, waterproof bag, camera rain covers, thick camera sleeves, waterproof camera housing, hood lens, rain jacket, cap,umbrella, bug spray, sunscreen, be careful with snack for obvious reasons depending upon what you are shooting and what could be attracted to the scent in the area, etc.).

RESEARCH. Get to know the animal you are looking for to photograph and it's behavior. When are you more likely to see it? Early morning? Evening? Is the animal skittish? Or can it be found out in the open without a care? What does it eat? What is it's preferred habitat and where can it be found? All of these things will become apparent to you once you start to spend time observing and photographing them on a regular basis. For example, if you were to go and shoot the Western Lowland Gorilla, it is helpful to know the following information:


The Western Lowland Gorilla is the largest of all the primates. They have distinguishing features such as large heads, small ears, pronounced brow ridges, muscular necks, broad shoulders, long arms, strong hands and feet. The average Western Lowland Gorilla stands 4-6 feet high and can weight anywhere between 150 to 400 pounds.


Like many animals, the Western Lowland Gorilla's live in communities or troops of 30 individuals.

These communities or troops then split off into small families of 4-8 members with typically a dominate, mature, single male gorilla who protects the family structure of several unrelated female gorillas and infants. The gorillas are social creatures and depend on each other to survive. The strongest bond forged in the family is formed between the dominant male and his female. That bond, as you will read, is essential in the reproduction in his community.

The Silverback, as leader of his family, regulates the schedule of his family for eating and

nesting. The home range, they travel within, can be anywhere between 3/4 to 16 miles. Most will spend several hours throughout the morning eating. Midday, the Western Lowland Gorillas can be found taking a break with the adults napping and the youngsters playing. The family will return to eating again, before nightfall, and then will nest and sleep for the night. Western Lowland Gorillas have been found to make up to 25 different vocalizations, with each having it's own meaning for grunts, hoots, barks, laughs, and screams as they communicate with each other.

Competing Gorilla Groups

Because Western Lowland Gorillas are shy, peaceful, non-aggressive animals there typically is no conflict between other Silverbacks and their families that have overlapping territories. In cases, were the male gorilla is threatened, he will do everything possible to scare off the trespasser or predator. He will put on an elaborate display of chest beating, running sideways, vocalizations, and even tearing up vegetation to show his dominance and scare off a trespasser or other male. Female gorillas allow the head male gorilla to handle the situation and only become aggressive if and when they are defending their infants. Every once in awhile they become aggressive while helping each others deal with rowdy, young, adult male gorillas. If needed, when squabbles begin, the Silverback will step in as the peacekeeper and intervene to calm the situation down.

Life Cycle & Babies

Western Lowland Gorillas live approximately 30 to 40 years in the wild; and, 40 to 60 years in captivity. While normally quiet animals, during mating time gorillas can be quite loud. Western Lowland Gorillas mate less often in comparison to other great apes. Only the dominate male, the Silverback, is allowed to mate with the adult females in his group. The reproductive success of males depends upon the relationship and permanent bond he forms with the females in his family. The formation of the permanent bond with the females keeps the females from leaving the group or even mating with another male. When a baby gorilla is born into the family, at about 9 or 10 weeks of age, the baby gorilla will begin to crawl and then soon begin to walk on all four limbs.

At about the same time the baby gorilla begins to walk, a white patch appears on the baby's bottom which helps the mother gorilla keep track of the baby and assist other group members in identifying the gorilla as a baby or infant. The white patch on the baby's bottom begins to disappear approximately at about 3 years of age, about they time they are being weaned. When a male is born into the family, he will remain with his family until approximately 12 years of age and then he will begin to go off and try and attract other females from other groups to form his own group. Females will remain with their family until about the age of 8 or 9 years of age, and then they will join an unrelated solitary male to form an unrelated group.

Habitat & Diet

The Western Lowland Gorillas can be found living in tropical rainforests spread throughout six countries across west equatorial Africa including Cameroon, Central African Republic, Congo and Equatorial Guinea, Gabon, and Southeast Nigeria. A gorillas diet consists mainly of fruits, leaves, and stems. Approximately 67% of their diet is fruit and 17% is seeds, leaves, stems, and pulp. Gorillas prefer the sweeter sugary fruits and pulp. Their diet is rounded out with additional items such as insect larvae, caterpillars and termites. During the wet, rainy season, more fruits are consumed. During the dry season, more leaves and bark is consumed. Female gorillas will stay higher in the trees and eat more leaves than the males. During the wet season males will go out further in search of fruit and spend more time on the ground eating leaves than during the dry season.

Conservation Efforts

As previously stated the Western Lowland Gorilla is listed on the critically endangered species list. Man is the primary known enemy of these magnificent creatures with the Ebola virus, coming in second, killing one-third of the total wild population. Man has been responsible for the degradation of the tropical rainforest, illegally hunting gorillas for bushmeat, big game hunting, trapping and selling live young gorillas to zoos and research institutions, and provoking them, while peaceful animals, to the point of defending themselves or their families and then they are shot and killed because they are deemed aggressive.

The combination of man and the Ebola virus is proving to be be a deadly combination that has numbers dwindled rapidly down, with some reports showing population decline in eight years by 20%, has led to them being placed on the critically endangered species list. While still listed as critically endangered, exact number counts have been inconsistent and new research, as of the writing of this blog, indicates that possibly gorilla (and chimpanzee) numbers may be higher than once thought in the African area; however, the population that was found is in an unprotected area. One can only hope the numbers are more accurate and better protection can be put in place for them to sustain and grow the population otherwise, the Western Lowland Gorillas last chance for survival may very will be the few gorilla sanctuaries in Africa, zoos, and other captive environments throughout the world.

These amazing creatures exhibit strength and intelligence, belonging to the family "Pongidae" or the "Great Apes," which can be seen in the interactions they have with each other as they navigate their habitat, by watching their facial expressions, and through their body movements one gets a better understanding of them. The Silverback's or Western Lowland Gorilla's are incredible animals that are calculated, thoughtful, compassionate, protective, nurturing, and surprisingly peaceful, unless provoked. And, in this case, heartbreakingly, the Western Lowland Gorilla is listed on the critically endangered species list and man is its biggest predator. We must save them before they are gone and it is too late. All things that are equally important to know when looking to photograph these creatures in their environment and in understanding them, unless you are planning on visiting a zoo to capture their essence. And, even then, it is important to understand the animal before you as you try and capture it.

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