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Update on Kwame's family group

Posted by Elizabeth Bacher, Communications
Photos: Jeremy Dwyer-Lindgren/Woodland Park Zoo

Kwame shares a "smooch" with daughter Zuna as Yola looks on.

We are lucky in Seattle to have two family groups of western lowland gorillas at Woodland Park Zoo—each led by its own silverback male. A couple weeks ago we gave you an update on silverback Nadaya’s group. So now it’s time to check in with silverback Kwame and his family.

Kwame, who is 23 years old, lives with females Uzumma (15), Nadiri (27), Akenji (21), and Yola (7), plus the two youngsters, his 3-year-old son (with Uzumma) Kitoko and 2-year-old daughter (with Nadiri) Zuna.

Kwame is a wonderful, attentive father and a steady, protective silverback for his family.

Over the last few years, Kwame has proven to be a wonderful and attentive father to Kitoko and Zuna as well as a steady, protective, and calming presence for the females in his group—exactly what a silverback should be for his family.

Our gorilla keepers describe Kwame as a sweet, curious and somewhat cautious gorilla. He approaches unfamiliar noises, smells and sights with a good amount of wariness, which is very appropriate for a silverback protecting his family. But Kwame is “all in” for the daily training sessions that he participates in with our gorilla keepers, and he really seems to enjoy them. These voluntary sessions enable our expert animal care staff to spend one-on-one time with each member of our gorilla family to make sure that everyone is healthy and getting their share of food along with any needed vitamins or medications.

Kwame loves being with his family, but really enjoys one-on-one time with gorilla keepers, too.

These sessions not only reinforce the trusting bonds between the gorillas and our dedicated keepers, but they also allow each gorilla to enjoy their favorite treats in relative “peace” without having to compete with other family members. Kwame’s favorite foods include fruits, romaine and kale. He loves carrots, too. When it comes to treats, Kwame loves eating popcorn out of a boomer ball—a heavy-duty enrichment item that can double as a treat dispenser. And instead of using a tool to pick out raisins hidden in a “treat log” like most of the females do, Kwame prefers the more direct method of whacking the log on the ground and eating whatever falls out.

Handsome Kwame.

He uses a similar tactic when the family is offered frozen treats, like banana peels or beans frozen into water. While others lick theirs like a popsicle to get to the “reward” inside, Kwame prefers to throw his onto one of the rocks near the visitor glass until the ice cracks and he can pick out the treats. There is one food that is NOT on his list of favorites—avocados! While some of the gorillas love a treat of this bright green, fleshy fruit, our keepers have discovered that Kwame hates avocados in any form. No thanks!

Uzumma is the dominant female in Kwame’s group. Our gorilla keepers describe her as intelligent, a little bossy and sometimes unpredictable—traits that Kwame seems quite aware of too. The keepers say they’ve observed a few times where even he has been reluctant to displace this top-ranking female from a comfy spot in their habitat that he might have had his eye on.

Uzumma is beautiful, intelligent and sometimes bossy. Her son Kitoko is ADORABLE and is used to getting what he wants ... most of the time.

Uzumma is mother to Kitiko, her son with Kwame. Kitoko is rambunctious, energetic and seems to relish being the center of attention. For him, life is all about play! He loves to jump around, perform handstands and somersaults, wrestle with his little half-sister, Zuna, and practice his budding displays of chest-beating. Behind the scenes, our gorilla keepers sometimes provide him with metal bowls, pans and spoons, offering him lots of opportunity to make noise—which he seems to relish!

Kitoko has a unique, high-pitched, warbling laugh. Our gorilla keepers say they have never heard another gorilla make this kind of sound.

When Kitoko is not busy banging on things, he finds plenty of other ways to “be heard” with his unique vocalizations. Gorilla laughter is in general a kind of low, breathy, rhythmic chuffing—but Kitoko’s is different. When he’s excited and/or anticipating something good he makes a kind of higher-pitched warbling laugh that is unique to him. Our gorilla keepers say they have never heard another gorilla make this sound ... and it always makes them smile.

Kitoko is agile, athletic and very rambunctious!

He makes other vocalizations, too. At 3 years old, Kitoko is at that age where Uzumma is beginning to wean him from nursing—a natural milestone that this youngster is apparently not too thrilled about. This is evidenced by the screams our keepers have heard from him when Uzumma refuses to give in to his demands. As the offspring of the silverback and the dominant female, Kitoko is somewhat used to getting what he wants with the other gorillas (sort of in a “do you know who my mom is” kind of way) but that only goes so far when the one saying “no” is your mom. His mom’s rank also means that Kitoko is a little sheltered and hasn’t had the opportunity to learn self-sufficiency yet or to practice the social skills needed to navigate the world of “gorilla diplomacy.”

Kitoko blep!

Zuna is the daughter of Nadiri, a more subordinate female, and Kwame. Zuna and Kitoko spend lots of sibling time engaged in epic play sessions together—and what this young female lacks in “rank” (for now) she more than makes up for in spunk, independence and intelligence. Being both a year younger and 10 pounds lighter than her brother (Kitoko is around 45 pounds while Zuna is closer to 35), Zuna is always mindful that Kitoko can sometimes play a little rough—yet her courage, confidence and feistiness make her the perfect match for him!

Zuna has learned how to build nests by watching her mom, Nadiri.

At 2 years old, Zuna is now mostly strong and coordinated enough to hold her own with her brother. In addition to wrestling (and hugging) matches, these two engage in plenty of chase games around the bushes and the climbing structures in their habitat. They also love running in circles around their dad, Kwame (perhaps to coax him into their play sessions), and “ambushing” each other while one of them hides in a burlap sack or blanket and the other jumps on top.

Zuna, cuddling with her firehose "bestie". Photo: Gorilla "Keeper Cam"/Woodland Park Zoo

When Zuna is not with her mother, she can often be seen sleeping or playing next to her father. But her “best friend” might actually be the small piece of firehose she always carries around, like a child toting around their favorite toy. She’s had it since she was only a few months old and she loves carrying it around her shoulders or over her arm (like a purse) as she walks around the yard.

Zuna cuddling with her big sis, Yola, and her firehose "BFF". Photo: Gorilla "Keeper Cam"/Woodland Park Zoo

Social ranking among gorillas is not necessarily passed on from one generation to the next. It is a fluid thing, changing with time as the structure of the group evolves or changes. Nadiri is both a subordinate female and an excellent parent! She has learned to be an attentive mom and is raising two independent daughters in Zuna and Yola (Zuna’s older half-sister). Both of them know they can go to their mother if they need anything, but are comfortable moving throughout the group on their own terms, too.

Kitoko, Yola and Zuna.

Nadiri is also one of the best tool-users and nest-builders in the group—skills which Zuna is watching carefully and learning from. Nadiri knows how to modify sticks and twigs until they’re the perfect size to “fish for” an errant piece of food that one of the others may have dropped or left behind. And she is patient—waiting for the perfect time (when no one else is looking) to retrieve it. Nadiri loves a good challenge and the rewards they often bring.

Nadiri is a caring, attentive mother to Zuna (seen here) and Yola.

At 7 years old, Nadiri’s oldest daughter Yola is an adolescent now (females are considered fully grown at around 9 or 10). She is still playful with both Kitoko and Zuna, but she is quite confident on her own, too. We have really enjoyed watching Yola grow up these last few years and seeing her demonstrate the kinds of “mothering skills” that she has learned by observing as her mother cares for little Zuna. Yola is protective of her little sister and has no problem pushing away Kitoko if he gets too rough with her—and our gorilla keepers have seen Yola grooming her little sister, too, as she naps next to her. Yola is a socially-savvy gorilla and knows how to “read the room”—being calm and taking time to assess situations before reacting or getting involved.

Yola has grown to be a calm and socially-savvy gorilla.

Akenji—who is also an expert nest-builder—is a half-sister to both Uzumma (they have the same father) and Nadiri (they have the same mother). She has not had any babies of her own yet and has, in the past, not really shown interest in the babies that have been born into her group. But she has matured quite a bit over the years and has, perhaps, learned a lot from watching Yola and Kitoko grow up. This is demonstrated by the sweet relationship that has recently developed between her and little Zuna. The two of them have been bonding over the last few months and our gorilla keepers have even seen Akenji carrying little Zuna around on her back. This “way of getting around” is typical for gorilla mothers and their babies, but it’s the first time Akenji has shown this kind of maternal behavior. It’s a great sign!

Akenji loves holding, and hiding under, the fleece blankets that are available as part of the group's enrichment.

Could motherhood be in the future for Akenji? The Gorilla Species Survival Plan is a cooperative breeding program across conservation zoos designed to maintain the genetic diversity and overall health of gorilla populations living in human care. Its work is especially important for endangered species like the western lowland gorilla—and Akenji has a current breeding recommendation with Kwame. There’s nothing to announce just yet, but it is possible she could become pregnant within the next year. We promise to keep you updated—but for now we’re just happy to see that everyone in Kwame’s family is doing so well.

Zuna rides on Akenji's back with Yola on the left and Kitoko on the right. Photo: Gorilla "Keeper Cam"/Woodland Park Zoo

We hope you enjoy learning more about our western lowland gorillas and visiting them! To read the latest updates about Nadaya and his family group, click here.

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