They were accustomed to his habits by this point, so when Bobo the gorilla started acting strangely, they simply had to follow him and find out what he was up to.
Not wanting to get too close, they tried to work out what he was holding in his hands from a distance. Suddenly realizing what it was, the staff were all in agreement: they had never seen an ape do something like that before.
Bobo came to the Mefou Primate Sanctuary in Cameroon as an orphan. His mother was ripped away from him by poachers when he was only two years old, so when he arrived, he wasn’t the most gregarious ape.
But Bobo would soon grow into a strong adult gorilla and would eventually become the dominant ape at the sanctuary. In short, definitely not the kind of ape a poacher would want to mess with.
Despite his intimidating size, the 350-pound gorilla was actually a sweetheart. Bobo was never aggressive with the other apes and had earned the group’s respect.
However, in the ape world, politics can get vicious as newcomers vie for the crown. Bobo had earned his place at the top – and he wasn’t about to vacate his throne without a fight.
“Younger males Kibu and Nkamum once challenged Bobo for his position,” explained Elissa, who had cared for Bobo since he was brought into the sanctuary. “They were never successful and no longer attempt to take control.”
But Elissa grew concerned when Bobo started displaying behavior that wasn’t conducive to his position as the big ape on campus. What had gotten into him?
The sanctuary – run by UK-based charity Ape Action Africa – is home to more than 300 gorillas, chimpanzees, and monkeys.
So when Elissa realized there was likely something that was causing Bobo’s sudden attitude change, she knew she had to keep a close eye on him to make sure he wasn’t a danger to the other primates.
Usually confident to strut around the enclosure, Bobo had started to hide in the long grass when sanctuary staff came close.
The longer Elissa watched him, the clearer it was that it wasn’t himself that he was hiding in the foliage, rather something that he didn’t want staff – or the other apes – to find out about.
Everyone that worked at the sanctuary understood that the apes in their care had typically suffered some kind of trauma that brought them there.
So when a giant gorilla was acting out, it was in everyone’s best interest to determine what was going on as soon as possible. Elissa was concerned about something in particular that Bobo was doing.
Mefou Primate Sanctuary was founded by Ape Action Africa in response to the out of control illegal bushmeat and pet trades that were threatening the habitats and well-being of Cameroon’s primates.
The staff had made a solemn vow to do whatever it takes to make sure the animals in their care were protected from any threat – and they all took their jobs very seriously.
Part of the primate care in which the sanctuary specialized involved managing the post-traumatic stress that many of the animals had suffered during the dramatic circumstances that brought them there.
So Elissa followed Bobo as he moved around the enclosure displaying more and more shifty behavior. And the question on all of their lips was what he was holding in his hands.
Elissa waited until Bobo was out of sight before heading to the grassy area where she first noticed his change in behavior.
She scoured the whole area but found nothing out of the ordinary. But when she continued to observe him later that afternoon, she realized he hadn’t stashed his secret item at all – he’d kept it on him.
Bobo was usually very friendly with the sanctuary staff, but whenever Elissa tried to get close to him he was quick to create distance between them.
She eventually managed to get close enough to see what he was fussing over in his hands. Bobo wasn’t being protective over some found object – he was tending to another living creature.
Bobo got spooked once again and headed off into the overgrown grass the moment he realized he was being watched.
The crying creature in the ape’s hand was too small for Elissa to identify from a distance. She would need to come up with a far smarter plan to work out what Bobo was up to.
The furry little animal getting poked and prodded by Bobo seemed perfectly content resting in the giant gorilla’s paw.
This struck staff as odd, considering a rodent would be more likely to scurry away. Perhaps it’s injured, she thought. Using a pair of binoculars, Elissa could quickly tell it wasn’t a rodent at all. The tiny creature was actually a primate too.
The sanctuary took care of so many apes that you would think it might be expected that they lose track of one or two. But not at Mefou, which took great pride in the individual care they gave each and every animal.
So if the small primate resting in Bobo’s hands wasn’t from the sanctuary, where did it come from?
The primate they were studying was a galago. Staff concluded that the creature had found its way into Bobo’s enclosure from the forest surrounding the sanctuary.
The galago – also known as a “bush baby” due to the crying sound they make – wasn’t usually the kind of primate they took care of at Mefou. And they certainly wouldn’t give the responsibility to a giant ape, even if he did treat the little creature like it was his own.
“The bush baby showed no fear of Bobo, moving around his body and spending time hopping around in an open grassy area before choosing to return to Bobo,” said Elissa.
But she wasn’t just taken aback by the special treatment the galago was getting from Bobo. A sighting of a wild bush baby was very rare indeed, especially considering it shouldn’t have been there at all.
“Bush babies are usually nocturnal so it is very rare to see one, and even rarer to witness this kind of interaction,” Elissa continued.
Galagos almost exclusively hunt and feed in the dark, so to see one being fed breakfast by a gorilla was one of the most fascinating things Elissa had seen. And that’s not the only rarity about the whole incident.
“Wild primates and rescued ones seldom interact with each other like this. They’re either at a sanctuary or they’re in the jungle. We have never witnessed a wild primate interacting with a rescued one,” said Elissa.
But the unique positioning of Mefou’s enclosures by the forest made for a once-in-a-lifetime encounter between a tiny wildling and a giant friendly gorilla – which soon became a huge attraction for the other apes.
“The little bush baby was happy to play in Bobo’s arms, hopping off to explore the grass nearby, before returning to Bobo’s hand,” Elissa explained.
It didn’t take long before the other apes in the group realized what Bobo had become so preoccupied with. And a few of the more curious ones moved in for a closer look.
“Bobo’s group-mates were desperately curious, but he kept them all at a distance, making sure no one disturbed his new friend,” said Elissa. Understanding what the tiny guest needed, Bobo offered the galago the chance to return to his natural habitat, lifting him up to the tree branch overhanging the enclosure.
Elissa was thrilled that they’d managed to capture the experience on camera and that all was well with the apes.
Luckily, the staff at the sanctuary had captured every minute of the unique interaction on camera. They posted it to Facebook, with the caption: “Our silverback gorilla Bobo made a surprising new friend this week — a wild bush baby!”
“Caregivers discovered him cradling the tiny primate during their morning checks, and were amazed to see him handling it with the utmost care.”
The video quickly went viral, garnering more than 2,000 comments and over 1.7 million views! People from all over the world and from all walks of life were touched by the heartwarming interaction between Bobo and his tiny friend.
Most people were quick to point out that Bobo was displaying a characteristic that we could all learn from…
“These gorillas have a very nurturing and empathic nature, the human race could learn from these beautiful, thoughtful animals,” one user wrote.
“Exactly why I love gorillas… because they’re amazingly gentle giants who are extremely intelligent animals,” another commented. That’s why it’s very important that this endangered species is protected.
Unfortunately, these great apes are under threat all over the Congo basin due to forest conversion to industrial agriculture projects.
There are two species of gorilla – the eastern gorilla and western gorilla. Each of these is divided into two subspecies – eastern lowland gorilla and mountain gorilla, and western lowland gorilla and cross river gorilla.
Gorillas are highly intelligent. They don’t use tools as much as chimpanzees do, but wild gorillas have been seen using sticks to gauge water depth, bamboo as ladders to help infants climb, and recently gorillas have been seen for the first time using sticks to eat ants without being stung.
Another sign of intelligence is the gorilla’s impressive communication abilities, and they’ve been recorded making some 25 different sounds.
We share 98.3% of our DNA with gorillas, making them our closest relatives after chimpanzees and bonobos. Sadly, Gorillas are among the world’s most endangered animals.
Charity organizations in Cameroon are hoping to change that. But, as you can imagine, a sanctuary so large needs an even larger flow of cash to continue their work. They rely on volunteers and on donations from the public.
Established in 1996, Ape Action Africa began as a UK charity called CWAF, or Cameroon Wildlife Aid Fund. The charity’s main goal was to improve living conditions for primates housed at Mvog-Betsi Zoo in Yaoundé, Cameroon.
During 12 years of operation, CWAF expanded its mission to provide sanctuary for wild orphans of the illegal bushmeat trade, like Bobo.
Now with more than 300 primates under its care, Ape Action Africa is now one of the largest conservation projects of its kind in Africa.
One established gorilla group in the Mefou Primate Sanctuary is known as Bobo’s group – which consists of the Silverback, Bobo, two black backs, Kibu and Nkamum, three females; Jasmine, Geri and Avishag, and her juvenile Eto-fils.
Bobo’s rise to internet fame has helped raise awareness about these animals’ plight and about the charity groups who work hard every day to preserve Cameroon’s natural heritage for future generations. Their work is vital.
Besides the bushmeat trade, habitat loss is one of the other major threats to the long-term survival of Cameroon’s primates. Cameroon has more than 20 million hectares of tropical rainforest, but it’s disappearing quickly due to unsustainable foresting and poaching practices. But not all is lost…
Although gorillas are still on the endangered species list, there is still hope.
Sir David Attenborough, who first visited Cameroon in 1979, said, “It is incredibly heartening to see how the efforts of so many different groups – communities, governments, NGOs – have paid off. The threats to mountain gorillas haven’t disappeared entirely, of course, so now the challenge must be to ensure that these achievements are sustained long into the future.”