Gorilla Update: Troop Memba

Posted at 9:50 am May 7, 2010 by Debbie Andreen

Memba diligently watches over his troop.

The San Diego Zoo offers scheduled Keeper Talks throughout the day. On Monday, I took in a talk given by April Bove, one of our gorilla keepers. She explained that the Zoo has 11 gorillas, divided into two troops, each led by a handsome and impressive silverback (adult male). The two troops alternate days: while one troop is outside being admired by Zoo visitors, the other troop spends its “off” day indoors in the spacious gorilla “bedrooms.” On this day it was Memba and his troop’s turn to be outside.

Memba is the only wild-born gorilla at the Zoo. He weighs about 350 pounds and takes his duties as guardian of the troop very seriously, always keeping tabs on each member’s whereabouts and breaking up any fights. It can be a stressful job: in the wild, silverbacks are lucky to live 30 years, but Memba is currently 41 years old and doing well! His troop includes females Alvila and Jessica, and sons Mandazzi and Ekuba.

Alvila was born at the Zoo in 1965 and was the first gorilla birth we had. She is currently a great-grandmother as well as the grandmother of Frank, the Zoo’s youngest gorilla, but she is not the oldest gorilla in our collection: that honor goes to her mother, Vila, who resides at the San Diego Zoo’s Wild Animal Park and turned 52 in October! (Read post Gorilla Vila is 52.)

Jessica, age 30, has had five offspring—all boys! Her youngest son is Ekuba, now four years old and the youngest in this troop. He, of course, is the most playful of the group and is the most likely to interact with Zoo guests, especially children. To get your attention, he may bang on or toss mulch at the triple-paned glass panels to see what kind of reaction he can get!

Jessica and Memba’s son, Mandazzi, is almost 8 years old and is considered a “blackback,” a name used for males between 8 and 12 years old. At 12 to 15 years, he will become more silver in color and be called a “silverback.” Ekuba and Mandazzi wrestle with each other daily as they practice the skills they will need to perhaps someday become a troop leader.

Keeper April told visitors that this particular subspecies of gorilla—western lowland gorilla Gorilla gorilla gorilla (isn’t that the easiest taxonomic name ever?!)—eats mostly fruit, leaves, ants, and termites in the wild. Unlike chimpanzees, they don’t use tools to get those termites; instead, these gorillas are so strong that they just smash the termite mound to get the tasty insects living inside! At the Zoo, our gorillas are fed a variety of produce and browse material six times a day, as well as special treats like Cheerios® and Wheat Chex® cereals. This food is scattered all about the exhibit, giving the gorillas plenty of opportunities to hunt for their meals.

April told me it is “awesome” to work with such a family oriented group of primates. “They are so incredibly smart and challenge me to be the best keeper every day.” Those who don’t like a challenge, she adds, should not be a gorilla keeper!

After April answered questions from guests, she went up to the roof of the gorilla building and tossed down Romaine lettuce, red cabbage, and green peppers to the apes below. Most of the gorillas waited patiently until the treats landed, but not Mandazzi; he caught the heads of lettuce and a few of the peppers in his hands and then dashed around in an upright, bipedal position, scooping up as much food as his arms could hold! It was a comical sight to see, and April assured me that Mandazzi is quite the character in so many ways. She promises to write a blog post about him soon!

Debbie Andreen is an associate editor and blog moderator for the San Diego Zoo.

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26 Responses to “Gorilla Update: Troop Memba”

  1. Max says:

    I miss Bouendjie and Ndjole! I will see them next week! Does anyone know if the are on exibet in Oklahoma?

  2. Claudia says:

    I LOVE the gorillas! I come by the zoo about every couple months. I just wish I knew how to arrange an apple toss up from the balcony to Paul Donn or Maka, my two favorites. But you have to be there on the keepers special day for that, which is a toss up. Thank you gorilla blogs!

  3. Louise says:

    What fun to read this post! Thank you!

  4. Joe & Lori in Maryland says:

    We will miss seeing Bouendjie and Ndjole when we visit San Diego next week , don’t know why they were shipped out does anyone know.

    Moderator’s note: They have moved to the Oklahoma City Zoo. Zoos often swap animals to create new bloodlines.

  5. Nick says:

    Hi. I noticed that you said that the zoo has 11 gorillas but aren’t there 5 gorillas in each group? Did you get a new gorilla or is one solitary? Thanks.

    Debbie responds: There is indeed one solitary gorilla, an adult male named Maka. Perhaps we can write a blog post about him.

  6. Joe & Lori in Maryland says:

    thats great for bloodlines but who came to the San Diego Zoo in return.

    Debbie responds: The San Diego Zoo’s Wild Animal Park received a gorilla, female Kokamo, from the Oklahoma City Zoo.

  7. Vickie says:

    Hope we’ll get a Gorilla Update on Troop Paul Donn too!

  8. LK Taylor, Nevada says:

    Loved the blog. I didn’t know that there were 2 separate troops @ the zoo. I’d love to see a blog on Paul Donn and an update on Frank.

  9. Betsy Eaton says:

    Paul Donn’s troop is fun to watch because Frank is so adorable. Memba’s troop is interesting to watch because of the family dynamics. Ekuba tries to get Mandazzi to chase him and Madazzi resists as long as he can and then they are off! Avilla likes to spend time alone away from the craziness of the youngsters. It is just precious to watch Jessica cuddle and nurse Ekuba. Memba is in charge at all times.

  10. deb says:

    For those interested, Kijivu at the Prague Zoo gave birth on April 25, 2010. You can observe mom and baby on the Gorilla Cam (oh yes, and the rest of the troop). It is fascinating to observe the interactions between siblings and new baby. (please remember time difference)

    Moderator’s note: Our congratulations to Kijivu and her troop!

  11. josh says:

    Hold on; ROTATE DAILY? Does that mean the zoo now does daily rotations instead of every other day? I hope so? It makes more sense to rotate the troops daily. Also, post a blog on Troop Paul Donn (with lots and lots of FRANK!)

    Debbie’s response: You scored a grammar point! I meant that they alternate days, so each troop is out every other day. I changed the text in the post. And I’m hoping Keeper April will provide some blogs about Troop Paul Donn. Perhaps Frank should have a post dedicated to him, too? He is a cutie!

  12. Dianna - Ohio says:

    Wow!! I just learned something about gorillas!! I always assumed that “silverback” was a type of gorilla, not the gender/age of a gorilla!! Hope that doesn’t make me sound too stupid!! 🙂

    Debbie responds: Not at all–it’s fun to learn something new! Every time I chat with keepers I learn something new, too.

  13. Dianna - Ohio says:

    Do the females have special names like the males??

    Debbie responds: I don’t think so, but let me find out from our experts.

  14. Diana S. says:

    A post about little Frank would be delightful. He is so cute. Thank you, Debbie, for taking the time to write up this blog. It was very enjoyable. And I too learned the true definition of a “silverback”.

  15. Kat says:

    Questions for the keepers. I was at the zoo last week, Frank was freaking me out sitting on a log right above the waterfall. I know gorillas are agile, but babies can be clumsy. My questions – Do the keepers worry at all that Frank could fall in the water? I’ve heard gorillas are afraid of water. Is this true? Have any of the gorillas ever fallen in the water? Thanks, I’m a worrier.

  16. Dianna - Ohio says:

    Hi.. I think the blog must of been down over the weekend and I was so excited about an article I read in our local Columbus newspaper. I guess our zoo has in residence a 21 year old deaf silverback gorilla named Oliver!! (You guys probably already know what goes on in the other zoos?) I guess Oliver has had a different kind of upbringing. The article mentioned he was raised in a foster home, spent some time at the Memphis Zoo with 2 goats for company, lived at some Dewar sanctuary for a while – maybe that’s were the goats were… but has never lived with a gorilla herd. Columbus has slowly been acclimating him to his new surroundings. He’s been here since last September I believe, but the keepers are taking it very slowly with him. Their ultimate goal is for him to have his own herd.

    I wish Columbus Zoo had a blog like SDZ. I’m curious to know if they are using sign language with him, how would he “hear” his female companions or if his girls will pick up a sign language to communicate with him… Wonder how that will work??? The newspaper didn’t mention anything on the communication subject, that he can vocalize normally…

  17. Debbie Andreen says:

    #13 Dianna – Ohio

    I’ve learned that female gorillas are considered sub-adults from age 4 to 9 and adult after 9 years of age, on the average. But they don’t have names like “blackback” or “silverback” like the males do.

  18. nancy from michigan says:

    thanks for the up-date on our beloved gorillas! both troops are extremely interesting and they all have their own individual personalities! to watch, learn, and observe them every day would be a great learning experience! to be a gorilla keeper would be the most interesting job at the zoo in my opinion! but, of course, I am so in love with the gorillas and am so captivated by them that I would naturally feel this way! I will be looking forward to the next up-date and hearing more about baby frank! he is soooo cute!

  19. Claudia says:

    I got to see the Paul Donn Group today. Daddy was sleeping by the water fall each time I came by. He only walked by when the “clock” strikes to wake him up. THEN I also got to see Frank and his three “Mommies”. I know this blog is about the Memba family, but let me tell you what a great day I had today. MOST of the day the moms were sitting by the window with Frank, hey he need a brother to wrestle with in a couple years ! Please discribe the female gorillas. Like for example there is one “small” female that holds Frank the most, then there is one that has an “older” type face with longer hair on her arms, but (maybe that is a male Black back?) but maybe that is another female, I could not tell the way they were sitting. BUT

    BUT LET ME TELL YOU ABOUT the female that has a “scar” and shaved place on her back. I like to think that I am the only one that this happens to so I hope I don’t read that you “teach” them to do this like a treat behavior, BUT she gave me smooches through the glass. I smiled the whole 200 miles driving back home. THANK YOU GORILLA KEEPERS and the Paul Donn family. ( I noticed you took the names down)

    THEN I SAW MAKA, and the keeper man tossed him some peanuts, and lettuce, and he sat right there for us to see, eating, and looking like you just brushed him. I hope they are soft because he sure looked soft w/ muscles

  20. Betsy Eaton says:

    The gorilla that has the shaved place on her back (birth control) is Azizi. She is Frank’s mom. Azizi has never given me smooches through the glass but if I place my hand on the glass and lean my head in she will do the same. Imani is Azizi’s half sister, both are Memba’s daughters. Imani has more hair on her cheeks than Azizi. N’djia is Paul Donn’s half sister. They have the same mother, Kamilah. N’djia has a darker, grumpier face and a distinctive nose. It has taken me a while to be able to identify each gorilla and I have been helped by a few friendly people willing to share their knowledge. It doesn’t matter which gorilla troup is out any day I get to spend time with them is a good day. They always make me smile. I agree, Maka is one handsome gorilla.

  21. Claudia says:

    wow thanks for answering me, I can almost tell them apart, but by the size. I know they all love and hold Frank. I can watch them for hours. I also think it would be a treat to see Paul Donn touch the baby, but maybe he gets bothered by the climbing….

  22. Keeper A Bove says:

    #15 Kat

    We did take special precautions when Frank was first getting used to the exhibit (such as fencing off the dry moat area) but there is only so much we can protect him from. Gorillas are not afraid of water in the wild, and they actually forage through swampy clearings called bais gathering up tasty herbaceous vegetation. They are also known to walk upright through water that sometimes goes up to their chest with their arms held up over their heads. But just like humans, all apes, including gorillas, do not know how to swim naturally

  23. Keeper A Bove says:

    #21 Claudia

    Frank and his dad, Paul Donn, spend a lot of time in the morning wrestling around inside their bedrooms (our gorillas are housed as family units called troops both on and off exhibit). Through this play, Paul is teaching Frank important lessons on how to be a silverback. He is also showing Frank who is boss, as Paul will playfully pin Frank down and mock bite him. But Paul is incredibly gentle with Frank, considering he is 450 pounds and Frank is only 35 pounds.

  24. Claudia says:

    Forgive me for not knowing my geography, but Prague Zoo, Germany? WELL what a gorilla cam, 24 hr if you don’t mind them sleeping. BUT gorillas do alot of interesting things when there are no people around, or even when there are people there. Talk about animal psychology. Its all about food and reproducing. Doesnt matter what it is to eat, or who has interesting body parts. They have a baby about a month and 1/2 old. Teaching him how to be a gorilla. WOW. INTERESTING but if our gorillas ever did animal gorilla things in front of our people, sometimes humans have a tendancy to laugh. Its only the most tribal natural instinct as to what would you do if you were a gorilla, and no one was watching. INTERESTING. Now if we had a gorilla cam, would our gorillas do the same type of things, are they grouped together? or in separate rooms or cages. Only thing I can say about that web cam Prague is man they don’t clean it very well, or feed them very much. They must get fed behind the doors, and I am GLAD OUR TROOP has respect for humans, and not to act natural in front of us and hold Frank upside down etc etc, because I would be embarrassed for the humans that may laugh at the most beautiful interesting stuff. And the females are really scared of the Silverback, but he touches there face with the most soft calm one finger, and is so gentle/ I think it is because he is loud, and maybe it echos in there. Well enough about someplace else. LOVE OUR GORILLAS, thank you keepers.

  25. josh says:


    Better change the text (again), The troops rotate daily now, PD’s in the morning, and M’s in the afternoon.

    Oh, and where is Gorilla Update: Troop Paul Donn?

  26. doreen rosanen says:

    Gorillas (and other animals and simians) understand and can communicate very well without even

    vocalizing – it’s humans that have difficulty understanding communication in it’s many forms, as well as

    the gifted clairvoyancy, and the spiritual gift of empathy towards all living beings, most often brought

    about thru social conformity that, as one can see, has placed ruin on this planet – the purest of mind

    and soul is that of an innocent child who has not yet been introduced to the evils of apathy, greed, and