He’s a father of 20 from nine different mothers. He’s a fierce defender of his family and helped nurse two of his offspring back from leopard attacks. He likes to nap with his feet in the air, and he hums while he eats.

Meet Kingo, a wild silverback gorilla who is celebrating his 40th birthday.

WCS Congo Program researchers wrote a touching tribute to Kingo, whom they have studied for the past 17 years in Nouabale-Ndoki National Park – a 1,500 square-mile (4,238 square-kilometer) protected area WCS co-manages with the Congolese government. It is home not only to gorillas, but also forest elephants, bongo, sitatunga and other spectacular wildlife. WCS’s long-term presence in the park, coupled with its science-based approach, has allowed researchers to gain incredible insights into the life history into the otherwise private lives of gorillas.

“Kingo Ya Bole,” which means “The Loud Voice” was chosen to be habituated by researchers interested in learning more about the behavior and ecology of Western lowland gorillas (Gorilla gorilla gorilla).

Since WCS researchers began following him, they have chronicled his dramatic life story: he’s had 10 mates; only one has remained with him. In the last two years, four females have left him, leaving their weaned infants behind for Kingo to protect. He once abducted the daughter from another group who continues to remain with him. Fourteen of his 20 offspring have died; most were under the age of three. WCS researchers report his most recent offspring born earlier this year, may have been taken by a predator. Unfortunately, the chances for young gorillas surviving in the wild to adulthood are often low, as gorillas face many threats to survival including leopard attacks and disease as well as poaching. Only one of Kingo’s daughters has so far survived to emigrate to a new group. The rest of his remaining offspring are still with him. 

Through it all, Kingo has remained a calm silverback. Researchers say he likes to sit and caress his right hand with his left thumb while looking into the distance. He is a caring father; he often stops the older ones when they play too roughly with the infants. And he follows his females reluctantly into the swamps and washes the plants before feeding on them, with the young ones imitating him.

Said Ivonne Kienast, WCS Site and Research Manager of the Mondika Gorilla Project: “Kingo can be seen just as a wild animal, a great ape, a species fighting extinction, one amongst thousands. But to the researchers and trackers who spend their years with him, Kingo is family. We laugh when they play, we cry over their deaths, we hold our breath when one is injured, and we fight to protect them.”

WCS’s researchers are not the only ones lucky enough to enjoy Kingo and his family; the habituation initiative has successfully brought world class gorilla tourism to the Park, and to Congo as a whole. It is this specific knowledge about individuals and their relationships to others is what makes the gorilla viewing experience in Nouabale Ndoki so special and make you feel like you are sitting with family.

Operating under the Nouabale-Ndoki Foundation, Nouabale-Ndoki’s research and monitoring unit works to build understanding of the landscape’s rich wildlife, in support of more effective protection and management. This work is made possible with major support from the U.S Agency for International Development’s Central Africa Regional Program for the Environment (CARPE), the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and the Foundation for the Sangha Trinational Trust Fund. For more information about WCS’s work in Congo, visit: http://wcscongoblog.org Follow: @wcs_congo

WCS’s recently launched a Gorilla Survival Challenge to put 2x the resources to protect gorillas from poaching and save their forest homes from destruction. The $25,000 matching gift expires on June 17th.