In the Jungle With the Gorilla Whisperer

Angelique Todd has devoted her adult life to habituating rare lowland gorillas.

ByABC News
May 4, 2009, 1:08 PM

CENTRAL AFRICAN REPUBLIC, May 4, 2009— -- When sneaking up on a silverback gorilla, you want to be quiet and careful.

That's a lesson I learned here in the jungle of the Central African Republic from Angelique Todd, who spends nearly every day of her life with a family of gorillas.

On one particular morning, we were just a few feet from a roughly 500-pound, six-foot-long wild animal, who was alternately daydreaming and nodding off.

"He's sleeping," said Todd. "[The silverback] is the dominant male. So the male gorillas develop this huge size. They're almost double the size of the females."

The silverback in question, named Mikumba, is the head of a family of 11 gorillas.

"So this is one of the infants that we haven't seen yet," said Todd, pointing to a baby gorilla. "He's 2-and-a-half. He spends nearly all his time with his dad."

Todd is something of a modern day Dian Fossey, the American scientist who studied gorillas in Africa and was the inspiration for the movie "Gorillas in the Mist."

But the family of gorillas Todd follows aren't mountain gorillas, the type Fossey studied. They're western lowland gorillas, an animal very few people have ever gotten very close to. Adult males are called silverbacks because their hair turns grey with age.

"For years, all I ever saw was them running away," said Todd. "I didn't see anything at all. Three years. So, whenever I come see them, I'm just so grateful to them for accepting us."

Over many years, Todd -- a researcher with the World Wildlife Fund -- and a team of local Pygmie guides in the Central African Republic have "habituated" the gorillas to human contact.

There is no other place on Earth where you can see the silverback gorilla up close in the wild. It was a difficult, dangerous job, which Todd says involved daily rejection by the gorillas.

"Yes, every day being screamed at," she recalled. "Or being charged and just having to take it and then just moving on. It can be really scary... they can kill you, basically. If you make one charge, for example, if you look too frightened, you never know if he's actually gonna grab you, but you just have to stand there, even though you're really, really scared."

When Mikumba finally roused himself, it became clear why it would be so terrifying to be charged by a silverback gorilla.