By Curtis Abraham
Kampala, June 7 – Poppy, the last living gorilla featured by famed American primatologist Dian Fossey in her bestselling book, “Gorillas in the Mist,” is believed to have died.
Fossey wrote about Poppy many times in her journals, calling her the group’s “little darling … winsome and appealing. She could do no wrong.”
In 1976, on April Fool’s Day [1st April], Poppy was born into Fossey’s Group 5, so would have celebrated her 43rd birthday last April. Her longevity was a valuable asset and godsend to science.
“Being able to observe Poppy over so many stages of life gave researchers a wealth of knowledge,” said Tara Stoinski, Dian Fossey Fund President and CEO and Chief Scientific Officer. “She taught us so much about the rich social and reproductive lives of female gorillas, their dominance structure, and of course, their personalities.”
According to Stoinski, perhaps the most valuable aspect of Poppy’s life was the fact that researchers knew her exact age.
“For many of the older gorillas we have studied who were already alive when Dian Fossey started her work, ages were estimates, and so there is some uncertainty in the actual lifespan or age at last birth. With Poppy, however, we knew exactly how old she was when she had her last baby.”
This is important to primatologists and other researchers because it makes an important contribution in gaining further data on how late in life an adult female gorilla can give birth. At age 41, Poppy became the oldest recorded mountain gorilla to give birth. She was unique in that she was studied both in infancy and old age. Prior to that, the oldest female in the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund Database of known age to give birth was 35.
“These types of events not only teach about gorillas but help us understand our own species on how we are unique,” said Stoinski.
(Data from mountain gorillas and seven other primate species, including humans were analysed to look for patterns of reproductive aging. The conclusion was that humans were curiously unique in having a long post-reproductive lifespan. In other words, human females reach the end of their reproductive years virtually at mid-life.)
Her lineage was remarkable. Poppy was a member of one of the mountain gorillas’ “royal families.”
Many of the females within that family held high dominance status and were reproductively successful (her mother, Effie, was the legendary matriarch of a family whose members are spread across many gorilla groups in the Volcanoes National Park in Rwanda, while sister Maggie was Hollywood actor Sigourney Weaver’s favourite gorilla when filming “Gorillas in the Mist”). Her nephew Cantsbee reigned over Pablo’s Group, which is the largest group of gorillas ever recorded with 65 individuals for over two decades.
Poppy is fondly remembered by Fossey Fund staff in Rwanda.
“Poppy broke the mold for what we know about mountain gorilla females – transferring at an older age, joining a very young and inexperienced male, having a baby so late in life,” said Veronica Vecellio, Fossey Dian Fossey Fund Gorilla Program senior advisor.
“It is so wonderful that we know about her infancy from Dian Fossey’s journals. She was one of Fossey’s favorites, and we all felt such privilege to know her and observe her in her final years. Surely, this means we will remember her forever.”
Poppy stayed with Group 5 until November 1985, just a few weeks before Fossey was killed. She then joined the Susa group, where she stayed for three decades and was monitored by the Rwandan Development Board (the country’s national park authorities falls under the RDB). During that time, she quickly rose in dominance and had several babies.
She was spotted by Fossey Fund trackers in 2015 in a group newly formed by young silverback Iyambere.
In August 2018, Poppy was part of Iyambere’s group during a stressful period that caused the group to travel quickly over long distances and enter into deep ravines. When the group was clearly seen again, Poppy was not with them. Despite a long search, she has not been seen again.
She is survived by five thriving offspring and sister, Mahane, who has a new infant. In Poppy’s memory, you can adopt Mahane and her baby, and help Fossey Fund researchers continue the important legacy of Dian’s “little darling.”