Description: Gorillas are the largest of Africa’s two great apes (Gorillas & Chimpanzee), Gorillas are divided into two groups, the mountain gorilla and the lowland gorillas. As the name implies, Mountain gorilla (gorillas) live at high elevation in steep forested mountains of central Africa in 3 countries. These include Uganda, Rwanda & Congo. Lowland gorillas live in flat and dense forests of central and western Africa. Mountain gorillas are so special among other gorilla species because they are the rarest animal species on earth, a half of these mountain gorillas live in dense forest of Bwindi, with the rest of the population living in Virunga mountains. A face to face encounter to mountain gorillas during gorilla trekking is a dream to many travelers to Africa.
History & Background of Mountain gorilla: Mountain gorillas were not much known until 1902 when captain Von Berenge was climbing Mount Sabinyo with friends and when they camped they spotted mountain gorillas at 9300ft above sea level. The Mountain gorillas have endured the years of wars, hunting, poaching, habitat encroachment and diseases. Studies about mountain gorillas started in 1920 by an American known as Carl Akeley who travelled to Africa. Years later in 1959 George Schaller also conducted a study about the behavior, ecology and history of the mountain gorillas and published his work in a book called The mountain gorilla in 1963 which is still referred to.
Dian Fossey arrived in 1967 at Kabara meadow in Congo where Schaller had left a study base though she was forced to move to Rwanda due to political instability in Congo. She set up a camp called Karisoke getting the name from the two neighboring Volcanoes Karisimbi and Visoke/Bisoke. Dian Fossey and her colleagues like Sandy Harcourt started to habituate the gorillas, by 1972 they had habituated three groups including the most groups 4 and 5. This paved the way into the lives of mountain gorillas, with success to be trekked during the coming decades and since then, mountain gorilla research continued alongside trekking activities.
Dian Fossey and researchers spent each day with the gorillas, watching and documenting their lives and the threats for their survival like poaching. They used methods that other researchers had used like dropping down on knees and hands then crawling like the gorillas plus mimicking their sounds and voices. This marked the beginning of mountain gorilla conservation.
Primatologist Dian Fossey on her research work
In 1973 the first attempt of Mountain gorilla trekking was introduced, but was stopped due to lack of proper knowledge and experience about gorillas. In 1978 a Silverback called Digit was killed alongside five other gorillas and this raised concern of how to protect these gorillas from poachers and traps. This led to formation of Mountain Gorilla program in 1979 with the aim of introducing gorilla tourism and this became a model for gorilla conservation across Africa but its major focus was in Rwanda.
In 1980 to 1990 studies continued about the gorillas by many researchers like Caroline Tutin on lowland gorillas in Congo, Tom Butynski in Uganda, Bill weber and Amy Vedder in Rwanda and many more. These conducted studies about genetics of gorillas, how males and females disperse, the eating habits, population structure, carrying out gorilla census, the reproduction of gorillas, and the group formations. This was done after realizing how gorillas were doomed and that something were to be done to save their home.
It was unfortunate that during gorilla studies, In 1985 Dian Fossey was murdered in her cabin and was buried near the Karisoke research center where her tomb is visited up to now, but her research work continued with the Digit fund becoming Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund International. In 1991 mountain gorilla research was moving steadily with Bwindi impenetrable forest and Mgahinga becoming national parks in Uganda. Buhoma and Ruhija research stations were put in place by the Institute of tropical forest conservation. At least four gorilla groups were habituated by the mid-nineties, with Mubare gorilla family being the first habituated gorilla group and opened for tourism in 1993.
As research was progressing in Uganda, the war broke out in Rwanda leading to the genocide and Karisoke research Centre was destroyed in 1994. Though the center is not physically present, its activities still take place. The mountain Gorilla project evolved in 1991 into International Gorilla Conservation program (IGCP) comprised of African Wildlife Foundation(AWF), fauna and Flora International (FFI) and World Wide Fund for Nature(WWF). This program extended its activities to cover the entire mountain gorilla range of Uganda, Rwanda and Democratic Republic of Congo. In the year 2,000, more gorilla families were habituated for tourism purposes in Uganda.
Female mountain gorillas
Mountain gorilla scientifically are known as Gorilla beringei beringei and are classified as one of the two subspecies of the eastern gorilla, the most endangered on earth as listed by IUCN. Mountain gorillas belong to mammals and share 95% DNA with humans, they are highly intelligent animals to the extent that they can use tools like human beings in many way while feeding and during their daily activities. Mountain gorillas cannot be found in any zoo in the world, reason being they cannot survive in captivity. Today mountain gorillas have grown in numbers due to conservation efforts. The population grew from 620 individuals in 1989 to 1,063 currently according to 2019 census results. The International Union for the conservation of Nature(IUCN) then declared that mountain gorillas are currently endangered from the previous state of critically endangered in 2008.
mountain gorilla habitat; Mountain gorilla live in areas of high altitude between (1,500-4,000m) as their name suggests. In Africa, they can only be seen in Virunga mountains which are comprised of Mgahinga national park in Uganda, Volcanoes national park in Rwanda and Virunga national park in DR Congo with the rest living in Bwindi Impenetrable forest national park in Uganda. They are adopted to this cold environment because they have long hairs on their body to keep them warm in the mountains unlike their cousins the eastern lowland gorillas. Mountain gorillas are larger in size though with short arms.
Mountain Gorillas can live and survive in the wilderness up to 40 – 50 years and at maturity, these mountain gorillas can weigh between 135 – 220 kg.
Mountain gorillas live in communities called troops comprising of adult males known as silverbacks, younger males called black backs, adult females and young ones. These troops are comprised of members from two and above up to 40. The oldest and strongest male Silverback known as Alpha male, leads the group and is in charge of protection, decision making, disciplining other members and breeding. All the other male gorillas in that group stay submissive and at times live solitary life until they form their own groups.
In troops where more than one silverback is found, they are usually off springs of the dominant silverback. Gorilla groups usually have their homes that range from 10 -15 miles where they feed and rest. Male gorillas usually take about 4 years to completely leave their original group; they keep distancing themselves from the troop while attracting some of the other members especially the females until they completely form their own troop.
Gestation period of mountain gorillas & breeding; Female gorillas take about 8 and a half months to have a baby and they produce only 3 or 4 off springs in their lifetime. The young gorillas are nursed by their mothers up to 4 years where they can feed and walk on their own. Newborn gorillas are always small and weak weighing about 4 pounds but they grow so fast. They cling on to their mother’s fur until they reach about 4 months when they can stand on their own. Mothers breastfeed and protect their infants. Males start to breed between 12 and 15 years where as female gorillas became sexually mature at the age of 7 or 8 years.
Mountain gorilla behavior & Diet. Mountain gorillas spend most of their time feeding, grooming, resting and playing. The adult gorillas are commonly seen grooming the young ones and the younger gorillas are always seen playing, running and jumping on tree branches and the backs of the older gorillas. Gorillas are omnivores, they feed mostly on leaves, shoots, flowers and less of fruits. Mountain gorillas also feed on celery, bamboo, thistles, stinging nettles and bedstraw but gorillas rarely drink water because their diet contains a lot of water. Adult gorillas eat up to 25 kg a day.
Gorillas are nomadic animals so they make their nests at the end of each day by bending tree branches and using leaves. They move from one place to another while foraging so they make nests wherever the dusk finds them. Female gorillas sleep with the infants and the older gorillas make themselves a nest each day. The nests are built off the ground to protect them from parasites and the cold grounds.
Threats and dangers have greatly affected the rate of gorilla population growth, they include;
Gorilla Doctors office in Musanze Rwanda
Mountain gorilla Conservation activities;
Generally, mountain gorillas are gentle and calm animals but so aggressive when disturbed. The dominant silverback will always roar, hoot, bark, throw things, beat the chest so hard and charge when it senses danger. The silverback protects all the members in the troop and can do anything even fighting to death to protect them. Gorillas have strong attachments to members of their own troop, that even when they mix up slowly they will part and separate to their individual troops.