The mountain gorilla (Gorilla beringei beringei) is the largest of all the gorillas and is the most endangered. The world’s remaining 820 mountain gorillas live in three different countries in Central Africa: Democratic Republic of Congo, Rwanda, and Uganda. Although this makes their range seem large, the mountain gorillas actually inhabit a small geographic area where the borders of these three countries meet. Over half of the world’s mountain gorillas can be found amidst the Virunga chain of volcanoes and the remaining populations live in Uganda’s Bwindi Impenetrable Forest some 75 km to the north.
Unlike their lowland counterparts, the mountain gorillas have long hair, which helps them handle the temperature extremes found at altitude. Mountain gorillas live in large family units led by a single dominant adult male, known as the “Silverback” — a name derived from the grey hair that develops on male’s back as it reaches adulthood. The Silverback is responsible for protecting the family from predators or other threats, including solitary Silverbacks intent on claiming females as their own. The dominant Silverback also takes on the role of mediator when disputes arise in the family. Some families contain more than one Silverback, but only one is dominant and that male alone is responsible for mating with the adult females of the group.
The sub-adult males of the family are known as “Blackbacks”. Adult females are generally half the size of the males and it is their responsibility to initiate mating with the dominant male, as well as care for the infants.
Despite all the lore about the ferocity of the mountain gorilla, in general they are very peaceful creatures. Most days are spent foraging for food, playing, and grooming. Aside from mock fighting amongst juveniles, displays of aggression are reserved for challenges to the Silverback’s dominance or direct threats to the family’s well being.
The mountain gorilla’s fierceness has been seen protecting its young from illegal animal traffickers intent on capturing baby gorillas. For every mountain gorilla baby that is found in the marketplace, an entire family of gorillas has died trying to protect it.
In addition to the threat posed by the illegal animal trade, the major threats to the mountain gorilla’s continued existence are habitat destruction, poaching, human diseases and war and civil unrest. Although Virunga National Park is a UNESCO World Heritage site and the mountain gorilla its “flagship” species, the war raging in eastern Congo since 1994 has rendered this distinction moot. Over 300,000 refugees now inhabit the area just below the park’s southern border. Due to the shattered infrastructure of eastern Congo, these refugees have had no choice but to enter mountain gorilla habitat for fuel and food.
Disease is arguably one of the gravest threats to the mountain gorilla. With people encroaching more and more into gorilla habitat, one of the few remaining ways to protect mountain gorillas is tourism. Unfortunately, tourism brings with it one of the biggest potential threats — disease. Because mountain gorillas share approximately 97% of our DNA, they are susceptible to the same diseases as humans. Unlike humans, however, their resistance is much lower. Sicknesses that the average human can beat with bed rest and antibiotics can prove fatal to the mountain gorilla. More serious outbreaks, such as Ebola or virulent strains of influenza could take the few remaining mountain gorilla populations beyond the point of return. Because of this vulnerability, it is imperative that tourists only visit gorillas when healthy and keep a minimum distance of 25 feet (7 meters) away. In the bigger scheme, the mountain gorilla’s range needs to be expanded to provide discrete populations with the geographic isolation needed to prevent the widespread transmission of disease.
Understanding the nature of mountain gorillas, and the threats they face, is the first step in assuring their preservation.
There are roughly 820 mountain gorillas remaining on Earth, and over half live in the forests of the Virunga mountains in Central Africa.