The mountain gorilla (Gorilla beringei beringei) is the giant primate (great ape), a subspecies of the eastern gorilla only found in East and Central Africa. It is the biggest living primate. It is larger, more powerful, and has thicker, longer fur than other gorilla species, allowing it to survive only in harsh environments at high altitudes and in extreme cold.
Like human thumbprints, the mountain gorilla has a nose print unique to each individual.
The mountain gorilla is the most threatened race to extinction and the only gorilla species found in Uganda. Uganda has over half of the world’s mountain gorilla population found on the Virunga Mountains slopes in Mgahinga National Park and Bwindi Impenetrable National Park.
The mountain gorilla lives in east-central Africa in just two isolated groups – one in the Virunga Volcano Mountains, a cross-border region spanning three forest reserves in Uganda, Rwanda, and the Democratic Republic of Congo. The other lives in a far-flung, isolated rift valley montane forest in Uganda, in Bwindi Impenetrable National Park, extending to Sarambwe Nature Reserve in DRC.
Mountain gorillas live only in high-altitude montane and bamboo forests, between 8,000 – 13,000 feet (1,400 m to 3,800 meters), surrounded by human settlements.
The mountain gorilla is 98% genetically similar to a human. Yet, it hasn’t developed the necessary immunity to common human diseases, making it vulnerable to human illnesses. Even a simple cold can negatively impact the gorillas’ health.
Gorilla tourism is mainly why these creatures have a slim chance of surviving extinction in the first place. So conservation teams and governments have stringent procedures to minimize the spread of human diseases to these precious creatures. Some measures include health monitoring, habituating them for tourism, controlling the number of visitors, keeping at least 10 meters from them, and wearing a facemask during visits.
Mountain Gorillas have an average lifespan of 35 years in the wild.
Mountain gorillas are the bulkiest and most powerful living primates. An average male mountain gorilla can weigh 136 to 230 kilograms (300 to 485 pounds) and reach a standing height of 4 to 6 feet (1.2 – 1.8 meters).
Mountain gorillas spend a quarter of their day eating a vegetarian diet, primarily including roots, shoots, leaves, fruit, wild celery, tree bark, and pulp. In the thick forests of Uganda, Rwanda & DRC, troops find plentiful food for their vegetarian diet.
They supplement their plant-based diet with raw protein from snails and ants, and their source of sodium is tree bark.
An adult male mountain gorilla can eat up to a whopping 34 kilos (75 lbs) a day, and a female up to 18 kilos (40 pounds). They must walk on all fours to support their fat, heavy bellies and spend more time sitting, grooming, farting, fornicating, and socializing to allow digestion.
At night, mountain gorillas sleep together in temporary nests on the ground or in trees built for just that night from foliage. Infants will share their mother’s nests for safety and warmth.
Most mountain gorillas live in stable family groups (called troops or bands) of around 10 – 40 individuals, with one dominant male (named a silverback) and several females.
The silverback is responsible for the family’s well-being, including finding good foraging spots, defending them from intruders, managing family feuds, finding secure nesting spots, and patroling a home range of 0.75-to 16 square miles.
Those who challenge this alpha male are apt to be cowed by impressive shows of physical power. He may stand upright, throw things, make aggressive charges, and pound his massive chest while barking out powerful hoots or unleashing a frightening roar.
Despite these displays and the animals’ evident physical power, mountain gorillas are generally calm and nonaggressive unless someone/something threatens them.
In the gorilla group, both males and females care for their infants, hugging, carrying, and playing with them. When they get older, most males and around 60% of females leave their birth group to join another troop, which helps prevent inbreeding.
Gorillas have displayed significant intelligence in captivity and have even learned simple human sign language. Primatologists have observed mountain gorillas use 16 different types of communication calls.
However, no mountain gorillas have ever survived in captivity; those in captivity are the eastern lowland gorillas, small and more adaptive than mountain gorillas.
The mountain gorilla uses short barks when it’s mildly alarmed or curious. To intimidate rivals, male gorillas strut with stiff legs, beat their chests, and use vocalizations like roars or hoots.
In the wild, mountain gorillas can live up to 35 years old.
Baby gorillas are classed as infants until they reach around three-and-a-half years old and adults from about eight years.
Males between 8-12 years are called ‘blackbacks.’ Then, from 12 years old, they develop a silver section of hair over their back and hips, earning them the name ‘silverback.’
Female gorillas give birth to one infant after a pregnancy of nearly nine months.
Unlike their giant parents, newborns are tiny—weighing four pounds—and able only to cling to their mother’s fur. These infants ride on their mothers’ backs from four months through the first two or three years of their lives.
From three to six years old, young gorillas are adorable to watch on a gorilla trekking excursion because they remind us of children with their charming antics. Much of their day is spent in play, climbing trees, chasing one another, and swinging from branches.
The International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN), which sets the conservation status of species, changed the mountain gorilla status from “critically endangered” to “endangered” in 2008 as their numbers have improved. Thanks to the aggressive conservation programs around these great apes involving governments, NGOs, tour operators, and private individuals.
Scientists, however, warn that they could quickly slip back into being critically endangered if conservation efforts don’t get the attention they deserve.
However, conservationists consider the mountain gorilla conservation story one of the most successful programs in the natural history world.
Tourists can see mountain gorillas on a primate jungle safari called Gorilla Trekking Safaris.
Tour operators widely organize all-inclusive gorilla trekking tours, taking care of all the ground handling, like processing the trekking permit and securing your accommodation and transport. However, some travellers choose to go through the process themselves.
Gorilla trekking tours usually start from Entebbe and head southwest into the mountain rainforest jungles of Bwindi Impenetrable National Park or Mgahinga National Park.
Uganda Wildlife Authority will charge a foreigner USD 700 for a gorilla permit that allows them a guided excursion into the jungles and 60 minutes in the presence of a habituated gorilla family. Resident foreigners working in Uganda buy the permit for much less ($600) and a Ugandan 250k a piece.
You can choose to experience the great apes in Mgahinga National Park, which is not far from Bwindi. However, Bwindi is a better choice because it offers more than four sectors or trailheads with outstanding accommodation options.
For a more profound and extensive time with the mountain gorillas, we recommend a gorilla habituation experience. Uganda offers gorilla habituation experiences in Bwindi to at least eight people daily. On the adventure, four people can go with primatologists and rangers into the jungle, find a semi-habituate gorilla family and spend at least four hours with them. It’s a perfect excursion for gorilla photography.
Gorilla habituation experience in Uganda’s Bwindi Impenetrable Forest costs USD 1,500 per permit.
Rwanda also offers excellent gorilla trekking tours but at a price that doubles gorilla trekking in Uganda and DR Congo. Rwanda’s gorillas are easy to access from the airport.
DR Congo is a little bit tricky to traverse. However, some hard souls risk their lives and take on Congo’s insecure jungles.
If you are heading into the jungles to find the mountain gorillas, pack right and light. Take light hiking boots, light trousers that won’t make you sweat, and a long-sleeved t-shirt. Carry a light rain jacket, poncho, and waterproof backpack for your gadgets and snacks, and hit the African jungle in style.
Seeing the mountain gorilla is a once-in-a-lifetime experience and worth every penny.