Mountain gorillas 

The existence of gorillas in Africa’s tropical forests has been known for centuries and not only to local residents. The earliest record dates back 2000 years when sailors from the North African province of Carthage landed in West Africa and tried to capture some apes, a bruising encounter that earned the animals the Carthaginian name for `scratcher’ – ‘gorilla.’ 

According to Live Science, there are two gorilla species (Gorilla gorilla and Gorilla beringei) and four subspecies; Mountain Gorillas (G. beringei beringei), Western Lowland Gorillas (G. gorilla gorilla), Eastern Lowland Gorillas (G. beringei grauri) and Cross River Gorillas (G. gorilla diehli).

Two subspecies of gorilla, the western lowland gorilla (G. gorilla gorilla) and the eastern lowland gorilla (G. beringei grauri) were identified for science in 1847 and 1877 respectively. 

It wasn’t until 1903 that a third sub species, G. beringei beringei (the Mountain gorilla) was identified. Somewhat bulkier than its lowland cousins – weighing up to 210kg (463lbs) – and with a shaggier coat suited to its chilly montane habitat, it was named after the German officer, Oscar von Berenge, who enabled its classification. This was a happier event for science than discovery of the mountain gorilla. 

The gallant Captain shot two specimens on Mt. Sabinyo in 1902 and other hunters dispatched at least fifty more for their collections during the early 20th century. 

Mountain gorillas rank among the rarest animals in the world with just 1004 animals in existence, according to a recent gorilla survey conducted by the Protected Area Authorities in the DRC, Rwanda, and Uganda (l’Institut Congolais pour la Conservation de la Nature, the Rwanda Development Board and the Uganda Wildlife Authority) under the transboundary framework of the Greater Virunga Transboundary Collaboration. 

Gorillas, together with chimpanzees (Pan troglodytes), are our closest relatives. Indeed a more impartial observer than Dr. Homo sapiens (PhD Zoo.) might wonder why Homo, Gorilla and Pan merit categorisation as separate genera since we share 97.7% of our genetic material with gorillas and 98.77% with chimpanzees. 

Gorillas are extremely social and live in groups, typically of about 12 animals, consisting of one or more dominant silverback males, some younger blackback males and females and their infants. 

Compared to chimpanzees, gorilla life is peaceful and quiet. You’ll generally find a group lounging around, chewing leaves, tolerantly fending off boisterous infants and farting continuously and contentedly. 

Conflict is rare, serious violence being generally limited to occasions when an interloper challenges a silverback (dominant male leader) for control of a group. 

Nevertheless, it’s easy to see how the gorilla gained the reputation of a fearsome beast: its chest beating displays and (usually) mock charges are behavioural practices meant to intimidate! Indeed, until just a few decades ago, the gorillas’ press had not improved since their encounter with Carthaginian tourists 2000 years earlier. This idea of a ferocious jungle beast was perpetuated by European hunters whose exaggerated accounts culminated in the classic image of King Kong swatting biplanes from the Empire State Building. 

Though some years would pass before it got about that these courageous fellows had actually been shooting peaceable vegetarians, gorillas were still considered worthy of protection. 

The Belgians gazetted the montane home of their Virunga gorillas as the Parc National des Albert in 1925 while the Ugandan slopes were declared a Gorilla Game Sanctuary in 1931. The nearby Bwindi forest was declared a Crown Forest in 1932 to protect a second Ugandan population of gorillas. 

The threat to gorillas then came not from Africans but from white hunters eager to bag a rare trophy. The local view of the gorilla, uncomplicated by squinting through a gun sight was that of any thinking person who looks into a gorilla’s eyes; that it is quite inappropriate to shoot one’s close relatives and mount their heads on the wall. 

Mrs. T. Phillips, the wife of a British administrator made this point in 1930 when she sent an article to The Times, explaining—”The danger to gorillas from local Africans is very little…a Swedish expedition offered the Kigezi mountain pygmies what to them was wealth to enlist their services as hunters for a museum specimen. They met with a blank refusal. The flesh, moreover, is considered by them as an abomination. To suggest eating it is an insult. As regards the pelt, even the professional tanners will not touch it. They would as soon consent to flay a brother’s skin”

It was not until 1960 that an American researcher, George Schaller, showed that gorillas were not savage monsters but intelligent, peaceful and sociable vegetarians. 

Schaller estimated that only 450 mountain gorillas lived on the volcanoes, a number that was soon to decrease further. In the years that followed independence in Uganda, Rwanda and Congo, gorilla habitat on the Virungas was reduced by agricultural encroachment. As the forests shrank, the traditional taboo against hunting gorillas – was forgotten and many animals were poached to provide gruesome tourist ‘souvenirs.’ 

By 1973 gorilla numbers had dropped to just 250. It was during these dark times that Dian Fossey famously fought for the survival of the mountain gorilla, firstly in Congo until war forced her to relocate to Rwanda where she was murdered in 1985. 

The mountain gorilla’s fortunes – and its public image – turned around in 1979. David Attenborough appeared on worldwide TV in the midst of a habituated family on the ground-breaking BBC wildlife documentary, Life on Earth. 

Effectively a global rebranding exercise for the gorilla (later boosted by Sigourney Weaver cuddling gorillas in the 1988 film of Dian Fossey’s life, Gorillas in the Mist) this was a tremendous advertisement for another event in the same year – the start of mountain gorilla tourism in Rwanda. 

This initiative was to prove a phenomenal success. Though the first overland truck tourists paid only US$20 to track gorillas, within 5 years wider gorilla tourist spending in Rwanda was netting the country almost US$10m/ year. Rwandans suddenly had an incentive to conserve mountain gorillas and their remaining habitat. 

The Congolese habituated their own gorillas for tourism in the Djombe sector of the Virunga NP and Uganda followed suit in Bwindi and Mgahinga in 1993. 

It hasn’t been easy to save the gorilla through tourism. A series of wars in Congo has prevented tracking in Virunga NP between 1992 and 2005, while the 1994 genocide effectively ended tourism activity in Rwanda for several years. 

Sometimes the gorillas don’t help either. Mgahinga’s habituated group now spends much of its time in Rwanda returning only infrequently to be tracked by tourists willing to pay US$600 a head for the experience. 

Nevertheless, thanks to conservation efforts, assisted by revenue from tourism and support from international agencies, the Virunga’s population has risen from 250 to 604. Another 400 live in Bwindi bringing the total to 1004. 

Conservation requires money and local support to succeed and gorilla tourism plays a critical role in generating both. Gorilla permits earns Uganda Wildlife Authority a useful US$34m (£26m) annually according to the International Gorilla Conservation Program. As Rwanda found however, total spending by gorilla tourists in Uganda – on transport, accommodation and other activities like rafting the Nile or climbing the Rwenzori – is far greater, so there’s lots of support nationwide for gorilla conservation. 

Ultimately though, the survival of the Endangered mountain gorilla depends on the extent to which the benefits reach those with the greatest ability to influence their future, namely the Ugandan, Rwandan and Congolese villagers who live around the gorilla parks. 

Gorilla Habituation 

Gorilla tracking by tourists is made possible by dedicated ranger-trackers and a few groups of tolerant gorillas. 

Habituating gorillas – the process of getting them accustomed to human presence – takes at least two years. Most gorillas are probably never seen by a person for they simply melt into the undergrowth when approached, and indeed this is what happens when the habituation process starts. But over time, as the trackers trail the group daily, the gorillas become increasingly tolerant. Eventually a day arrives when the silverback decides that, rather than moving his family away from its uninvited guests, he is content to stay put – a moment of tremendous satisfaction for all involved. 

A gorilla’s daily routine is hardly demanding (eat, fart shamelessly,  poo, play, move a short distance, doze, eat, make nest, sleep). Even so, disruption to this pleasant schedule is minimised. 

Human contact is limited to one hour a day, during which the group is studied for signs of agitation and potential violence. For although the King Kong image has been replaced by that of gentle giants, gorillas are still extraordinarily powerful wild animals that will act accordingly if provoked. The risk is reduced by appropriate behaviour when in the presence of gorillas.’ 

Only when the gorillas are completely comfortable in human company, are tourists invited to share the daily hour of contact with them. 

Just one incident has occurred to date, in 1997 when a professional photographer considered himself exempt from the ‘No Flash Photography’ rule. A startled and bedazzled Mgahinga silverback took exception to this breach of etiquette and charged, roughed up and sat on an innocent observer.