Mountain Gorilla (Gorilla beringei beringei)
There are two species of gorilla recorded: the Eastern and Western Gorilla (Gorilla gorilla). Uganda’s mountain gorilla is a sub-species of the Eastern gorilla. There are about a 1,063 mountain gorillas remaining on Earth, and about half live in the forests of the Virunga mountains in central Africa, the other roam the montane jungle floors of Uganda’s Bwindi Impenetrable Forest. As their name hints, they live in the mountains at elevations between 8,000 and 13,000 feet.
Three subspecies of gorilla are recognized.
- The most common race, the western lowland gorilla (G. g. gorilla), is not found in Uganda, but an estimated 40,000 live in the rainforests of west and central Africa.
- The endangered eastern lowland gorilla (Gorilla beringei graueri) is restricted to patches of forest in eastern DRC, where there are estimated to be 4,000 animals. Compared to the other eastern gorilla subspecies, the mountain gorilla, the eastern lowland gorilla has shorter hair and teeth, and longer arms.
- The most threatened race of gorilla is the mountain gorilla, the only one of the three subspecies found in Uganda.
The total number of mountain gorillas is now estimated at around 1063 in the wild according to the latest (Dec 2018) IUCN Publications (which comes out every 5-10 years).
Where do mountain gorillas live?
Mountain gorillas live in east-central Africa in just two isolated groups – one in the Virunga Volcanoes (a cross-border region spanning 3 forest reserves in Uganda, Rwanda and Democratic Republic of Congo) and the other one in Bwindi Impenetrable National Park, Uganda, which connects to Sarambwe Nature Reserve, DRC.
They’re only found in high altitude montane and bamboo forests, between 8,000 and 13,000 feet (1,400 m to 3,800 meters)), which are surrounded by human agriculture and settlements.
Relation to humans
Mountain gorillas share 98% with humans. This means that exposure to human illnesses – even a cold – can have potentially detrimental impacts on gorillas because they are so genetically similar to us and haven’t developed the necessary immunity to common human diseased. They 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 about a quarter of their day eating mainly leaves and shoots, but have also been known to eat snails, ants and bark (a good source of sodium).
At night, mountain gorilla groups sleep together in nests on the ground, or in trees, that they make from foliage. Infants will share their mother’s nests, staying safe and warm.
Social Life of a Mountain Gorilla
Most mountain gorillas live in stable family groups (called troops or bands) of around 10 – 40 individuals, with one dominant male (called a silverback) and several females. Both males and females in the group care for their infants; hugging, carrying and playing with them. When they get older, most males and around 60% of females then leave their birth group to join another troop. This helps prevent inbreeding.
The Silverback’s responsibilities includes organizing troop activities like eating, nesting in leaves, and moving about in 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 huge chest while barking out powerful hoots or unleashing a frightening roar. Despite these displays and the animals’ obvious physical power, gorillas are generally calm and nonaggressive unless they are disturbed.
In the thick forests of central and west Africa, troops find plentiful food for their vegetarian diet. They eat roots, shoots, fruit, wild celery, and tree bark and pulp.
In captivity, gorillas have displayed significant intelligence and have even learned simple human sign language. Mountain gorillas have been observed to use 16 different types of calls. This includes short barks when they’re 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. Gorillas are classed as infants until they reach around three-and-a-half years old, and adults from around 8 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 powerful parents, newborns are tiny—weighing four pounds—and able only to cling to their mothers’ fur. These infants ride on their mothers’ backs from the age of four months through the first two or three years of their lives.
Young gorillas, from three to six years old, remind human observers of children. 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, which sets the conservation status of species, changed the mountain gorillas status from “critically endangered” to “endangered” in 2008 as their numbers improved. Scientists, however, warn that they could quickly slip back into being critically endangered.
How to see mountain gorillas
Mountain gorillas can bee seen on an East African Jungle Safari commonly referred to as Gorilla Trekking Adventure. These trips usually hail off from either of the two cities, Entebbe in Uganda and Kigali in Rwanda, and head off into the mountain rainforest jungles shared between three countries of Rwanda, DR Congo and Uganda.
If you want to a luxury non-evasive and less physically demanding, you’ll have to let go of US$1,500 for a gorilla permit in Rwanda that allows you an escorted excursion into Volcanoes National Park jungles to see and spend those precious moments with the mountain giants.
For a well seasoned traveler that wants both the luxury and the adventure, Uganda will charge you US$700 for a gorilla permit that also gets you a guided excursion into the jungles and 60 minutes in the presence of a habituated gorilla family. In Uganda you can chose to track the gentle giants in either Mgahinga or Bwindi Impenetrable National Parks, Bwindi is a better choice.
DR Congo is a little bit tricky to traverse. Though some hard souls risk their lives and take on Congo’s insecure jungles, we highly advise not to head that way.
You’ll need your hiking boots, pack your garden gloves, long sleeves, a waterproof backpack (rain forest, remember it could rain anytime), a tracking permit and your cameras and hit the African jungle in style. Seeing the mountain gorilla is a once-in-a-lifetime experience and worth every penny.