Mountain gorillas are the global superstars among the world’s great apes. They rose to fame following their memorable encounter with David Attenborough, vice-president of Fauna & Flora since 1979, during the filming of Life on Earth. Voted one of the top TV moments of all time, the gorillas’ gentle interactions with Attenborough revealed the absurdity of their fearsome reputation and endeared them to a worldwide audience estimated at 500 million.
Behind the scenes, however, mountain gorillas were in crisis. Decimated by poaching and marooned on their shrinking islands of forests, they seemed destined for extinction. The story of how the mountain gorilla was brought back from the brink is a rollercoaster ride – tinged with tragedy, but ultimately uplifting. It’s also a classic example of community engagement and cross-border collaboration, and a lesson in how to make conservation pay.
Mountain gorillas live in family groups that are known as a troop. These groups can number up to 40 gorillas but usually comprise around 10 individuals. Each group includes a dominant male, or silverback, as well as several mature females. Larger groups may also contain younger adult males, called blackbacks. Mountain gorilla groups forage together over a wide area, grunting or belching occasionally to maintain contact. Troops have overlapping territories, but tend to avoid each other. At night they sleep in nests constructed from vegetation.
The lifespan of mountain gorillas is 50-60 years. They breed slowly, with females giving birth on average once every four years. Mothers take great care of their young, and the silverback male defends his troop fiercely against any outside threats.
Silverback refers to the dominant male in a gorilla group. The name derives from the colour of the saddle of hair on his back, which turns whiter with age. All adult mountain gorillas are powerfully built, but silverbacks are simply enormous, with massive arms. The largest silverbacks weigh well over 200 kilos – twice the size of the average adult female gorilla – and measure almost two metres tall at the shoulder when standing.
When neighbouring silverbacks meet, they rarely fight. Instead, they engage in ritualised bouts of roaring, hooting, chest-beating, plant-bashing and charging. Similar behaviour is used to deter human intruders, predators, or large herbivores competing for food.
The mountain gorilla diet is almost entirely vegetarian. They feed on the leaves, shoots and stems of a selection of plants, with wild celery and bamboo among their favourites. Mountain gorillas spend more than half their day foraging.
The entire global population of the mountain gorilla is confined to two separate patches of Afromontane forest, one in Bwindi Impenetrable National Park, south-western Uganda, and the other on the forested slopes of the Virunga Massif, a chain of volcanic peaks that straddle the border shared by the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Rwanda and Uganda.
At the last count, an estimated 1,063 mountain gorillas survive in the wild. As far as we know, there are no mountain gorillas in captivity. Protecting these great apes in their natural habitat is the only way to ensure their survival. Mountain gorillas are officially classified as Endangered on the IUCN Red List. Their status was changed from Critically Endangered in 2018 after years of concerted conservation efforts had helped to achieve a significant increase in the global mountain gorilla population.
Credit: Steph Baker/Fauna & Flora
Est. in the wild:
The mountain gorilla is found in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Rwanda and Uganda.
mountain gorillas remain in the world today.
of our DNA is shared with gorillas.
Mountain gorillas face a range of threats, all human-driven, including poaching, habitat destruction, disturbance, disease and climate change.
In the past, mountain gorillas have been killed by poachers for meat, or while attempting to capture infant gorillas for the illegal pet trade, but these incidences are very rare today. However, snares set to catch other animals pose an ongoing and serious threat to mountain gorillas, causing injuries that may prove fatal.
Mountain gorilla habitat is vulnerable to illegal logging, agricultural conversion, and harvesting of trees or bamboo for construction use, firewood and charcoal burning. Infrastructure development and oil drilling are among the activities being contemplated within the national parks, despite their protected status.
The region where mountain gorillas are found is one of the most densely populated in Africa. Legal and illegal encroachment into their habitat – whether by tourists, researchers, hunters or householders – risk disturbing the gorillas. Crop-raiding can also lead to human-gorilla conflict. Mountain gorillas live in a part of the world plagued by instability and violent conflict. Incursions by rebel militia are a clear and present danger both to the gorillas and to the staff who protect them.
Mountain gorillas share 98% of their DNA with humans. This makes them particularly vulnerable to human-borne diseases to which they have no natural resistance. Even a common cold can be fatal. Ebola virus disease and Covid-19 are just two of the potentially devastating infections that could be transmitted by humans during close encounters with gorillas, such as tourists failing to observe social distancing rules.
Temperature extremes and erratic rainfall caused by climate change are likely to lead to food insecurity for both gorillas and local communities, social instability and an increase in insect-borne diseases, all of which would be bad news for mountain gorillas.
Fauna & Flora was supporting mountain gorilla conservation as early as 1971, but our work began in earnest in 1978 when we set up the Mountain Gorilla Project, following a heartfelt plea from David (now Sir David) Attenborough, to protect the dwindling gorilla population in Rwanda from the growing threats to their survival.
“While filming the Life on Earth series for the BBC back in 1978, I learned that the mountain gorillas I had encountered were in grave danger from poaching and habitat loss. On the plane home, I asked myself what I could do to help protect the remaining gorillas. And then I remembered Fauna & Flora. By this time, I’d been a member for 20 years, so I went to John Burton, who was then director, and asked him what we could do. There and then Fauna & Flora set up a fund to raise money and made a plan as to how the gorillas could be protected.”
In 1991, recognising that urgent measures were needed to protect mountain gorillas not just in Rwanda but throughout their range, Fauna & Flora helped establish the International Gorilla Conservation Programme (IGCP) in collaboration with partners including WWF and the park authorities in Rwanda, Uganda and DRC. In 2019, Conservation International also joined the coalition.
Today, all three range states have separate but adjoining national parks. Transboundary conservation of mountain gorillas is complicated, but IGCP has met this challenge head-on, by adopting a collaborative, regional approach to the problem. This includes cross-border cooperation between rangers to coordinate gorilla population monitoring, anti-poaching activities and even joint patrols.
IGCP also works closely with communities living close to the park, supporting community-run, conservation-related enterprises and working to alleviate human-wildlife conflict.
Through our support for IGCP, Fauna & Flora is ensuring the survival of mountain gorillas and their Afromontane forest habitat. Active conservation includes support for law enforcement and harmonised policy across the three countries where mountain gorillas are found, regular monitoring and census counts, strong programmes to engage local communities in the protection of gorillas, and working with businesses including tourism initiatives to ensure that they follow best-practice guidelines and minimise risk to the priceless primates.
Decades of hard work have resulted in a steady rise in the number of mountain gorillas from a few hundred to over 1,000 today. That’s a fourfold increase since the late 1970s. In November 2018, the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species changed the mountain gorilla’s official status from Critically Endangered, in light of the latest census results.
This fantastic news highlighted what concerted, collaborative conservation work can achieve. Persistent threats remain, however, and new ones continue to emerge, as Covid-19 demonstrated. Fauna & Flora has urged that mountain gorilla conservation efforts should be strengthened not reduced. We are continuing to work with local, national and international partners to secure the future for mountain gorillas.
“By working in collaboration, supporting conservation science and responsible tourism practices, and engaging with local communities, we are creating new hope for mountain gorillas and their precious habitat - while supporting the livelihoods of the people who live alongside them.”
Together, we can keep mountain gorillas off the critical list.
Help us protect these irreplaceable primates.
Almost 8,000 species of fish, amphibian, reptile, mammal and bird are officially categorised as globally threatened, and over 9,600 tree species are in danger of extinction.
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