gorillas

Mountain gorilla

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. 

Fascinating facts about mountain gorillas

Close cousins

Mountain gorillas have longer hair and shorter arms than the closely related eastern lowland gorilla.

Mountain gorilla silverback displaying by beating chest. © Thomas Marent / Minden / Nature Picture Library

Mountain gorilla silverback displaying by beating chest. © Thomas Marent / Minden / Nature Picture Library

Distant drums

The chest-beating of a silverback gorilla can be heard over two kilometres away. 

Tourist dollars

The mountain gorilla features on banknotes in Rwanda and DRC. 

Mountain gorilla family life 

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. 

Young mountain gorilla. © Steph Baker / Fauna & Flora

Young mountain gorilla. © Steph Baker / Fauna & Flora

A baby mountain gorilla being cared for by family members.

What is a silverback? 

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. 

What do mountain gorillas eat? 

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. 

Where do mountain gorillas live? 

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. 

Mountain gorilla. © Juan Pablo Moreiras / Fauna & Flora

Mountain gorilla. © Juan Pablo Moreiras / Fauna & Flora

A female mountain gorilla sheltering from the rain in Rwanda’s Volcanoes National Park.

How many wild mountain gorillas are left? 

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.

Why are mountain gorillas endangered? 

Mountain gorillas face a range of threats, all human-driven, including poaching, habitat destruction, disturbance, disease and climate change.

Poachers with a snare. © Juan Pablo Moreiras / Fauna & Flora

Poachers with a snare. © Juan Pablo Moreiras / Fauna & Flora

Poachers with a snare used for illegal hunting in Virunga National Park, DRC.

Poaching 

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.

Habitat destruction 

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.

Human disturbance 

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.

Disease 

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.

Climate change 

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.

Gorilla exploring a potato field. © Christophe Courteau / Nature Picture Library

Gorilla exploring a potato field. © Christophe Courteau / Nature Picture Library

A silverback mountain gorilla exploring a potato field at the edge of the forest.

How can we help save 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.

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