Mountain Gorillas Facts – Everything You Need to Know

The mountain gorilla is a name that might evoke images of King Kong or the age-old tales of Tarzan. Yet, these majestic beings are far removed from the fictional representations of Hollywood. They stand as a testament to the unbridled wonders of nature, and sadly, as a reminder of humanity’s often detrimental impact on the natural world.

The endangered Mountain Gorillas of Volcanoes National Park are a spectacle you won’t encounter in any zoo across the globe. Their inability to thrive in captivity has ensured that there are no surviving members of this species in zoos. Instead, their only habitat remains the verdant expanses of Africa, predominantly in Uganda, Rwanda, and the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Recent census data (from May to November 2018) provided by the Rwanda Development Board paints a concerning picture – merely 1063 Mountain Gorillas continue to roam our planet. Volcanoes National Park, a gorilla habitat in Rwanda, East Africa, houses over 320 of these, with Mgahinga Gorilla Park offering refuge to more.

However, the history of these creatures is as intriguing as it is tumultuous. It’s a revelation that until 1902, the Western world remained oblivious to their existence. The credit for this discovery goes to Captain von Berenge, who, during an expedition on Mount Sabinyo in what was then a German colony (now Rwanda), encountered these magnificent beings. The surprise wasn’t just their discovery, but the altitude and climate they thrived in – so distinct from their Lowland Gorilla cousins in West Africa. Alas, this discovery came at a price, drawing hunters who either sought to kill or capture these animals. Such was the allure that Prince Wilhelm of Sweden is reported to have shot 14 mountain gorillas during a 1920-1921 expedition.

While the past paints a bleak image, the tale of the Mountain Gorillas is also one of redemption and human perseverance. Conservation stalwarts like Dian Fossey frequented Uganda, especially the Travellers Rest Inn established by Walter Baumgartel in Kisoro. His writings in “Up among the Mountain Gorillas” offer an intimate portrayal of these gentle giants.

While most gorillas one might encounter in zoos hail from the western African lowlands, the Mountain Gorillas, scientifically known as Gorilla beringei beringei, remain confined to specific regions. The Bwindi Impenetrable National Park and the Virunga mountain range (spanning Rwanda’s Volcano National Park, the Virunga National Park in DRC, and Uganda’s Mgahinga Gorilla National Park) are their only refuges.

But there’s a silver lining. Due to collective conservation efforts spanning three governments, international bodies, and local communities, the gorilla populations are witnessing a resurgence. The communities around these parks, benefiting from a share in the gorilla tracking fees, play an integral role in this revival story.

Today, the Mountain Gorillas stand as a testament not just to nature’s majesty but to the indomitable human spirit – a beacon of hope in a world grappling with ecological challenges.

The Description of Mountain Gorillas

Mountain Gorillas are an enigma wrapped in layers of thick fur, set against the backdrop of Rwanda’s lofty terrains. Unlike their gorilla relatives, the Mountain Gorilla boasts a fur that is both longer and denser, a gift from evolution that allows them to thrive in the cooler climates of higher altitudes. This fur is not merely a protective cloak but an emblem of their survival in the sometimes harsh mountainous terrains.

One of the most fascinating aspects of these creatures is their unique nose prints – akin to the human fingerprint, no two gorillas share the same nose print. This feature is integral in distinguishing one individual from another in the wild. Size-wise, male gorillas dominate, often weighing double the weight of their female counterparts. Further testament to their majestic stature is their skull structure. Adult males sport pronounced bony crests on their skulls’ top and back, granting their heads a distinctive conical shape. While females also possess these crests, they are subtler in comparison.

The eyes of a Mountain Gorilla are captivating, dark brown in color with a contrasting black ring encircling the iris. With age, males undergo a transformation, earning them the title ‘silverbacks’. This name arises from the characteristic saddle of silver or gray-colored hair that adorns their backs as they age. Notably, this hair is shorter than the fur that covers the rest of their body. The length of their arm hair, however, stands out conspicuously.

In terms of dimensions, males, when fully erect, can reach heights of up to 1.9 meters with an impressive arm span stretching to 2.3 meters. They can weigh a whopping 220 kilograms. Historical records indicate instances of even taller and heavier individuals, a testament to the sheer size these creatures can achieve. Contrary to some beliefs, Mountain Gorillas are not exclusively grounded; they will venture into fruiting trees if the branches can bear their weight. The young ones, much like human children, display a playful affinity for tree climbing. Anatomically, their arms outmeasure their legs, a trait shared with other great apes, except humans. Their mode of movement is a distinctive knuckle-walk, where they rely on the backs of their curved fingers for support.

The daily life of a Mountain Gorilla is regimented. They’re diurnal, active predominantly between 6:00 a.m. and 6:00 p.m., with a midday siesta. A significant portion of their day is dedicated to foraging to sustain their formidable size. As dusk approaches, each gorilla meticulously crafts a nest using nearby vegetation, a ritual performed every evening, barring infants who find solace nestled with their mothers.

Their might is unparalleled, with a male’s strength estimated to be ten times that of a robust boxer. This immense power is evident in the vast expanse of a silverback’s arms, which can span seven feet. The Mountain Gorilla’s fur serves as a distinction from its lowland relatives, longer and darker, a testament to their life at higher, colder altitudes.

In the vastness of Rwanda’s terrain, the Mountain Gorillas stand tall and proud, a symbol of nature’s grandeur and resilience.

The Mountain Gorilla Life Cycle

The life cycle of the Mountain Gorilla is a captivating blend of patience, endurance, and familial bonds. For these majestic beings, maturity and reproduction unfold at a measured pace, hinting at nature’s own rhythm in the highlands.

Females step into the realm of sexual maturity around the age of 7 to 8. However, Mother Nature plays the long game. These females might physically mature in their late youth, but they hold off on breeding for several more years, ensuring they are in optimal condition for the challenging task of raising offspring. Males, on the other hand, take their time in the dance of maturity, with the majority not even contemplating breeding until they approach or surpass their 15th year.

Nature, while wondrous, does not always grant easy paths. The journey of a baby gorilla from conception to infancy is laden with challenges. With a prolonged gestation period of 8.5 months, the anticipation for a new addition to the gorilla family is a long one. Moreover, the propensity for single births, combined with the intricate and extended maternal care required, means that baby gorillas are a rare delight. On average, a span of 4 to 6 years will bless the group with just one infant. Over her lifetime, a female might introduce only three or four young ones who survive the trials of infancy to the world.

Survival is a key theme in the Mountain Gorilla’s life. Infants face the harsh reality of nature with high mortality rates. Yet, once they pass the vulnerable infancy phase, their resilience shines through. Adult gorillas face a mere 5% mortality rate, demonstrating the robustness of these incredible animals. With the nurturing of their community and the richness of their habitat, these gorillas can expect to grace the earth for 40 to 50 years. Captivity, though not the gorilla’s natural domain, has seen them live even longer, with one remarkable individual in the United States reaching the age of 54.

One cannot discuss these gorillas without marveling at a striking revelation – our shared genetic heritage. Gorillas and humans share an astounding 98% genetic similarity. A number that not only underscores our interconnectedness but also prompts introspection about our shared responsibility towards these cousins of ours.

The life of a Mountain Gorilla is a testament to the rhythm of nature, the challenges and rewards of survival, and the profound connections that bind all life on Earth.

Habitat and Diet of Mountain Gorillas in Rwanda

Habitat

Geographical Location: Mountain gorillas in Rwanda are primarily found in the Volcanoes National Park (Parc National des Volcans), located in the northwest of the country. This park forms part of the larger Virunga Conservation Area that spans three countries: Rwanda, Uganda, and the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Altitude Range: The gorillas inhabit altitudes ranging from 2,500 to 4,000 meters. The varied altitudinal range of the park results in diverse vegetation zones, each providing a unique habitat for the gorillas.

Vegetation and Terrain

Bamboo Forests: Found at lower altitudes, these forests are one of the gorilla’s primary habitats.

Hagenia Forests: These lie above the bamboo belt and host a variety of other wildlife species in addition to gorillas.

Subalpine Vegetation: As the altitude increases, shrubs, grasses, and other subalpine vegetation dominate, providing a different habitat niche.

Climate: The high altitude ensures that the habitat remains moist and cool. The region receives heavy rainfall, further nurturing the dense rainforests and keeping the ecosystem vibrant and conducive for the gorillas.

Diet

Mountain gorillas are primarily herbivores, with a diet that varies based on availability and seasonality.

Bamboo: A significant portion of the gorilla’s diet, especially when it’s shooting season, bamboo is a rich source of nutrients.

Leaves, Stems, and Shoots: Mountain gorillas consume vast amounts of various plant species’ leaves, which constitute the bulk of their diet. They will often choose the tender shoots and stems of plants, which are easier to digest and richer in nutrients.

Fruits: Although the gorillas’ habitat is not particularly rich in fruiting trees, fruits form a part of their diet whenever available.

Flowers and Seeds: Occasionally, mountain gorillas will forage for flowers and seeds, which provide a varied nutritional profile.

Insects: Though primarily herbivores, mountain gorillas might occasionally consume ants, termites, and other insects. However, this constitutes a negligible portion of their overall diet.

Dietary Adaptations: Mountain gorillas have a highly efficient digestive system, which allows them to extract maximum nutrients from their plant-based diet. Their strong jaw muscles and broad teeth help in grinding dense foliage, aiding digestion.

Mountain Gorilla Social and Behavioral Structure in the Volcanoes National Park

Volcanoes National Park is home to the enchanting mountain gorillas, which have fascinated researchers and tourists alike with their complex social structure and behavior. Not only are they majestic in appearance, but they also exhibit intricate social dynamics that reflect both stability and adaptability within their habitats.

Social Structure:

Leadership: The dominant silverback leads the gorilla groups, with an average tenure of 4.7 years. He plays a pivotal role in determining the group’s movement, seeking suitable feeding sites, mediating conflicts, and ensuring the safety of members from external threats. The silverback’s protective nature even extends to caring for orphans, should a mother abandon or die.

Group Composition:

61% of gorilla groups comprise one adult male and multiple females.

36% of groups have more than one adult male.

The rest are either lone males or male-only groups, typically consisting of one mature male and several younger ones.

On average, a group will have ten individuals, although this can range from five to thirty. This typically includes one silverback, one or two blackbacks (sentries), three to four mature females bonded to the silverback, and three to six juveniles and infants.

Migration: Most males depart their natal group around the age of 11, gradually distancing themselves until they leave. Around 60% of females also leave their birth group.

Behavior:

Protective Nature: In the face of threats from humans, leopards, or rival gorillas, the dominant silverback exhibits fierce protective behavior, even risking his life for the group.

Aggression: Intra-group aggression is minimal in stable groups. However, encounters between two gorilla groups can escalate to lethal confrontations between the dominant silverbacks. This aggressive display involves a series of steps like hooting, symbolic feeding, rising bipedally, vegetation throwing, chest-beating, leg-kicking, and ground thumping. Intervention may occur if two silverbacks are found fighting.

Grooming and Play: The midday rest period strengthens intra-group bonds. Mutual grooming, especially between mothers and their offspring, is a regular activity. Young gorillas indulge in playful behavior like wrestling, chasing, and somersaults, with even adults occasionally joining in.

Vocalization: Mountain gorillas use about 25 distinct vocalizations for intra-group communication, especially in dense vegetation. These sounds serve various purposes, from signaling alarm or warning to indicating contentment.

Unique Behaviors: Intriguingly, mountain gorillas have been observed to avoid certain reptiles like chameleons and caterpillars instinctively. They also exhibit a natural aversion to rain and water, opting to cross streams without getting wet.

Reproduction:

Mountain gorilla groups have no specific mating season, leading to births throughout the year. Males begin breeding around 15 years, while females give birth between 10 to 12 years. A female typically has 4 to 6 offspring in her lifetime.

Threats and Conservation:

Human Encroachment: Expanding villages and deforestation have threatened the habitats of these gorillas. Thankfully, education by governments and tourism incentives have significantly reduced threats in Rwanda.

Disease Transmission: Disease transmission from humans to gorillas is a significant concern. As a result, strict rules are in place to prevent the spreading of diseases from tourists to the gorillas.

Poaching: Though poaching is less prevalent in Rwanda, it remains a concern, especially in regions like the Democratic Republic of Congo.