Mountain Gorilla (Gorilla beringei beringei)

Uganda has more than half of the world’s mountain gorilla population found on the Virunga Mountain slopes in Mgahinga National Park and Bwindi Impenetrable National Park.

There are two species of gorilla recorded only in Africa: the Eastern and Western Gorilla (Gorilla gorilla). Uganda’s mountain gorilla is a subspecies of the Eastern gorilla, found only in the east-central African rainforests. As their name hints, they live only in the mountains at elevations between 8,000 and 13,000 feet.

According to a recent publication (2018), a little more than 1,000 mountain gorillas remaining on Earth. Some of the mountain gorilla population lives in the rainforests of the Virunga mountains in central Africa. The other almost half roam the montane jungle floors of Uganda’s Bwindi Impenetrable Forest.

Three subspecies of gorillas are recognized.

  1.  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.
  2.  The endangered eastern lowland gorilla (Gorilla beringei graueri) is restricted to forest patches in the east of DRC, estimated to be 4,000 animals. Compared to the other eastern gorilla subspecies, the mountain gorilla has longer fur, teeth, and arms.
  3. The most threatened race of gorillas is the mountain gorilla, the only one found in Uganda.

 

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 three forest reserves in Uganda, Rwanda, and the Democratic Republic of Congo. The other lives in a far-flung, isolated montane forest in Uganda,  Bwindi Impenetrable National Park, extending to Sarambwe Nature Reserve in DRC.

These gentle giants live only in high-altitude montane and bamboo forests, between 8,000 – 13,000 feet (1,400 m to 3,800 meters), surrounded by human agriculture and settlements.

Silverback mountain gorilla in Rwanda

Relation to humans

Mountain gorillas share 98% with humans, which means that exposure to human illnesses – even a cold – can have potentially detrimental impacts on gorillas. They are so genetically similar to us and haven’t developed the necessary immunity to common human diseases.

Gorilla tourism is mainly why these creatures have the attention to survive extinction in the first place. So conservation teams and governments have stringent procedures to minimize the spread of human diseases to these precious creatures. Some of these measures include gorilla habituation, a controlled number of visitors, keeping at least 10 meters from them, and wearing a facemask, among others.

Mountain Gorillas have an average lifespan of 35 years in the wild.

Size

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).

Diet

Mountain gorillas are vegetarian, with their diet primarily including roots, shoots, fruit, wild celery, and tree bark and pulp. In the thick forests of central and east Africa, troops find plentiful food for their vegetarian diet.

They spend about a quarter of their day eating mainly leaves and shoots, but observers have also noticed them eat snails, ants, and bark, a good source of sodium.

Nightlife

At night, mountain gorilla groups sleep together in nests on the ground or in trees they make from foliage. Infants will share their mother’s nests, staying safe and warm.

Social life of Moutain Gorillas in Bwindi

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 (named a silverback) and several females.

The Silverback’s responsibilities include defending his family from invaders and 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 massive chest while barking out powerful hoots or unleashing a frightening roar.

Despite these displays and the animals’ evident physical power, mountain gorillas are generally calm and nonaggressive unless someone/something threatens them.

In the gorilla group, both males and females care for their infants, hugging, carrying, and playing with them. When they get older, most males and around 60% of females leave their birth group to join another troop, which helps prevent inbreeding.

Communication

In captivity, gorillas have displayed significant intelligence and have even learned simple human sign language. Primatologists have observed mountain gorillas use 16 different types of communication calls.

Mountain gorillas use 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.

Life Expectancy

In the wild, mountain gorillas can live up to 35 years old.

Baby gorillas are classed as infants until they reach around three-and-a-half years old and adults from about eight 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.’

Mountain gorilla reproduction

Reproduction

Female gorillas give birth to one infant after a pregnancy of nearly nine months.

Unlike their giant parents, newborns are tiny—weighing four pounds—and able only to cling to their mothers’ fur. These infants ride on their mothers’ backs from four months through the first two or three years of their lives.

From three to six years old, young gorillas are adorable to watch on a gorilla trekking excursion because they remind us of children with their charming antics. Much of their day is spent in play, climbing trees, chasing one another, and swinging from branches.

Critically Endangered?

The International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN), 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 if conservation efforts, heavily supported by gorilla trekking activities, don’t get the attention they deserve.

However, conservationists consider the mountain gorilla conservation story one of the most successful programs in the natural history world.

How to see mountain gorillas

How & where to see mountain gorillas

Tourists can see mountain gorillas on a primate jungle safari commonly referred to as Gorilla Trekking.

Tour operators (like Nkuringo Safaris) widely organize all-inclusive gorilla trekking adventures, taking care of all the ground handling, like processing the trekking permit and securing your accommodation and transport. However, some travelers chose to go through the process themselves.

Gorilla trekking trips usually set off from Entebbe (Uganda’s only International Airport) and head southwest into the mountain rainforest jungles of Bwindi Impenetrable National Park or Mgahinga National Park on the border with Rwanda & DRC.

For a well-seasoned traveler that wants both the luxury and the adventure, Uganda Wildlife Authority will charge you USD 700 for a gorilla permit ($400 at a special discount) that also gets you a guided excursion into the jungles and 60 minutes in the presence of a habituated gorilla family.

You can choose to experience the gentle giants in  Mgahinga  National Park. However, Bwindi is a better choice because it offers more than four sectors or trailheads with outstanding accommodation options.

For a more profound and extensive time with the mountain gorillas, we recommend a gorilla habituation experience. Uganda offers gorilla habituation experiences in Bwindi to at least eight people every day. On the adventure, four people can go with primatologists and rangers into the jungle, find a semi-habituate gorilla family and allow you to spend at least four hours with them. It’s a perfect excursion for gorilla photography.

Gorilla habituation experience in Uganda’s Bwindi Impenetrable Forest costs USD 1,500 per permit.

Rwanda also offers excellent gorilla trekking adventures but at a price that more than doubles gorilla trekking in Uganda and DR Congo. Rwanda’s gorillas are easy to access from the airport.

Suppose you don’t have the time to drive around, explore the African destination and its cultures, and have the money to go to Rwanda. But for a savvy traveler that wants a more profound experience, come to Uganda.

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.

What to pack for your gorilla trek

Your packing list should include hiking boots,  warm gloves, long sleeves, a waterproof backpack (rain forest, remember it could rain anytime), a tracking permit, and your cameras to hit the African jungle in style.

Seeing the mountain gorilla is a once-in-a-lifetime experience and worth every penny.

Other primates in Uganda