Mountain gorillas rank among the rarest animals in the world with just 720 animals in existence. They belong to the ape family and are the bulkiest. An adult may grow up to 1.8m high. Two subspecies of gorillas, the western lowland gorilla – Gorilla gorilla gorilla – G.g graueri were identified for science in 1847 and 1877 respectively. It wasn’t until1903 that a third sub-species G.g berengei – the mountain gorilla was identified. It was named after a German officer Oscar Von Berenge who enabled its classification.
The mountain gorilla is bulkier than its lowland cousins weighing up to 210kg and has a shaggier black coat suited to its chilly montane habitat.
It’s extremely social and lives in groups typically of about 12 animals consisting of one or more dominant silverback males, some younger black back males, females and their infants. Silverbacks as the dominant males are so called are because of the whitish colour variation on their backs caused by a thinning and graying of their coats upon maturity.
Gorillas communicate in a variety of ways, including facial expressions, gestures and calls. Adult males use barks and roars during confrontation or to coordinate the movement of their groups to a different area. Postures and gestures form an important element of intimidation and it is often possible for a clash to be easily diffused by teeth –barring, stiff-legging, lunging, and charging. And if all this fails, a terrifying piercing scream is enough to deter most outsiders.
Gorillas also communicate friendly with grunts of pleasure as part of group bonding, when they find food and feed. They will also grunt or bark to alert other members of the group upon finding food. Grooming among gorillas is uncommon unlike in other primates.
Gorillas are exclusively vegetarian and feed on the leaves in their forested montane habitat which they leisurely pick and stuff into their mouths with no need for haste as they are assured of sustenance. Gorillas feed a lot and usually have distended bellies. They tend to feed from the ground and prefer very short trees and those with overhanging branches.
Females have on average about five births in a lifetime but have only one offspring at a time. The baby gorilla from the time it’s born, spends most of it’s time with the mother who is very protective of it that she keeps it held to her chest for about three months, then from three to six months the baby will occasionally ride on the mother’s back, with more liberty allowed as the baby grows progressively older.
Gorilla life is peaceful and quiet compared to that of chimpanzees. They spend most of their time lounging lazily around, chewing leaves, tolerantly fending off boisterous infants and farting continuously and contentedly.
Gorillas usually beat their chests and mock charge, but these behavioural practices are meant to intimidate rather than aggress. Conflict is rare and serious violence is generally limited to occasions when an interloper challenges a silverback for control of a group. This doesn’t mean that gorillas are therefore harmless. Not at all! They are extraordinarily powerful animals that will react aggressively if provoked. This risk though is reduced by appropriate behavior when in the presence of these seemingly gentle giants.
A gorilla’s routine is pretty lax and involves moving short distances, eating, playing, dozing, making nests to sleep in and sleeping. This routine though mustn’t be disrupted by humans as it agitates the gorilla and provokes violence.
Gorillas are generally rarely seen by humans because human presence greatly unsettles them and they will simply melt into the undergrowth when approached.
Through habituation a process in which gorillas are made accustomed to human presence, they can now be viewed at a safe and an un intrusive distance.
The habituation process takes at least two years and involves over this time, the tracker trailing a gorilla group daily till the time when the gorillas become tolerant of human presence and decide to stay put rather than hurriedly disappear. This decision is taken by the silverback, and the moment he makes it, habituation is on It’s way to realization.
Mountain gorillas are an endangered species almost on the verge of extinction. It was in 1960 that American researcher George Schaller estimated that only 450 mountain gorillas lived on the volcanoes a number that decreased further as the gorilla was reduced by agricultural encroachment where they were killed to rid the land of them and poaching to provide gruesome tourist ‘Souvenirs’. Consequently, by 1973 gorilla numbers had dwindled to just 250.
However through sustained and concerted efforts at conservation of the mountain gorilla and its habitat, mountain gorillas have slowly increased to the 750 number today. This is largely through protection of their species and habitat which is gazetted.
Mountain gorillas are only found in Uganda, Rwanda and Congo. In Uganda they are only found in Bwindi Impenetrable and Mgahinga Gorilla National Parks. Bwindi is made up of ancient rain forest and a steep landscape, slippery valleys and high draughty ridges –a perfect habitat for the mountain gorilla. The impenetrable forest reserve was gazetted in 1942 and upgraded to national park status in 1992. Measuring 327km2 it is home to an estimated 340 mountain gorillas. Mgahinga is montane and has high volcanic peaks.
Mountain gorillas can be tracked from two locations in Bwindi; Buhoma on the northern edge of the forest and Nkuringo on the southern edge of the forest. Buhoma is the busier site with three habituated gorilla groups-Mubare, Habinyanja A and Habinyanja B. One of these groups usually roams within reasonable walking distance. Nkuringo is the toughest of the gorilla racking locations as it is physically exerting and not for the unfit, elderly or fainthearted.
At Mgahinga, gorilla tracking is one of its best activities. It is Uganda’s smallest park measuring just 33.7km2. It combines hiking with gorilla tracking. It was first gazetted as a gorilla game sanctuary in 1930 and upgraded to National Park status in 1991.