Gorillas are one of the most feared animals in the world, thanks to movies like King Kong and Congo . While it is true that they are large, powerful creatures, they are also gentle and affectionate.
Mountain gorillas are easygoing vegetarians who lead a peaceful, playful life. Large males patiently allow young gorillas to climb all over them without a murmur of protest, and they are not aggressive toward humans unless they are threatened.
As primates, humans and gorillas share a common ancestor. Humans did not evolve from gorillas; rather, humans and gorillas simply took separate evolutionary paths about 10 million years ago. We seem to have a special affinity for these animals despite our differences. As George Schaller, one of the world’s leading gorilla researchers, has written:
No one who looks into a gorilla’s eyes — intelligent, gentle, vulnerable — can remain unchanged, for the gap between ape and human vanishes; we know that the gorilla still lives within us. Do gorillas also recognize this ancient connection?
(George B. Schaller, “Gentle Gorillas, Turbulent Times,” National Geographic, Vol. 188, No. 4 (October 1995), p. 66.)
Mountain gorillas are one of the most endangered animals in the world. Scientists estimate that there are about 600 individuals, living in 2 populations of about 300 each, separated by about 20 miles. Their entire world consists of 285 square miles of high-elevation rain forest in east-central Africa. They are endangered from habitat loss, poaching, and war.
Despite their endangered status, until recently mountain gorillas were one of conservation’s brightest success stories. Decades ago they were on the brink of extinction, when conservation measures reversed the decline and started them on the road to recovery.
Today, they face a new threat — the aftermath of a tragic civil war that erupted in Rwanda in the early 1990s, claiming the lives of 500,000 people, and creating refugee camps with 750,000 people living in destitution on the borders of the gorillas’ reserves. Continuing political unrest threatens to undo almost 20 years of remarkable conservation work.
Description and Natural History
The mountain gorilla is one of two subspecies of gorilla. The other subspecies, the lowland gorilla (Gorilla gorilla gorilla), is the species found in zoos. There are no mountain gorillas in captivity.
The names of the two subspecies reflect their habitat: lowland gorillas live in the lowland forests, while mountain gorillas live at high elevations, 10,000 feet or higher on the slopes of volcanoes. Mountain gorillas are herbivores, eating plants like wild celery, thistle, and nettles. Special treats are bamboo and bracket fungus. Their food plants grow profusely in the cool, moist mountain climate of their range in Rwanda, Zaire, and Uganda.
Gorillas live in family troops led by the largest male, called the silverback because of the beautiful silver fur on his back. They are fiercely protective of their young and will defend them literally to the death. Poachers after baby gorillas for international trade often have had to kill entire families to capture their quarry.
Mountain Gorilla Endangerment
Causes and Responses 1900 to the 1970s:
Beginning early in the 20th century, collectors and hunters from Europe and the United States began to capture or kill mountain gorillas. In 25 years over 50 mountain gorillas were taken as trophies or for collections.
Carl Akeley of the American Museum of Natural History shot five gorillas in 1921, but he was so impressed with these animals that he convinced the Belgian government, which at that time ruled what is now Zaire, to establish Africa’s first national park for them in 1925.
The gorillas were relatively protected until 1960, when civil war broke out and park protection disappeared. Poachers set out snares to capture animals for food, and gorillas were caught in the snares. The gorillas also were killed intentionally for their meat and parts; gorilla hands and heads were sold as souvenirs to tourists.
In addition to being killed and captured, the gorillas have lost large amounts of habitat to agriculture. The countries in which they live have some of the highest human population densities in the world. Every acre that is not protected is farmed. In 1968, 40 percent of the remaining forest was turned over to a European-sponsored agricultural scheme.
Mountain gorillas live in islands of mountaintop habitat in a sea of human settlement (See Island Biogeography). It is an astonishing sight to see terraced fields climbing right to the border of the gorillas’ park, high up the mountain. Sounds of children playing in the fields penetrate into the park, a vivid reminder of the relentless pressures an exploding population places on gorilla habitat.
Dian Fossey, the American zoologist known throughout the world from the movie “Gorillas in the Mist,” is credited with the first successful antipoaching efforts in the gorillas’ park. Beginning in 1963, she and her staff regularly patrolled the forest and removed snares set to capture antelope and other animals.
Although gorillas were not the poachers’ main targets, snares often trapped gorillas and they lost a hand or a foot to infection. Fossey’s efforts were too successful for her own personal safety, and she made the ultimate sacrifice 20 years after he work began: she was murdered in 1985, presumably by poachers.
The 1970s: Conservation Begins
A new era in gorilla conservation began in the late 1970s when an international consortium of conservation organizations established the Mountain Gorilla Project to bring gorilla tourism to the area and educate Rwandans about the gorillas. The integrated program of antipoaching, tourism, and education, has had a profound effect on the local people’s attitudes. The success of this program vividly demonstrates how much a group of dedicated individuals can accomplish.
Gorillas were placed in carefully controlled groups so tourists could view them at close range. Gorilla tourism was so successful that gorilla viewing at one time was Rwanda’s third- largest earner of foreign currency. Similar programs were started on the Zaire and Uganda sides of the volcanoes where the gorillas lived. Rwandans recognized that protecting the gorillas was in their economic interest. Gorilla populations in Rwanda have risen from a low of 250 in 1981 to about 300.
The 1990s: Civil War
Civil war broke out in Rwanda in the early 1990s. Surprisingly, the war itself did not decimate gorilla populations. It did bring a halt to gorilla tourism, cutting off the flow of much-needed foreign money. But few gorillas were actually killed during the war, despite poaching for other animals and despite tens of thousands of soldiers and refugees passing through the gorilla’s habitat.
Researchers and guards remained in the park at great personal risk, determined to protect the gorillas, until they were forced to leave. Some have returned to the park, but operations have not resumed at their former level. Civil unrest continues to pose a problem. And forests on the Zaire side are being denuded for firewood in the refugee camps.
The future of mountain gorillas depends on whether a stable government can be restored and maintained in Rwanda, and whether the country can house and feed its refugees without destroying the park.
Questions for Thought
Can you think of any positive effects war could have on wildlife?
Do you know of anyone in addition to Dian Fossey who has made a real difference for wildlife? What do you think leads people to dedicate their lives to protecting endangered wildlife?
Words in bold italics can be found in the glossary.