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Mountain Gorillas are the largest and most intriguing primates on earth. They are often referred to as ‘the Gentle Giants’ and are the second closest relatives to humans after the Chimpanzees. Mountain Gorillas are listed as ‘Endangered’ by the IUCN and UNESCO so their protection and conservation is a concern to not only wildlife bodies in the countries that harbour them but also the conservationists world over. Science has it that primates and humans share a common ancestor which can further be confirmed by that similar genetic sequence. Find such and many other interesting facts about Mountain Gorillas below;
Classification of Mountain Gorillas
Mountain Gorillas belong to the Animal Kingdom in the class of Mammals and the Order of Primates. Further down, they belong to Hominids or Great Apes Family in the Genus Gorilla. The Genus Gorilla is classified into the Western Gorilla and Eastern Gorilla. Mountain Gorillas are a subspecies of the Eastern Gorilla together with the Low Land Gorillas. Mountain Gorillas inhabit the high/elevated forested areas in Uganda, Rwanda and Congo while the low land Gorillas can be found in Zoos, some forests in West Africa and Congo. In Congo, there are both Low land and Mountain Gorillas. Please note that the names are in respect to their habitats. Whereas Mountain Gorillas can barely survive in captivity, the low land ones do. Physically, Mountain Gorillas are larger with darker and longer hair than the Low Land Gorillas.
Mountain Gorilla habitat; Where to find Mountain Gorillas
The 1,063 surviving Mountain Gorillas in the world are exclusively living in their natural habitat and not anywhere in captivity. The Albertine Rift montane forests of Africa are the only places with ideal conditions for the survival of these endangered species. They particularly inhabit the forests of Bwindi located at the edges of the Albertine Rift in Uganda and those at the slopes of the Virunga Volcanoes that are shared by the 3 African countries of Uganda, Rwanda and Congo. In Uganda, Mountain Gorillas are found in the national parks of Bwindi Impenetrable Forest and Mount Mgahinga Gorilla Park. In Rwanda, Mountain Gorillas are found in Volcanoes National Park, and Virunga National Park in Congo.
Social life of Mountain Gorillas
Mountain Gorillas are very social animals. They live in groups called troops or families which comprise of one dominant silverback, females, black backs and the young ones. A silverback is an adult male, significantly bigger than the rest of the family members and grows silvery hair/fur across its back. This silver patch becomes lighter and wider as it grows. A silverback is very strong, heads and gives protection to the family. A mature Silverback can weigh up to 200Kgs and the female 110Kgs. There is however no special gender based name for the female Mountain Gorilla like it is for the Male, which is called a Silverback.
A blackback on the other hand, is the young male Gorilla which hasn’t reached the age of developing silvery hair at its back. Its fur at the back starts to turn silver from the age of 12 or 13 and hence becomes a silverback. This is when it starts to (sadly) attract frequent fights from the dominant silverback and hence less chances for it to keep with the family. Some families however have more than one silverback and this happens for as long as the rest remain submissive to the dominant one.
Formation and composition of Mountain Gorilla families.
As mentioned above, Mountain Gorillas live in groups or families which are formed through a natural process of birth and social interactions or fights. The fights are for dominance among the silverback where the strongest takes over the family. The families can keep enlarging or reducing depending on the strength of the lead silverback. Gorilla families are composed of the lead/head Silverback, the females, black backs and the young ones. Being a free/natural environment in which they live, the composition of their families in terms of numbers can hardly remain stable for a much longer time. It is a similar case with the members of the group. The dynamics in all Gorilla families are easily noticeable, thanks to the daily monitoring by the trackers! Trackers are park staff who follow the Gorillas from morning when they leave their nests until the evening when they make fresh ones. Any change in their family compositions and daily behaviours can therefore be noticed.
Feeding Habits of Mountain Gorillas
Mountain Gorillas are vegetarians that feed on plant leaves, stems, bark of trees, seeds, fruits, bamboo shoots and dead wood. Although plant materials constitute 99% of their diet, they can also eat termites, ants and other insects. They occasionally eat soil, ash and specific stones to supplement their mineral intake.
The infants or baby Gorillas are exclusively breast fed until 4 months when they start testing food left over by their mothers. They slowly learn to feed after their mothers and at 9 months, they are able to do so on their own besides being able to digest what they take in. However note that, the mothers do breast feed their babies up to 3 or even 4 years. Remember they give birth every after 4 or 5 years.
Mountain Gorillas’ water drinking patterns and habits are largely determined by the seasons. They mostly look for water streams during the dry and not the wet season. In the wet season, most of the plants contain a lot and sufficient water for their body needs. Regardless of the season however, Gorillas do not drink water on a daily basis.
Gestation period of a Mountain Gorilla
Just like humans, the gestation period of a mountain Gorilla ranges between 8.5 to 9 months and they produce every after 4 or 5 years. A female usually gives birth to one baby and rarely to twins. Sadly though, the chances of twins surviving up to maturity are minimal. Twins are a responsibility(solely) of the mother except where she dies and the lead silverback takes over. The mother has to hold babies as it looks for food for itself. It’s quite a challenge since it has to move holding them on its belly or lap and not the back. Such circumstances force it to drop or abandon one of the babies which end up dying of starvation when it’s deprived of breast feeding at a tender age.
Mating amongst Mountain Gorillas
Females become sexually active at 6 years but are ready to conceive at 8 years. The males/silverbacks are sexually mature and active at 12 years. The leader or the head silverback is the only one to mate with all the females in the family. However, this is not to say that there is no intimacy/attraction amongst the other males and females with in the family. When this occurs, those involved tend to keep a few metres from the family so as to satisfy their sexual urge and they usually walk farther ahead or behind the rest of the family. Gorillas make noise or a certain sound during mating so in such a scenario, they may not survive the wrath of the lead silverback when it finds out about their sexual act. When a disciplinary act is imposed on them, the male usually runs away from the family to lead a solitary life until it is mature or strong enough to form its own family by grabbing females from other families or winning a fight with a silverback and takes over an already established family. Some females can also run away from the family to join other families when they are not sexually satisfied by the lead Silverback.
Life expectancy of a Mountain Gorilla
Generally, the life expectancy of a Mountain Gorilla is 35 to 40 years. It is mainly the females however, the males hardly reach that age. The males especially the head silverbacks have a lot more to do than other members interms of guarding, planning and looking for better feeding areas for the family. Such and the frequent fights for dominance tend to wear them out faster than the females.
Mountain Gorillas Population and the threats to their lives
In the world, Mountain Gorillas are estimated at 1,063 individuals living in 2 small populations; in Bwindi Impenetrable Forest Park – Uganda and the Virunga mountains of Rwanda, Uganda and Congo. Mountain Gorillas have been known to be at risk of extinction and in the past years, they were labelled as ‘Critically endangered’ by the IUCN until a steady increase in their population was realised and moved to ‘endangered’ in 2018. Bwindi Impenetrable Forest Park shelters the highest population; of over 450 Mountain Gorillas, a number that is almost half of the total population. In the Virunga Mountains or Virunga Conservation Area (to which Volcanoes National Park(PNV), Virunga National Park and Mount Mgahinga Gorilla Park belong), PNV has the highest number followed by Virunga National Park in Congo and the least with Mount Mgahinga Gorilla Park in Uganda. Actually Virunga park is much bigger than Volcanoes park which would presuppose the highest number sheltered there, this is not the case however. The insecurities in Congo force the Gorillas to take advantage of the porous border and escape to safety in Volcanoes National Park.
There are few surviving Mountain Gorillas for some reasons. First of all, their habitat is increasingly becoming small due to human encroachment on these forests. Moreover, encroachment leads to gradual degradation of their habitat. Using the forests for illegal lumbering, poaching and subsistence farming are negatively affecting the forests’ suitability for the survival of the Mountain Gorillas let alone threatening their safety with in their habitat. The most recent unfortunate incident happened in Bwindi Impenetrable National Park in June 2020 where a silverback was speared to death by the poachers who were allegedly on a hunt for wild pigs in the forest. In the process, the silverback put great resistance as in defence for its family when it tried to attack them, and they retaliated by spearing it to death.
Overall, the major threats to the Mountain Gorillas are poaching, habitat destruction, diseases and insecurity. Common diseases for Mountain Gorillas are; Flue, intestinal parasites and cough. Some are acquired from man while others develop on their own. The only predator to the Mountain Gorillas are the leopards but these are rare given the cold environment in which the Gorillas live.
Mountain Gorillas movements
Mountain Gorillas are wanderers though less mobile and active when compared with Chimpanzees, their closest relatives. Their daily movements or travels can be for about 500 metres. In regard to elevation, they can go up to 3000 metres above Sea level. They are however non-territorial; they do not mark or fight for territories. Although their food is in abundance with in their habitat, their movement/travel patterns are more or less determined by its(food) availability, among other factors. They move more during the dry season and in the afternoons than the wet season and the mornings, respectively.
Mountain Gorillas retire after the day’s movements and activities in the evening between 5.30 and 6.PM. They sleep in nests at night which can be made on the ground or up in trees. They don’t repeat nests, they make fresh ones each day and every member (of 4 years or above) sleeps in an own nest except the young ones that share with their mothers. Upon rising up in the morning, they dismantle the nests as they leave for their usual routine of feeding and socialising.
Information about Mountain Gorilla movements is helpful especially during the Mountain Gorilla Trekking activity. By the vast and dense forests in which they reside, a visitor can hardly find them when prior knowledge about their movements is not shared. This information is also a yardstick to determine the level of ease or difficulty with which the trek can be done. It also guides the visitor on the direction to take to find the Gorillas easier and faster, but of course with the guidance and in the company of the park staff. Since they don’t move too far in a day, records from the previous day can give an indication of how deep or close the Gorillas are. During the trekking activity, tourists move after the Gorillas or in their directions by following crushed vegetation, their droppings and foot prints or even their unique sounds.0200
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