For the past few years, mountain gorillas are having often been the first thing that comes to mind for many at the mention of a safari in Uganda.
Many people all over the world know about the existence of mountain gorillas, but very few have any background information of facts about the species. Not many people know about their habitats, diets, behavior or how they survive in the wild.
Today we try to demystify the mountain gorilla.
Habitats: Where can you find mountain gorillas?
You will not find mountain gorillas in any zoo anywhere in the world. They typically thrive in the world and can only be seen in Africa, in Uganda, Rwanda or the Democratic Republic of Congo. The mountain gorillas are an endangered species and there are about only 786 of them left in the entire world. More than half of that population lives in Uganda.
The mountain gorilla is a subspecies called the Gorilla beringei beringei and can only be found in the Virunga region- the volcano park in Rwanda, Virunga national park in DRC and Mgahinga gorilla nationals and Bwindi impenetrable forest in Uganda. The parks are within 48 kilometres of each other.
The gorillas move daily to a different location to spend the night making nests from twigs and leaves. Some human have found them quite comfortable, even enough to fall asleep in.
History: When did when westerners first hear and know about mountain gorillas?
Westerners first heard about mountain gorillas in 1902. While Rwanda was still a German colony, a one captain Von Berenge climbed mount Sabinyo on the Rwanda side with some friends and spotted a group of mountain gorillas. He shot two of them and retrieved one a young male of about 5 years weighing 220 pounds. It was larger than any other primate the Germans had ever seen. They sent skin and born samples to berlins for testing, and it was discovered that the creature was a gorilla.
No one had ever thought or expected gorillas to be able to live in a place at such a high altitude and in such cold temperatures. Many hunters including prince Wilhelm of Sweden were drawn to the region when they heard about the existence of these gorillas. The prince killed about 14 gorillas in the space of one year, between 1920 and 1921. With all the hunting, the population of this rare sub species of gorillas was slowly decreasing, so the Belgians established a preservation program in Rwanda, and the English in Uganda did the same. In Uganda, no one was allowed to visits the gorillas for quite some time. Eventually, Walter Baumgärtel was given permission to organise visits for travellers to his inn, the Rest Inn in Kisoro. He eventually wrote a book about the mountain gorillas. A number of scientists, some specialising in primate species such as Diane Fossey stayed at the rest Inn. The Inn still exists in Uganda today.
What are the characteristics of a mountain gorilla?
There a number of characteristics both physical and behavioural that makes the mountain gorilla unique.
One of them is that the mountain gorilla has longer and darker hair than the low land gorillas. The hair on the male’s back has a touch of silver, and that is why the male mountain gorilla s are called silver backs.
Mountain gorilla males are in most cases twice the size of the female. They can tower up to 6 feet tall and weigh about 350 -500 pounds on average.
They are very strong animals with strong muscular long arms. Their arms can stretch up to 7 feet. It has been estimated that they are ten times stronger than the toughest boxer you can find.
The mountain gorilla is mostly terrestrial but will occasionally climb up trees if the trees can support them. The young can often be seen playing in trees, kind of like humans. This supports the scientific factoid that gorillas and humans are 98% genetically identical.
What do gorillas feed on?
Mountain gorillas live in dense forests at high altitude, so their diet basically consists of afro montane vegetation. It is mostly green and leafy food. They are vegetarian without even trying. They mostly feed on leaves, fruit, and bamboo shoots in season, roots, and flowers. The adult mountain gorilla can eat as much as 75 pounds of this a day.
Their habitats for the most part determine their diet. In Uganda, Mgahinga gorilla national park is part of the Virunga chain of volcanoes and has afro montane vegetation on which the gorillas feed.
Bwindi Impenetrable forest is a primeval thick forest that is literally impenetrable and dark and exists at an altitude of 1160 to 2607 meters above sea level. Much as the two habitats are different in a number of ways, they do have similarities in what they have to offer by way of food for the mountain gorillas.
Are mountain gorillas dangerous?
People always wonder if mountain gorillas are dangerous. These powerful strong giants can be quite gentle and shy, especially those that have been habituated to adapt to human presence. Those are the ones that gorilla trekking trips lead you to. Habituated gorillas are accustomed to human presence. The process of habituation takes about 2 years, sort of like behaviour therapy.
When mountain gorillas feel threatened, they respond by attacking to protect themselves, which is one of the reasons why they need to be habituated before people can visit them in the parks and in the forests.
Mountain gorillas live in groups or families. The groups vary in size from 2 to 30 or even 40. But most groups in Uganda have about eleven gorillas. Like humans, there is no designated mating season. Babies are born all year round. Breeding age for males is about 15 years while the females can start breeding between 10 and 12 years. A female mountain gorilla can give birth every two to 3 years, which can amount to about 4, 5 or 6 offspring during their lifespan.
In the past not everyone thought it was a good idea to visit gorillas in Uganda, one of the people who opposed this was Diane Fossey one of the foremost scientists in primate research. However the gorilla trekking and visits have brought in money that has helped protect the endangered species.
A Mountain Gorilla Day is from 6 am to 6pm with a nap around a lunch time. Light comes in Uganda just past 6pm and darkness comes around 7pm.
They communicate by sounds such as grunts, shouts and roars, 25 sounds have been recognized by researchers
How are the mountain gorillas endangered and and why are they in need of protection?
Mountain gorillas are threatened by a number of things including, human activity and disease.
Activities such as encroachment of humans on their habitat, burning and cutting down parts of the forests and greenery that constitute their home threaten the mountain gorillas’ survival. There are also poachers, though in Uganda, gorilla poaching is not as big a problem as it is in Democratic Republic of Congo.
Mountain gorillas are also threatened by disease especially those that humans bring with them to the park.
A few measures have been put in place to protect gorillas;
Education has been paramount: sensitising the people living in areas near the gorilla area on gorilla conservation and why it is important.
There are also a number of rules and guidelines that have been put in place in the parks that protect both the Gorillas and the visitors.
There have also been several gorilla campaigns to raise money to support gorilla conservation.
Because of all the protection and conservation efforts, the gorilla population in Uganda has grown significantly. The communities in the area have also been shown the benefits of gorilla conservation. A gorilla trekking permit in Uganda costs 500 dollars and a portion of this is given to the surrounding communities.
The mountain gorilla is an interesting and rare animal and is an exciting creature to see. Be sure to add gorilla trekking to your Uganda safari itinerary and experience what many people are already making noise about.