Know your Gorillas

Gorillas are the largest primate species on earth but they are threatened by habitat loss and their future hangs in the balance. Find out more about these remarkable apes.


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Mountain Gorillas 

Conservation status: Endangered to Critically Endangered

Mountain Gorillas inhabit the environs of the Virunga Volcanoes in high-altitude tropical forests in Rwanda, Uganda and the Congo.

There are known to be only about 700 - 800 Mountain Gorillas left on Earth and many initiatives are taking place to assist with their conservation. Mountain Gorillas have longer fur and shorter arms than their lowland cousins while they also tend to be the largest of them all. They live mainly on the ground in communities of up to 30 members, but they are also capable of lifting their enormous bodies to climb trees.

As with other gorilla species, troops are led by a dominant, older male, who organises group activities such as eating, nesting in leaves and moving around the group's home range. Mountain Gorillas have a slow rate of reproduction; females give birth for the first time at around the age of 10 and have further offspring every three to four years. A male begins to breed at approximately 12 years old, around the time of when he becomes the leader of a group. 

Newborn gorillas are tiny, weighing only around 2kg, and their movements resemble human babies, although they develop twice as fast. They ride on their mothers' backs for the first two or three years of their lives and while they are young, they spend most of their time climbing trees, chasing one another and swinging from branches.

Species and Sub-species

There are four main species and subspecies of gorillas found in the African Rainforest: the Western Lowland Gorilla living in Cameroon, Central African Republic, Gabon, Congo and Equatorial Guinea; the Eastern Lowland Gorilla located between east-central Zaire and Congo; the Mountain Gorilla inhabiting the surroundings of the Virunga Volcanoes in high-altitude tropical forests in Rwanda, Uganda and the Congo and the Cross River Gorilla which can be found in a small area between Nigeria and Cameroon.

Physical Appearance
Gorillas are huge, extremely strong and incredibly smart creatures. Most gorilla species have small eyes and their ears are very close to their skulls. They possess a short and thick upper body with a broad chest and shoulders and their arms are longer and stronger than their legs. A gorilla’s abdomen is much larger than its chest due to enlarged intestines, making it very difficult to observe when a female is pregnant. Just as we humans do, they have four fingers with an opposable thumb on their hands and they can be identified by their unique fingerprints. A fully adult male can be twice as large as the female.

Eating Habits
An adult male gorilla consumes approximately of 18kg of vegetation per day including leaves, fruits, stems, roots, flowers and some small insects such as snails, ants and grubs. Gorillas rarely drink water, since they consume very large amounts of vegetation which contains enough water for their bodies to remain hydrated.  

Leopards and sometimes crocodiles are the only known natural predators of gorillas.  However, most recently, humans have proved to be the most deadly predator of them all and have hunted gorillas to almost extinction. They are commonly hunted for meat and they have often become victims of traps set for antelopes and other animals. Poachers have also destroyed entire family groups in an attempt to capture infant gorillas for zoos and the black market, while adult gorillas are killed to have their body parts later sold as trophies. Another serious threat that gorillas face is habitat loss, however, a regional conservation program in Rwanda, Uganda and Congo, is stressing the importance of conserving the rainforests. The money collected from selling permits to tourists is used for conservation measures and to protect the gorillas from poachers.

Gorillas by nature are shy rather than ferocious and they usually seek no trouble. Nevertheless, if they feel threatened, they will bravely defend their group. Family groups are close-knit and normally consist of a Silverback male a few adult females, and some juveniles -although most troops are not very large, they might contain up to 30 members!  

Gorilla troops are led by an adult male, or Silverback, getting his name from the stripe of silvery grey hairs on his back.  He serves as chief and group protector and also is at the top of the hierarchy as leader - a position he establishes by a ritualised behaviour which prevents conflict with other young males and among different groups. A Silverback gorilla will scream, stand erect on his hind legs, tear up and throw plants, drum his chest with his hands and gallop in a mock attack on all fours if he feels threatened.

Did you know?

  • Gorillas rarely attack humans, but in an encounter a person should stay still, look down and refrain from staring or pointing at the gorilla. 
  • Gorillas are extremely susceptible to pneumonia during the cold and wet seasons. 
  • An adult gorilla is six times stronger than an adult human!


If you want to help save the Mountain Gorilla you can find out more information and make a donation at the website of the African Wildlife Foundation