A mountain gorilla in Uganda

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The Mountain Gorilla

A Mountain Gorilla hiding in the bush

A gorillas DNA is 97% - 98% identical to that of humans, so it is not surprising that their name actually derives from the Greek word ‘Gorillai’ which literally means a ‘tribe of hairy women’. In fact the Gorilla is the next closest living relative to humans after the two chimpanzee species.

There are generally considered to be two species of Gorilla and at least two subspecies of each. The Mountain Gorilla (Gorilla beringei beringei) is recognized as a sub-species of the Eastern Gorilla. Longer and darker hair distinguishes the mountain gorilla from other gorilla species; these physical characteristics enable it to live at high altitudes were other gorilla species would be immobilised by the cool temperatures.

Like the other species of gorilla, the mountain gorillas have adapted to a diet of fruits, leaves and shoots; although largely vegetarian in nature they are also known to occasionally supplement their diet with small insects. They can eat an incredible amount in one day, adult males can consume as much as 34kgs.

A gorilla relaxing in a tree, 40ft above the ground

Mountain gorilla is a highly social primate, living in relatively stable, cohesive groups held together by long-term bonds between adult males and females. There is normally one silverback per family group of between 5 and 30 gorillas; he is responsible for the decision making as well as the safety of the group.

Up until 1902 the mountain gorilla was wildly regarded as a myth by the western world, that was until Robert Von Beringe observed a mountain gorilla in the foothills of Bwindi, the first European to do so. From that day onwards the mountain gorilla's fate became inescapably intermingled with human demand. By 1989 a census showed that there were only 320 mountain gorilla’s remaining in Uganda’s Bwindi National Park. The mountain gorilla is still considered to be critically endangered, but numbers in Bwindi National Park have improved by 17% in the last decade, thanks in large parts to Ugandan conservation efforts. The money that is made through gorilla permits is directly reinvested into conservation efforts by the Ugandan Government.

The mountain gorilla is native to only two regions of Africa, the Virunga volcanic mountains and Bwindi Impenetrable Forest. According to a census taken in 2003 there are estimated to be around 380 mountain gorillas in 30 social groups spread around the three national parks of the Virunga volcanic mountains. Mgahinga, in South West Uganda; Volcanoes, in north-west Rwanda; and Virunga, in the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo are the three national parks of the Virunga volcanic mountains of central Africa. The second population of mountain gorillas are located in the south-west of Uganda in Bwindi Impenetrable Forest; which according to the 2003 census is home to 320 mountain gorillas.

A gorilla in a tree

Between the 1989 census and the 2003 census gorilla numbers have grown by 17%, with approximately 700 mountain gorillas left in the wild. However it must be remembered that the mountain gorilla continues to be classified as critically endangered on the IUCN Red List of Endangered Species. Habitat loss, poaching, human disease, and war all contribute to the gorilla’s extremely high risk of extinction. A study published in Science concluded that a 2004 out break of the Ebola virus in Central Africa may have killed around 5,000 gorillas. With a population of only 700 mountain gorillas remaining in the wild it’s easy to see why there is such concern.

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