Interesting facts about mountain gorillas in Africa

Visiting some of the remotest areas in Africa might offer you arguably one of life’s best honors. You’ll get the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity of encountering and learning some interesting facts about mountain gorillas.

Also known as gorilla beringei beringei, mountain gorillas are the world’s largest living primates.

Meeting the gentle giants is probably one of the best bucket-list experiences in the world.

It’ll provide you with a rare chance of closely observing the daily interaction of one of man’s closest relatives.  

Where can you find mountain gorillas?  

Mountain gorillas are found in one of the remotest places in the beautiful continent of Africa. They can be found and rising ridges and valleys of Bwindi National Park in Uganda. Others are found in Mgahinga National Park in Uganda, Virunga National Park in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and in Volcanoes National Park in northwestern Rwanda.

These three regions have become synonymous with gorilla trekking. Tourists take on the narrow hiking trails through evergreen tropical rainforest to catch a glimpse of the elusive primates.   

Essentially, mountain gorillas are found in the mountainous and hilly regions that cover approximately 800 square kilometers on the border of Uganda, Rwanda and DRC.

Not to be confused with lowland gorillas, mountain gorillas are exclusive to the volcanic and mountainous Virunga Massif. This region cuts across the border of DRC, Uganda and Rwanda. Lowland gorillas on the other hand are spread across DRC, Angola, Cameroon, Equatorial Guinea and other central Africa countries.

Physical description 

Looking almost similar to eastern lowland gorillas, mountain gorillas have very thick and long fur that enables them to survive in higher altitudes. Just like in humans, their fingerprints and nose prints are unique to each individual.

Generally, mature male mountain gorillas weigh 195 kg (430 lb) and have pronounced bone crests and big skulls. When mature, male mountain gorillas are called ‘silverbacks’ because they often develop silver-colored or grey hair on their backs and hips.

Female mountain gorillas are smaller than the males and weigh about 100 kg (220 lb.).  

Like all other primates, except human beings, mountain gorillas have longer arms than legs. Instead of using their palms to support their knuckle-walking style, mountain gorillas use the back of their curved fingers to support their weight when walking.    

Do mountain gorillas migrate?  

Mountain gorillas are certainly not territorial animals; they do not stay in one region for a very long time. In fact, mountain gorillas cannot stay in one place for two nights!

Every morning, each group of mountain gorillas led by a dominant male silverback will move to a new site. They’ll make new nests, spend a night and move to a new place the next morning.

Despite this high mobility, it’s not known whether mountain gorillas do cross borders in their quest to move to new areas. Nonetheless, this movement has made gorilla trekking very popular as tourists, together with their guides, observe where the gorillas previously spent a night before following them in the morning.

Population distribution of mountain gorillas  

Since they were first recorded in 1902, mountain gorillas have been severely affected by poaching, war, diseases, uncontrolled hunting and the destruction of their natural habitat. These factors led to a steep decline in the number of mountain gorillas and fears were raised that they’d eventually become extinct.

As a result, mountain gorillas were listed as one of the world’s endangered species in 1996. But through numerous conservation efforts, the population of mountain gorillas has experienced a steady albeit slow increase.

In 1981, environmentalists estimated that there were 254 of them in the whole world. However, this number has steadily increased to 1,004 mountain gorillas in 2018. These numbers are very accurate given that these unique creatures have been closely monitored by environmentalists including Dr. Dian Fossey since the 1960s.   

According to the latest census on their distribution, close to 400 mountain gorillas live at the Bwindi National Park. With an altitude ranging from 1,500 to 2,300 meters, this national park is very dense and highly favorable to these gentle giants. In fact, the Ugandan government restricts the number of visits to what is widely known as Africa’s oldest rainforest.   

The remaining 600 are divided across the Virunga Massif on the border of Rwanda and DRC, while a few can be found in the Mgahinga National Park.  

What do mountain gorillas eat?

interesting facts about mountain gorillas

Mountain gorillas are generally herbivorous mammals. They mainly feed on leafy vegetation, bamboo shoots, wild celery, stinging nettles, thistles, bedstraw and fruits. Like lowland gorillas, mountain gorillas can also feed on small insects, ants and larvae.

Mountain gorillas rarely drink water and hugely depend on plants to get hydrated.

Their social lives

Mountain gorillas are highly social animals. They live in cohesive groups or families where each member of the family is highly attached to the family and has a specific role to play.

These groups consist of an average of 10 members but can have up to 30 members. Each group is held together with long term bonds between the silverback male and the female members of a given group.

Members of a given group are known to groom each other to remove dirt and parasites.

These primates are known to have more than 25 different communication sounds, which they use to communicate with each other.   

The role of dominant silverback males

Every group is led by a dominant silverback that determines suitable feeding sites and the movement patterns of the group. This dominant silverback is also expected to mediate when there’s conflict within the group and will always protect his group from external threats and will do so even if it means losing his life.

In fact, some silverbacks are known to have the experience of cutting loose group members should they be snared or trapped by poachers or hunters. Basically, every action of the group revolves around the dominant silverback.  

When two mountain gorilla groups meet, it’s often left in the hands of the two dominant silverbacks to square it out. Even though aggression will be rarely used, these two silverbacks can sometimes engage in a fierce fight that may end up in severe injuries or even death.

In most cases, mountain gorillas will protect themselves and try to scare off enemies or human beings by beating their chests with cupped hands, thumping the ground with their palms or slapping and tearing through vegetation. The can also let out angry grunts and roars when they feel extremely threatened.   

interesting facts about mountain gorillas
A male silverback

Are mountain gorillas dangerous?  

Contrary to the common misconception that mountain gorillas are aggressive, these mammals are gentle giants. Although they’re very strong and powerful, they’re usually gentle and very shy! They are so shy that they can’t attack you if you stand your ground and face them.

Nonetheless, you shouldn’t take their shyness as a form of weakness. They can be very dangerous when provoked. They’re also very unpredictable and it’s often advisable to keep a distance of at least 22 feet or 7 meters.   

Given that they share nearly 98% of their DNA with humans, they’re vulnerable to various human diseases such as flu and coughs. This is why you should always maintain the recommended distance. In some cases, you may be required to wear a mask for your own safety and for theirs too.   

Why are mountain gorillas important?  

Like with all wild animals, mountain gorillas play a crucial role in their environment. For example, they consume lots of vegetation and fruits and disperse various seeds during their movements. As such, they ensure that the natural food chain is balanced.

Similarly, mountain gorillas are a great source of income to locals and to the governments through ecotourism. Rangers are employed to protect these creatures while guides and porters earn a living by guiding and aiding tourists. It’s estimated that a single mountain gorilla can generate over $2.5 million as tourism income over its lifetime, which spans around five to six decades.   

Are mountain gorillas an endangered species?

Despite the noted increase in population, mountain gorillas are one of the world’s endangered species. This problem is caused by the human-animal conflict in the region. It’s reported that over 100,000 people live in the remote mountainous areas, which are naturally meant for these mountain gorillas.

Evidently, human beings have driven out mountain gorillas from their natural habitat so as to cultivate these lands. Mountain gorillas have also been illegally hunted and poached for meat and also as animal trophies. For instance, as many as 30 mountain gorillas have been senselessly killed in the last 30 years.  

How are mountain gorillas being protected?  

As an endangered species and perhaps man’s closest relative, it’s utterly crucial to make a positive impact in the protection of mountain gorillas. Trekking through the mountains of Uganda, Rwanda and DRC to see these mountain gorillas is a good way of helping protect these gentle giants.

There are various individuals and conservation organizations that have been at the forefront in ensuring that mountain gorillas are protected. For instance, Dr. Dian Fossey dedicated her life to the conservation of these creatures in their natural habitat in Africa.

She moved to Rwanda and throughout her life, she was committed to carrying out groundbreaking studies on mountain gorilla behaviors. Dr. Fossey founded the Karisoke Research Center in Rwanda to study and protect these endangered species. She also created the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund where you can contribute for a positive cause.   

Similarly, American celebrity and animal lover Ellen DeGeneres has created the Ellen DeGeneres Wildlife Fund that aims to protect various endangered species in the world such as mountain gorillas. Through this foundation, DeGeneres is looking for funds and ways to build a permanent home for the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund and more importantly, to secure a future for mountain gorillas.  

There’s no doubt that mountain gorillas are special and unique creatures that are found in the heart of Africa along the borders of Rwanda, DRC and Uganda. These gentle giants are compassionate yet mysterious. They’re man’s closest relatives with almost 98% DNA similarity. Creating time and embarking on a mountain gorilla trekking will show you a piece of Africa that many people do not get to see in their lifetime.

3 thoughts on “Interesting facts about mountain gorillas in Africa”

  1. We loved seeing mountain gorillas in the San Diego Zoo, and would love to see them even more in the wild. They seem like a hard animal to protect with how much they migrate. Still, it’s heartening to hear that their population has increased almost four fold in the last forty years. Perhaps in forty more they can come off the endangered list. One can only hope.

    • It was great to hear that the mountain gorilla population has hit the 1,000 mark. We’re optimistic that with all the conservation efforts by the local governments and conservation organizations, the numbers will steadily go up.


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