Gorillas are the largest and most charismatic of the great apes. After chimpanzees, they are our closest biological kin and share upto 98% of our genes. They bear an unmistakable affinity to humans by way of intelligence, physiological structure and behaviour patterns.
This may perhaps explain mans fascination with these gentle giants as he continues on the journey to understand himself.
Gorillas are colossal afro-anthropoids with characteristic long forelimbs, and are known for their classic chest thumping. They inhabit some of Africa's remaining tropical rainforests. These great ape species are scientifically known as Gorilla gorilla. They are classified into 3 sub-species, which are all are quite similar, except for minor distinctions in size, build and colour.
Gorilla gorilla gorilla, also known as the western lowlands gorilla, is the most populous sub-species and has its origins in West Africa. It is the common zoo type and numbers about 50,000 in the wild. Gorilla gorilla graueri, the eastern lowland gorilla, is found in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) -formerly Zaire. In terms of survival, it is the lesser of the genus and is rarely found in captivity. This species numbered approximately 15,000 in the 1960's; today only a measly 2,500 survive in the wild.
The least successful and most delicate of the gorilla genus is the Gorilla beringei beringei, otherwise known as the mountain gorilla. This species was unknown to science until the German explorer Oscar Von Beringer encountered it in 1902.
Its preferred habitat is the high altitude and bamboo forests.
Treading on the verge of extinction, less than 700 of this species are found in the wild, with none in captivity. Their very last redoubt is in the Bwindi Impenetrable National Park of southwest Uganda, and in the mists of the Virunga Mountains of northeast-Central Africa. The Virunga sanctuaries are Mgahinga Gorilla (Uganda), Volcano (Rwanda) and Virunga (DRC) National Parks. Here, the mountain gorilla faces the threats of habitat loss, pressures of man at war, poaching for the bush meat trade and the emergence of new terrifying diseases like Ebola.
Though hardly out of the woods, their lot is considered to be improving as by 1989 numbers had dropped to 624. This has arisen after years of heroic labour by conservation groups, working under very challenging conditions. In particular, the African Wildlife Fund, Fauna & Flora International and the World Wide Fund for Nature are working together with the respective governments under the International Gorilla Conservation Programme (IGCP).
The Virungas are a chain of eight volcanoes running through the western branch of the Rift Valley, at the interface of Uganda, DRC and Rwanda. The highest peak rises to 13,540 ft. Some of the volcanoes are active, and the violent convulsions of the Nyiragongo in 2002 brought about substantial destruction to the town of Goma (DRC) and the surrounding area.
The Virunga sanctuaries host half the worlds' entire population of mountain gorillas. The Congo part of the Virunga's is in particular the most vulnerable to deforestation as the country has long been at war and law enforcement continues to be such a daunting proposition.
Mountain gorillas are a generally shy and calm species. This will surprise those whose encounter with gorillas is through movies, most of which portray them as out-size ferocious monsters. Dian Fossey in her work from the late 1960's did much to correct this image. In her, the gorillas could not have asked for a more sympathetic and sensitive interpreter.
Today, the mountain gorilla is the most celebrated and perhaps the best understood of the gorillas.
Dian Fossey was murdered in 1985 at her research camp at Karisoke on the Rwanda side of the Virunga's. She is famed for her book "Gorillas in the Mist", which was turned into a popular film of the same title starring Sigourney Weaver.
Mountain gorillas have distinctly gigantic features and are the darkest and hairiest of the gorillas. The average mature male weighs 160 kg and towers up to 6 ft. Females are much smaller but still weigh on average, a substantial 98 kg. Besides their burly arms -which are longer than their legs, they have enormous chests and carry large crested heads. They walk on all four of their husky limbs, hinging on the knuckles of their forelegs as they toddle on the soles of their hinds.
The gorillas communicate easily and best using gestures, postures and body language as well as barks, screams, chatters, roars and odours. They can express every emotion in the book in their own special ways, like cry in sadness and laugh when happy. With some tutoring, they have shown a capacity to understand human spoken language and sign language.
They are highly sociable and live in groups of 2 to 35 individuals, consisting of adult males and females, juveniles and infants. Just like a family unit, group members share a very strong bond and frequently stay together for life. They live in a home range of 4-7.5 sq km. Females mature earlier than males and are ready to procreate at the age of about 9 years. Males mature at about 12 years of age when they begin to develop the patch of silvery fur on their backs that marks the transition from boyhood to manhood. At that stage they graduate from blackbacks to silverbacks.
The silver patch is not perceived as a chevron in respect of rank but as a sign of age and maturity. The silverback is usually the group leader, though not all silverbacks attain this status. Only the finest and most dominant silverback merits the position. As the leader, he is charged with protecting the entire group, even at the cost of his life.
As the chief, he calls the shots and arbitrates disputes, usually with the assistance of two or so lesser silverbacks. He decides on such weighty matters as where the group will repose for the night and on the forage area for the day. By way of payback, the chief gets to breed with most of the females in his group. In some groups, the only mature male is the dominant silverback.
The prime silverback is the most feared of the mountain gorillas, even by others of his genre. He however avoids physical confrontation and only charges when provoked or when in his judgment, his group is threatened. Even then, the initial charge is only to sound a warning. He first signals his readiness for war by display of menacing theatrics. He stretches to full height, roars, screams and barks, as he beats on his massive chest to frighten the aggressor or intruder. Woe to those who suffer the wrath of an angry silverback! For a good specimen can be up to 10 times stronger than the biggest American football players.
Though females are the majority by numbers, they are usually low-key members of the group. Once she hits maturity, the gorilla female stagnates in height though continuing to pile on weight. Similar to human females, they experience a 28-day menstrual cycle and an 8-½ month gestation period and have no distinct breeding season. Born at about 2 kg, infants are totally dependant on their mothers until they are weaned at the age 3.
Between the age of 3 and 6, little gorillas are referred to as juveniles. They cease to be fully dependent and begin to sleep in their own nest. The little ones are quite playful and naughty, and develop twice as fast as human children, with both the males and females growing at the same pace. Between the ages of 6 to 8, young adult gorillas seek to redefine themselves and they may then leave to join another group or, even rarely, start their own.
The life expectancy of a mountain gorilla is relatively short- for they live up to only about 40-50 years. The average female gives birth once every 4 to 5 years. The infant mortality rate is however quite high, and very few make it to adulthood. Gorillas have unfortunately low immunity against infections and diseases and most succumb to very minor ailments.
Infectious diseases and low birth rate aside, it is mans' mischief that stands in the way of efforts to sustain a healthy mountain gorilla population. In particular, habitat loss caused by encroachment of forests denies the gorilla living space, threatening the very survival of the beringei species. In addition, the gorilla skull is considered a prized trophy among some traditional African tribes, and some gorillas are killed on account of this.
Mountain gorillas are primarily herbivorous. They feed on a variety of succulent vegetation within the dense tropical rainforests. For this reason, they rarely go in search of water because it is well supplemented in their diet. A gorilla's top rated menu include: tender bamboo, tubular thistle flowers, wild celery and prickly nettles.
Just like man, each individual gorilla has a unique identifier- not fingerprints as they have none- but nose prints. Nose prints are the wrinkles around their noses. Though complex and advanced animals, they have some serous limitations: in general they never cross large water masses (such as a wide river) and they cannot live or survive in a dry or open environment.
The gorillas' life revolves around a basic routine. At daybreak, the silverback leads the group to a good spot where they can forage. Feeding continues till mid morning when they take some rest before the afternoon forage session. While resting, they groom each other, the little ones play under their mothers' watchful eye, while others just snooze off. After the afternoon meal session, another rest period follows till dusk when they disappear into the thicket of the forest to prepare their night nests.
The gorillas have no respect for national boundaries. It is therefore a good thing that in 2005, Uganda, Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of Congo set out to formalise collaboration in the management of the trans-frontier conservation area. Known formally as the Central Albertine Rift Transfrontier Landscape, it comprises eight national parks and several forest and wildlife reserves - including all the gorilla sanctuaries in the three countries.
Rwanda has demonstrated a commitment to conserving the mountain gorilla. For over 30 years, the country has practised gorilla eco-tourism. It is ensured that only a specific number of guided tourists visit the sanctuary at any given time so as not to disrupt the animal's daily routine. The conservation authorities are very keen to sensitise local communities of the importance of endangered primates, for it is all too easy for locals to see gorillas as pests and competitors for scarce land resources.
Though a challenging period, gorillas largely survived the 1994 Rwanda war and genocide, in which over one million people perished. In symbolic gesture Rwanda's president in July 2005, led a national ceremony to name 30 baby gorillas born since the restoration of political stability.
DRC holds the longest mountain gorilla conservation tenure. King Albert of Belgium established the present day Virunga National Park as a gorilla sanctuary way back in 1925. From mid 1950's, the gorillas and their habitat drew scientists such as George Schaller and Dian Fossey.
Their research work opened up new horizons for gorilla conservation. Recurrent political instability in this region continues to be a challenge for conservation efforts.
Uganda boasts half the entire mountain gorilla population and is the most popular destination for gorilla tourism. Though gorilla eco-tourism here is quite recent, conservation practices are strict. The country's two centres of mountain gorilla conservation -Mgahinga and Bwindi were both gazetted as gorilla sanctuaries by the Uganda government in 1991.
As its name suggests, the Bwindi Impenetrable National Park (331 sq km) really is impenetrable. With its dense under-growth, the mountain gorillas here found themselves the perfect home. Bwindi is also host to 90 mammal species- including 11 primates, and has great birding. Travelling from Kampala by road, you reach Bwindi via Mbarara after 6-8 hours. If you land at Mgahinga, other activities to sample are bird watching, hiking, volcano climbing, and cave exploration. Mgahinga is about 8 hours from Kampala via Kabale by road.
Mountain gorilla tracking is an exciting thing to do in Uganda. Limited groups of six tourists each are allowed to track a gorilla group per day. Chances of sighting gorillas are good but not guaranteed, as the animals have no set routes. To be successful you need some luck, but above all a skilled tracker.
All gorilla trackers must obtain a permit from the Uganda Wildlife Authority and one can only obtain one permit per day in three months. As a result, the wait list is long and you need to book well in advance to secure a tracking slot. To handle the bureaucracy, it is best to use a reputable agent to secure a permit. In general, it is recommended you take an organised gorilla tracking tour package, which includes the permits, accommodation and transport logistics.
Though expensive, gorilla tracking is very educative, entertaining, refreshing and for lovers of the natural world it is money well spent. Every tracking tour begins at the gorillas' overnight nests. You then try to trace the paths the gorillas have since taken. It is not usually safe to get too close to the gorillas - especially baby gorillas; about 15 ft is a safe distance to keep.
At Bwindi there is accommodation in two luxury-tented camps, a lodge and camping site. At Mgahinga, there is a campsite at Park Gate, and good lodge accommodation at Kisoro Town -14 km from Park Gate. Though you can track gorillas year round, the rainy season is more challenging.
As it rains almost all year round, on your gorilla-tracking mission, carry some rain gear. To trail these rainforest tracks, you'll be advised to bring along a good, comfy pair of waterproof boots. Also wear long trousers and sleeved jerseys to beat the bugs and the mountain cold. Some binoculars will be a big help in locating the gorillas. Also bring along some drinking water, sunscreen and photographic equipment. But remember that using flash when taking photos is not allowed, as it is likely to upset the animals.