Back from the brink

At the time of the last census (2015) there were approximately 880 mountain gorillas living in the mountain ranges of Rwanda, Uganda and the DRC (Democratic Republic of Congo).

Pioneer zoologist Dian Fossey and naturalist-broadcaster Sir David Attenborough first brought the plight of the great apes to the world’s attention in the 1980s when the world’s mountain gorilla population had plummeted to just a few hundred individuals, perilously close to extinction.

Thanks to the efforts of international conservation organisations and the protection of regional national parks their number has gradually increased. A new census is currently underway, and hopes are high that the population will approach 1,000 individuals. But the species is still designated as critically endangered and its fate continues to hang in the balance.

While poaching for the exotic pet trade has been almost eradicated and human activity in the forest has been curtailed, their fragile ecosystem remains threatened by human encroachment, climate change and war. The battle for survival continues.

In this context, tourism may be the saviour of the mountain gorilla. These beguiling creatures have put their home countries on the world tourism map, creating a valuable premium for their conservation and the protection of their habitat.

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Conservation through tourism

Despite considerable hurdles, the conservation through tourism model has been largely successful and revenues from the sale of gorilla tracking permits has made a huge impact on their long-term outlook.

Gorilla tracking has become the number one tourism activity in Rwanda and the industry is highly developed and professionally organised. In choosing to visit the mountain gorillas you can contribute directly to the species’ survival, provided that you’re a responsible traveller and play by the rules.

There is a good range of accommodation to suit most budgets and the ranger guides are friendly, well trained and brimming with information. They know the gorilla families intimately and are passionate about their protection.

Most gorilla tourism goes to Rwanda and Uganda, two politically stable countries with excellent tourist infrastructure. The eastern DRC is now stable enough for public gorilla tracking, but options are more limited and demand remains low. The hope is that tourism and conservation in Rwanda and Uganda offers a positive example that can influence stability and therefore economic development in the DRC.

Our mountain-dwelling relatives

Mountain gorillas share an incredible 98% of their genetic material with humans. They live up to 50 years, and the oldest known living mountain gorilla is Guhonda who is over 40 years old.

As male gorillas mature the hair on their backs turns silver, giving them the name silverback. In contrast, a young male gorilla is known as a blackback.

A male mountain gorilla may weigh between 160 and 230 kg and reach a standing height of nearly two metres.

Mountain gorillas use a range of sounds to communicate and researchers have documented as many as 25 different sounds, including grunts, roars and shouts. They are entirely vegetarian and consume up to 35 kg of food per day — flowers, bamboo, fruit, leaves, shoots and roots.

Although they may be ten times more powerful than the strongest human, mountain gorillas are known for their gentleness. Even so, this naturally peaceful creature should be treated with the utmost respect for if a gorilla feels threatened s/he may lash out. Sick gorillas and females nursing infants may feel particularly vulnerable. Visitors who get too close to the gorillas or who scare them with loud noises or flashing cameras may be surprised by the occasional charging or even a slap!

Mountain gorillas do not survive in captivity and most gorillas seen in zoos are the lowland gorilla of West Africa. To meet our mountain-dwelling relatives in the flesh means travelling to visit them in their home. You won’t regret it.

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Mountain gorilla habitat

The majority of the mountain gorilla population can be found in just a handful of locations: Uganda’s Bwindi Impenetrable National Park and Mgahinga Gorilla National Park, and Rwanda’s Volcanoes National Park.

Rwanda

Volcanoes National Park (VNP) — formerly known as Le Parc National des Volcans before Rwanda swapped French for English as its official language — is home to Rwanda’s mountain gorillas.

VNP occupies 160 km² and is situated in northwestern Rwanda where it borders the DRC’s Virunga National Park and Uganda’s Mgahinga Gorilla National Park. Together, these three parks form the Virunga conservation area.

Volcanoes National Park is distinguished by five of the eight volcanoes of the Virunga Mountains that sit along the park boundary: Karisimbi, Bisoke, Gahinga, Sabyinyo and Muhabura. The park is bordered by farmland, with the local community cultivating land right up to its boundaries.

Gorilla tracking in Rwanda is quite different from gorilla tracking in the dense jungle of Uganda’s Bwindi Impenetrable Forest. Whereas gorilla tracking in Bwindi takes you straight into the dense, dark forest, in Rwanda the trek starts with a gentle ascent for thirty minutes through open farmland with breathtaking views (on clear days) of the Virunga volcanoes.

Here the forest is predominantly bamboo, which means less canopy to block the daylight. The bamboo canes sway several metres overhead, cracking and groaning under the weight of the gorillas shifting around in search of tender shoots. Elsewhere, the gorillas may be found out in the open, lazily munching vegetation.

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Gorilla families

Gorilla families vary in size from fewer than 10 members to 65, with bigger families usually splitting into smaller groups. Mountain gorillas are social animals. A family typically consists of one silverback, several adult females and their offspring, but it’s also common for families to include closely related adult males. When a family leader dies, a subordinate either takes over or the remaining individuals join another family.

There are more females than males in a gorilla family so a small number of male loners roam the forests by themselves, occasionally banding together into all-male groups.

Female mountain gorillas start giving birth at around 10 years old and give birth once every four years or so. Roughly a quarter of their offspring die in their first year. If a mother and baby move to a different family, it’s common for the baby to be killed by the new silverback.

Just like humans, every gorilla has a unique character and each family has their own traits and personalities. The ranger guides know each individual and are happy to share tales about their characters, interactions and squabbles.

In the dense rainforest, sound is a more useful method of communication than sight. Baby gorillas vocalise through crying, whimpering and screaming. Adults, particularly males, communicate through grunts, barks, cries and chest drumming. Facial expressions are also incredibly important.

Rwanda

Rwanda has 11 habituated gorilla families (10 of which can be visited): Agashya, Amahoro, Bwenge, Hirwa, Karisimbi, Kwitonda, Sabyinyo, Susa, Titus, Ugenda and Umubano. All 11 live in Volcanoes National Park.

As in Uganda, the location of each family determines the length and difficulty of the hike required to reach them. The Karisimbi, Amahoro, Kwitonda and Ugenda families are more challenging to track, while Sabyinyo is the nearest and easiest group to reach.

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Threats and conservation

In a 1981 census, just 254 mountain gorillas were recorded in the wild. These were bleak days for the species, with untrammelled poaching for bushmeat and the exotic pet trade pushing mountain gorillas to the brink of extinction.

Their plight was brought to the world’s attention thanks to the efforts of zoologists like Dian Fossey and broadcaster David Attenborough.

Fossey dedicated her life to studying the mountain gorilla, spending decades living among the critically endangered apes in Rwanda and the DRC.

During those dark days of the 1970s and 80s Fossey explained the scale of the challenge: “Active conservation [of the gorillas] involves simply going out into the forest, on foot, day after day after day, attempting to capture poachers, killing — regretfully — their dogs, which spread rabies within the park, and cutting down traps.”

In the days before properly organised and regulated gorilla tracking, Fossey was an outspoken critic of tourists visiting the animals, due to the gorillas’ lack of immunity to common human illnesses.

Fossey’s pioneering studies helped dispel the belief, commonly held at the time, that gorillas were ferocious, dangerous beasts. Her efforts to publicise their plight eventually broke into the mainstream: the 1988 film Gorillas in the Mist, starring Sigourney Weaver, is a dramatised version of Fossey’s autobiography.

Fossey was murdered in 1985, aged 53. Her death remains unexplained, with suggested motives ranging from petty grievance to opposition from vested interests in the poaching trade.

But Fossey’s legacy has endured. In September 1967, she established the Karisoke Research Centre and became the spokesperson for an international effort to protect the species and their habitat. Today the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund International continues her work in research, conservation and public education.

30 years on, although populations have gradually recovered, the species is still classified as critically endangered.

Encroachment of land for farming, disease transmission from humans, poaching and illegal logging are daily dangers. Oil exploration threatens massive habitat loss. Political instability and conflict remains a serious risk for mountain gorillas in the DRC.

The difference today is that the mountain gorilla has become a huge conservation priority in both Rwanda and Uganda — in part thanks to the lucrative gorilla tourism industry.

Conservation efforts include improved policing of protected areas, harsher penalties for poachers and wildlife traffickers, better veterinary care, community education, the development of alternatives to firewood for fuel, and investments in alternative means of livelihood.

Kwita Izina gorilla naming ceremony

In Rwandan culture the naming ceremony for a newborn child is a community event and every September the country celebrates Kwita Izina, a national naming ceremony for newborn gorillas. Initially a one-day event, Kwita Izina is now a week-long affair that celebrates Rwanda’s progress in gorilla conservation while highlighting the challenges that the species continues to face.

Communities, conservation and tourism

One of the key factors for effective conservation is an awareness of the people who also depend on the land for their own survival. Much of the gorilla habitat borders and overlaps with remote and poor communities. People lived in these areas long before national parks and protected areas were created, and hunters and farmers have always used the forest as an essential source of fuel and food. Now they find the entrance to their historical lands is strictly controlled and regulated.

To mitigate the human impact, a percentage of every gorilla permit fee (10% in Rwanda, 20% in Uganda) is invested in the surrounding communities to support infrastructure, schools and alternative livelihoods.

Conservation organisations also provide schemes for fuel-efficient stoves and solar panels to reduce the use of charcoal and wood, and to encourage community farming as an alternative to hunting.

The victims of conservation

Conservation isn’t always inclusive. In the 1990s the mountain gorilla seemed to face certain extinction and international pressure for action mounted. Bwindi and Mgahinga National Parks were established but with little consideration for the Batwa, an indigenous tribespeople who had lived in the forest alongside the mountain gorillas for millennia.

Suddenly this tiny community of a few thousand found their entire way of life outlawed; they were branded as common poachers and evicted from their ancestral lands. The displaced Batwa were left landless and destitute, dependent on charity and government support for their survival. Support for the Batwa is now more readily available, but sadly the damage to this ancient forest tribe has already been done.

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