To watch a family of mountain gorillas relaxing in their lush forest home is an awe-inspiring privilege and a memory you would take away and remember forever. Sharing around 97% of their DNA with humans, it isn’t surprising to feel a bond with them. Mothers carefully watch their babies as they inquisitively take a few steps, older youngsters or ‘teenagers’ by any other name, rough and tumble together without a care, whilst the massive silverback often sits quietly to one side, taking in everything going on around him.
Mountain gorillas are very social animals and usually live in close knit family groups of around 6-10, although groups can be much larger. Infants stay with their mothers for up to three years and youngsters play games together. Young males often group together and go in search of females.
Of all the gorillas, they have the longest, thickest black/blue fur enabling them to live high on the slopes of the volcanoes where it is often cloudy, wet and cold. Whilst we can be singled out by our fingerprints, rangers identify mountain gorillas by their unique ‘nose prints’.
A chain of eight, heavily forested volcanoes forms the border between Uganda, the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and Rwanda. Shrouded in mist and hanging moss, these mountain forests of the ‘Virunga Heartland’ are home to the magnificent mountain gorilla. It is also the only place in the world where mountain gorillas are found. In total, only around 800+ of these remarkable, gentle giants remain.
Males can reach 200kgs (440Ibs) in weight whilst females are somewhat less. Stood upright, the male can be 1.9m (6’ 3”) tall with an arm span of 2.6m (8’ 6”). Usually on all fours ‘knuckle walking’, a gorilla can reach unexpected speed for around 7m (21’)!
The huge silverback is the dominant male and his job is to protect the rest of the group, with his superior knowledge and experience. He also has a favourite female and each of the gorillas has a role to play in the daily life of the group.
Up at around 6am, gorillas spend 30% of each day feeding, 40% sleeping and the remainder travelling, grooming or as far as the youngsters are concerned, playing. The silverback is in control – he decides when it’s time to move on or time to sleep. Each evening, each gorilla makes its new ‘night nest’ of woven branches and vines, with infants sleeping with their mothers for the first few years.
The silverback tends to stay close to the ground, partly due to his size and weight, but mainly to defend the group if the need arises.
With a truly vegetarian menu of over 200 items, the mountain gorilla feasts on herbs, vines, fruits, flowers, leaves, stems, bark, bamboo, wood, fungi and the very occasional termite or two. A male consumes around 34kgs (75Ibs) of food each day to maintain his size, with females eating 18kgs (40Ibs). Gorillas move between the different vegetation zones on the slopes of Mikeno volcano in Virunga, to take advantage of new growth in varying seasons.
With a diet high in moisture content, gorillas rarely need to search out water.
Their sense of smell and hearing are very important to them, as the presence of potential predators, primarily man, is usually heard first then confirmed through smell. Skirmishes between gorilla groups are rare and often feeding territories may be shared between family groups. Unlike chimpanzees, gorillas do not hunt, kill or eat other animals.
Silverback gorillas will exhaust every possible means of defence before actually resorting to outright attack. They’ll put on a very noisy show, screaming, howling, charging and chest beating but are only known to strike a blow or bite under severe provocation.
Their facial expressions are familiar to our own – you can tell if they’re happy, sad or upset. They are known to laugh when tickled. Dian Fossey even saw a young, orphaned gorilla, after being rescued from poachers, shed tears as it looked out to the forest from her cabin.
Maybe they’re only the tiniest step away from the best of being human.