Mountain Gorillas

(Gorilla beringei beringei)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.

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’)!

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.

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.

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.

Maybe they’re only the tiniest step away from the best of being human.

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