Dec 8

Conservation is working for one of the world’s most charismatic animals – the mountain gorilla (Gorilla beringei beringei).

Mountain gorilla infant

The mountain gorilla subspecies (Gorilla beringei beringei) has a particularly long coat, which is blue-black to brownish-grey in colour.

The mountain gorilla population in the Virunga Massif – a key habitat for mountain gorillas that spans three national parks on the border between Rwanda, Uganda and the Democratic Republic of Congo – was surveyed in March and April of this year. Conservationists say that the census revealed 480 gorillas living in 36 groups. A similar survey in 2003 estimated the population at just 380 individuals, so the latest figures suggest an encouraging population increase of approximately 25 percent in the last 7 years.

The census was a massive operation that spanned two months and three countries, and involved multinational teams systematically sweeping over 1,000 kilometres of challenging terrain. The teams covered the entire range of the mountain gorilla in the Virunga Massif, meticulously documenting fresh signs of mountain gorilla groups and conducting genetic analyses of fecal samples to estimate just how many gorillas survive in the region.

Mountain gorilla silverback in habitat

Mountain gorillas are found in areas of dense vegetation at altitudes between 1,160 and 4,100 metres where they are confined by surrounding cultivation.

A subspecies of the eastern gorilla, the largest of the living apes, the Critically Endangered mountain gorilla only survives in the Virunga Massif and the Bwindi Impenetrable National Park in Uganda, where a further 302 gorillas are thought to live, bringing the world population to more than 780. This increase in numbers is said to be due to a collaborative ‘trans-boundary’ conservation effort by governments from all three nations of the mountain gorilla’s range and a number of conservation organisations, including the International Gorilla Conservation Programme (IGCP), which is formed by the African Wildlife Foundation, Fauna and Flora International and WWF.

Mountain gorilla silverback

Silverback mountain gorillas lead stable family groups and defend their offspring and females by intimidating displays of charging and chest-beating.

Director of the IGCP, Eugene Rutagarama, said “Collectively, we cannot let down our guard on the conservation of these incredible animals. While mountain gorillas are physically strong, they are also incredibly vulnerable.”

Despite the recent increase in numbers, mountain gorillas are still very much under threat from poaching for bushmeat, illegal deforestation, disease, and human conflict, as illustrated by the results of a recent five-day patrol in the Virunga Massif which discovered and destroyed no less than 200 poachers’ snares. The mountain gorilla is rarely directly targeted by poachers, but they are very vulnerable to capture in snares set for other large mammals. However, nine mountain gorillas have been killed in four separate incidents during the last seven years.

Male mountain gorilla feeding on plant stalk

Mainly occurring within fairly well-protected national parks, the mountain gorilla is a key source of tourist revenue and securing its future is crucial for the well-being of communities in the region.

Overall, mountain gorillas are faring better than the world’s other great apes. “The mountain gorilla is the only one of the nine subspecies of African great apes experiencing a population increase. While we celebrate this collective achievement, we must also increase efforts to safeguard the remaining eight subspecies of great apes,” said David Greer, African Great Ape Coordinator with WWF.

Watch ARKive’s eastern gorilla slideshow to view 64 of the best eastern gorilla images.

To find out more about mountain gorillas and their conservation, see:

Alex Royan, ARKive Species Text Author