“When you realize the value of all life, you dwell less on what is past and concentrate more on the preservation of the future”

Dian Fossey

Who are Gorillas? Where do they live?

Baby gorillas are raised in captive environment.
Figure 01: A baby gorilla.

Gorillas belong to the order Primates. They are the largest animals of all Primates, family – Hominidae, genus- Gorilla. There are mainly two species and each species consist of two subspecies. The Western Gorilla (Gorilla gorilla) is divided into two subspecies: the Western Lowland Gorilla (G. gorilla gorilla), which lives in lowland rainforests from Cameroon to the Congo River, and the Cross River Gorilla (G. gorilla diehli), which lives in a small arboreal region along the Cross River that divides Nigeria and Cameroon.

The Eastern Gorilla (G. beringei) has two subspecies: the Eastern Lowland Gorilla (G. beringei graueri), which lives in the lowland rainforests of the eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo, and the Mountain Gorilla (G. beringei beringei), which lives in the north and east of Lake Kivu, near the borders of Uganda, Rwanda, and Congo. Gorillas and humans share 98.3% of their DNA, making them our third closest relatives after chimpanzees and bonobos. Gorillas are powerful creatures, thus they are portrayed as monster types in movies, but in reality, they are calm, non-aggressive, peaceful, and family-oriented animals unless disturbed.

Distribution of gorillas in Africa
Figure 02: Distribution of gorillas in Africa.

The Body Structure of Gorillas; The Great Apes 

Gorillas have an unusually large, strong chest and a bulging abdomen. Skin and hair are both black-colored. They have a large nose, small ears, and brow ridges that are very much noticeable. Adults’ arms are longer than their sturdy legs. Males are about twice as hefty as females, growing to a height of 1.7 m and a weight of 135–220 kg in the wild. Both sexes of captive gorillas can get quite obese and, as a result, substantially heavier.

A wild adult female stands around 1.5 m tall and weighs 70–90 kilograms. The face, hands, and feet of gorillas are hairless, and the chests of old males are bare. Mountain Gorilla (G. beringei beringei) has longer hair than the other three subspecies. Adult males have a large crest on top of their heads and a “saddle” of gray or silver hairs on the lower half of their backs. The saddle on Eastern Gorillas (G. beringei), which are coal-black, is much more apparent than on Western Gorillas (G. gorilla), which are deep gray-brown.

Silverback standing in its position.
Figure 03: Silverback gorilla is standing in its position.

Family and Lifestyle of Our Closest Cousins

A troop of gorillas can consist of 5 to 30 individuals, each commanded by a strong, skillful male or more than two or three males known as “Silverbacks.” Females, newborns, juveniles, and young adult males called ‘Blackbacks’ make up the rest of the group. The gorillas are largely land-dwelling and active during the day (diurnal). They walk using their four limbs and the locomotion method is called “knuckle-walking” where part of their weight is carried on the knuckles of their hands.

Although they are gentle, in case they sense some intrusions, they might show some aggressive actions to protect their members. In particular, the Silverback shows some fantastic displays like thumping his chest with cupped hands and making loud noises, screams and hurries towards the intruder chasing them away. Males and females both thump their chests, but male thumps are substantially louder because air sacs in the throat and chest make the sound more reverberating. 

Mother gorilla is carrying its baby gorilla as it is too small and can’t walk on its feet.
Figure 04: Mother gorilla is carrying its baby gorilla as it is too small and can’t walk on its feet.

There is no set breeding season for wild female gorillas; they give birth once every four years. The gestation period is approximately eight and a half months, and most births are single. However, twins do occur in rare cases. A baby gorilla weighs about 2 kg and is completely defenseless for the first three months of its existence. So the mother carries it in her arms. During the nights the young gorilla sleeps in the mother’s nest and during the day times, the mother gorilla carries the baby on its back.

Female gorillas achieve reproductive maturity between the ages of eight to ten. But first, she must leave her troop and seek another group or an alone silverback to live with. Males reach sexual maturity around the age of nine. The baby gorilla grows very quickly and at five to six months, is taught how to walk and by eighteen months can follow its mother on foot. Hence the safest place for the baby gorilla is its mother’s back. Gorillas eat plant parts containing leaves, stems, fruits, seeds, roots, etc. as their food. Eastern Gorillas eat leaves, stalks, and shoots, whereas Western Gorillas consume more fruit.

Are Gorillas; The Great African Apes Facing Any Threats? 

We must act as soon as possible to keep our valuable relatives from becoming extinct species because both species of gorillas are categorized as critically endangered by the IUCN. Eastern Gorillas are in the most critical stage as their numbers are declining more than the Western Gorillas. Only around 880 Mountain Gorillas are left in the world. The gorilla population is falling due to habitat loss caused by unethical human actions such as forest habitat destruction, poaching; diseases such as Ebola and Covid-19; and poor law enforcement.

The bushmeat trade is the biggest threat for gorillas nowadays in west and central Africa. Gorillas are killed to meet high-end meat demand in urban areas. Coltan mining is another big hazard to gorillas. Coltan is a metallic ore that is obtained from gorilla-inhabited jungles. The extraction of this mineral results in significant habitat degradation and, in many cases, a rise in unlawful bushmeat. Even though the gorillas are listed as critically endangered species, we still have time to protect our close relatives by raising awareness and making efforts at the individual, local, and international levels.

A troop of gorillas conserved in a national park carrying on their routine activities.
Figure 05: A troop of gorillas conserved in a national park carrying on their routine activities.

We can preserve and restore gorilla habitats, and conserve them in places like national parks, zoos, etc. stop illegal poaching and bushmeat trade by strictly implementing laws and making everyone adhere to them. Coltan extracted from these mines is utilized in a variety of electronic devices that many people use very often. Recycling cell phones and other devices like laptops and cameras is one method to help gorillas. Consumers may make a huge difference in the lives of gorillas by recycling these electronics and contacting firms to guarantee that mining locations do not seek bushmeat. World Gorilla Day is celebrated on the 24th of September and this day is an opportunity to celebrate our closest cousins and to take measures to save their lives.

Written By:

Phothygajana Gajenthira,
1st Year Undergraduate,
Faculty of Science,
University of Colombo.

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