Sunday, October 2, 2011

A birthday with gorillas

The dominant male silverback gorilla is singing HAPPY BIRTHDAY
to me in his loudest voice. Ok, he's actually just yawning.

It is nearly 11 am, and we have been hiking up the side of an ancient volcano for nearly two hours. As Michele, myself, a group of six others, and a guide clamber through stinging nettles, bamboo, and mud, my eyes light up and I grab Michele's hand.

There they are…

Volcanoes National Park is the only place in Rwanda where mountain
gorillas can be seen

I turn 28 this month. Michele and I wanted to celebrate our birthdays (her birthday was earlier this year) by doing something special. Tracking mountain gorillas was a gift to ourselves, and by paying for the fairly expensive permits, it was a contribution to the conservation of these phenomenal mammals.

Mount Sabyinyo in Volcanoes National Park and agriculture
leading up to its base, Rwanda

Mountain gorillas, Gorilla beringei beringei, are some of the rarest primates on the planet. Just about 680 individuals inhabit planet earth in the wild. They live in the forested mountains of just four national parks split between Rwanda, Uganda, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo (three of these parks are connected, encompassing the Virunga range of volcanoes).

Bamboo forests are part of the habitat range of the mountain gorilla. This
picture was taken on Mount Karisimbi, about 2600 meters above sea level,
in Volcanoes National Park, Rwanda.

There are different species of gorillas. The genus Gorilla actually composes two species and up to five separate subspecies. There are the Western gorillas (two subspecies in the lowland forests of Nigeria, Cameroon, Gabon, Republic of the Congo, and the Central African Republic) and the Eastern gorillas (up to three subspecies: one in the lowlands of the eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo, the mountain gorillas in the volcanoes of the Virunga range, and a potential third subspecies in Bwindi Inpenetrable Forest, Uganda). It is not always easy to determine if one subspecies of animal is truly distinct from one another. In the case of gorillas, especially the mountain gorillas, they are populations separated by a sea of human habitation, and it is very possible they will never meet.

One of two babies in a set of twins. The other twin is below right,
out of view in this picture.

Mountain gorillas are distinct from other gorilla subspecies. Physically, “mountain gorillas differ from other gorillas in having longer hair, larger jaws and teeth, smaller nose, and shorter arms,” according to the University of Michigan’s Animal Diversity Web.

Eco-tourism is one major strategy in generating funds for conservation.

All gorillas are endangered. Habitat loss from agricultural expansion and logging cut short the areas available to gorillas. Hunting for bush meat, wars, and capture (for the pet and zoo trade) claim many gorillas every year. Gorillas are extremely similar to humans (96-98% of the same genetic material) and thus are susceptible to diseases that spread through our populations; Western gorillas, however, are particularly impacted by Ebola, which is not spread by humans. Gorillas invest a lot of time in their babies and although each pregnancy is only about 8.5 months, mature female gorillas give birth once every 4-5 years. All of these negative forces combine with the slow birth rate to give gorillas a grim outlook for the future.

So similar to humans... what goes on behind those glowing eyes?

Gorillas depend on the conservation of suitable habitat and migration corridors to connect populations. Gorillas need to be protected from hunting for meat, from being collected as pets, and being murdered as targets by military groups. If we want gorillas around, they may also need our help combatting Ebola (in the West) and other diseases. With animals that have small populations, like the mountain gorillas, every individual is an important target for conservation. 

We observed gorillas doing what they do, living their lives. They
ate, yawned, slept, cleaned their fingers, and pooped. We even
saw a mother nurse her baby! They were very peaceful and did not seem
to mind out presence (of course, these gorillas are habituated).
Research on non-habituated gorillas has found then to be gentile and
generally peaceful.

Eco-tourism is one promising strategy in helping protect the gorillas and their habitat. As research and practical experience has shown in many projects, when people, especially local people, realize a financial incentive to conserve, they protect wild places and wild animals. With some 20,000 people visiting Volcanoes National Park in Rwanda a year (mostly to track gorillas), there are significant opportunities.  Volcanoes National Park employs 180 people directly and provides employment for another 800 local residents indirectly. All the people who visit hire drivers, stay at hotels/guesthouses, and stop at restaurants. While there is still much room to improve the livelihood of local residents, eco-tourism centered on the gorillas provides tens of millions of dollars to the Rwandan economy each year.

Gorillas live in small groups, dominated by a male silver back. The group
of mountain gorillas we visited (Susa group) on Mount Karisimbi, had a
total of just over thirty individuals, including three silverbacks (one
dominant). This group represents 8% of the gorillas in the Virunga range
or about 5% of the total mountain gorilla population.

As I turn 28, I am thrilled to see these icons of African wildlife and one of the closest relatives to our species. But I wonder if some day my future kids, when they reach this age, will be able to see gorillas. Will gorillas exist in the wild or will they be mythical creatures in movies or just another extinct animal in books and museums? This is the century where humans will decide the fate of many species on this planet.

I am displaying this photograph large because it is my favorite and it needs to be big. If any shot of mine was close to capturing the experience, this is it. At one point I counted 22 gorillas in sight (never in a single picture frame). Try to count the gorillas in this picture and post your answer below.

Works consulted
  • Kingdon, J. The Kingdon Pocket Guide to African Mammals. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2004.
  • Lindsley, T. and A. Sorin. 2001. "Gorilla beringei" (On-line), Animal Diversity Web. Accessed October 02, 2011 at:
  • Nielsen, H. and Spenceley, A. 2010. "The Success of Tourism in Rwanda- Gorillas and More." World Bank. Accessed October 2, 2011 at:
  • O'Neil, D. 2011. "Primates: The Taxonomy and General Characteristics of Prosimians, Monkeys, Apes, and Humans." Behavioral Sciences Department, Palomar College. Accessed October 2, 2011 at:
  • Robbins, M. & Williamson, L. 2008. Gorilla beringei. In: IUCN 2011. IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. Version 2011.1. <>. Downloaded on 02 October 2011.
  • Walsh, P.D., Tutin, C.E.G., Oates, J.F., Baillie, J.E.M., Maisels, F., Stokes, E.J., Gatti, S., Bergl, R.A., Sunderland-Groves, J. & Dunn. A. 2008. Gorilla gorilla. In: IUCN 2011. IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. Version 2011.1. <>. Downloaded on 02 October 2011.

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