Gorillas; the largest of the great Apes are divided into three subspecies that include the western lowland gorillas (Gorilla gorilla gorilla) and the eastern lowland gorillas (Gorilla gorilla graueri). The eastern and western lowland gorillas were identified for science in 1847 and 1877 respectively.
The third sub specie – the Mountain Gorilla (Gorilla gorilla beringei) was identified for science purposes in the year 1903 and has gone on to become Uganda’s star attraction.
Mountain gorillas are physically distinct from lowland gorillas. They are larger, have much hair, a short trunk, a broad chest / shoulders and also have a longer / slightly different nose shape.
They are born small, covered with black hair and usually weigh about 2.3 kilograms. Gorillas develop about as twice as human babies with the mature female mother also undergoing a gestation period of 9 months. They are unique species; as a gorilla with an infant may not have another baby up to four years – good family planning. Male and female young gorillas between the ages of three and six are classed as juvenile.
During this period, both the male and female gorillas have a black skin and thick black hair and usually weigh about 2.3 kilograms. They increase in size and weight at similar rates for the first six years. On reaching six years; most Mountain gorillas weigh about 68 kilograms and are usually about 4 feet tall.
The female Mountain gorilla stop growing taller as they mature at around six years, this is as opposed to the male Mountain gorillas that continue growing both in size and weight past the age of six till they reach the ages of ten to eleven.
Between the ages of six and ten years, male gorillas have a black hair colour and are thus referred to as the Blackbucks. On reaching maturity which is usually between 10 and 12 years, the male Mountain Gorillas develop silvery grey hairs on their backs thereby being referred to as Silverbacks.
The Silverback usually leave their parental group at the age of 11 and then moves alone or in the company of other males for a few years before managing to attract females from other groups to him hence forming his own family. Silver back is a dominant male in a group of about 12 or more gorillas that usually include females, juveniles and other infants.
On a good day, you will find them chewing leaves, laughing and farting not only continuously but with a lot of contentment. They are diurnal (nomadic), sleeping each night in a fresh nest built from leaves and branches.
Mountain gorillas are primarily vegetarian with their menu comprising bamboo, nettles and gallium being some of their favorite. They occasionally also eat safari ants which are scooped in huge handfuls to stuff into the mouth until the safari ant bites over power them. Gorillas spend most of their time traveling and foraging in search of food since plants and trees change with seasons.
Gorillas communicate through vocalizations. Twenty five distinct vocalizations have so far been recognized with each one having its own particular meaning. As an element of their socialization, they communicate through howls, grunts, barks and hoots. Screams and roars signal alarm or warning and are often produced by silverbacks.
They also communicate by beating on their chests or on the ground. This is done to show stature, prevent a fight or even scare off opponents. However, even the infants beat their chests as a kind of displacement activity during play perhaps just to copy their elders.
Mountain gorilla life is peaceful and quite. It is from this that they have come to be called Africa’s Gentle Giants. These gentle giants are found in the areas of Parc des Volcans – Rwanda and Virunga National Park in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) while in Uganda, they are confined to Mgahinga Gorilla National Park and Bwindi “impenetrable” Forest National park.
Bwindi “impenetrable” Forest National park is situated in south western Uganda on the edge of western rift valley (Albertine rift) and is shared by Kanungu, Kabale and Kisoro districts. It is 331 square kilometers in size; on an altitude range of 1,160 metres (Ishasha gorge) to 2607 metres (Rwamanyonyi peak).
The number of mountain gorillas in the Virunga vault that combine the gorillas of Uganda , Rwanda and Democratic Republic of Congo has increased according to experts. The number is believed to have reached 900 from 700 usually portrayed by the facts noted since 2006 when the last census was done.
The government through Uganda Wildlife Authority recently launched a census to assess the actual number of Mountain Gorillas.
According to Martha Robbins, the German expert leading the census, the team counts gorilla nests, other than individual gorillas, and collect their feaces. The feaces will be used for generic analysis which, she said, provides the most accurate estimates.
The first census in Bwindi Impenetrable National Park in western Uganda was carried out in 1997. It showed that there were 300 gorillas but the number rose to about 320 five years later and 340 in the last census conducted in 2006.
The Gorillas of Mgahinga , Virunga and Volcanoes National parks are believed to have increased from 380 in 2006 t0 480 currently. The census in Bwindi impenetrable forest launched about a month has been launched and the numbers are believed to have risen from 340 in 2008 to over 400 now.
Bwindi has 8 habituated groups namely Mubare 5 members,Habinyanja with 19 members, Rushegura with 20, Nkuringo 20,Bitukura 14, Nshongi 26, Mishaya 11, Kyaguriro 16.
Two other groups are under habituation and currently being used for mock tourism namely Kahungye and Oruzogo. All groups are available for tourism except Kyaguriro in Ruhija which is dedicated for Research.
Mgahinga Gorilla National Park which is part of the Greater Virunga Massif has one trans-boundary group known as Nyakagezi with 9 members.
Bwindi Forest gazzetted in 1992 as a National park is now a UNESCOworld heritage site. Gorilla trekking provides over 60% of tourism revenue for Uganda thus being a strong reason for their protection.
The threats to the Mountain Gorilla population and its habitat are many. Among these are increasing population and the possibility of disease transmission from humans to Gorillas. To address the issue of potential disease transmission to the gorillas and to reduce behavioral disturbances to the fragile population, Gorilla rules have been put in place.
ON THE WAY TO THE GORILLAS
1) Always wash your hands before you head out to the gorillas.
2) A maximum number of eight (8) visitors may visit a group of habituated Mountain gorillas in a day. This minimizes behavioral disturbance to the gorillas and the risk of their exposure to human borne diseases.
3) You will be taken to where the guides left the gorillas the day before. From there you will follow the mountain gorillas’ trail to find them. Look out for the gorillas’ nesting sites along the way!
4) When you reach the Mountain Gorillas, the guides will inform you when to get your cameras ready.
5) Please always keep your voices low. You will also be able to observe the great birdlife and other wildlife in the forest.
6) Do not leave rubbish in the park. Whatever you bring into the forest should be carried back with you.
WHEN YOU ARE WITH THE MOUNTAIN GORILLAS
1) Keep your voices low at all times. However, it is okay to ask the guide (s) questions.
2) You must stay in a tight group when you are near the mountain gorillas.
3) Keep a minimum of 7 metres (21 feet) from the Mountain Gorillas. This is to protect the Mountain Gorillas from human disease transmission.
4) Do not eat or drink while you are near the mountain gorillas.
5) Sometimes the Mountain Gorillas charge. Follow the guide’s example crouch down slowly. DO NOT look the Mountain Gorilla in the eye. Wait for the Gorillas to pass and do not attempt to run away as this could increase the risk of attack.
6) Do not touch the Mountain Gorillas. They are wild animals.
7) Flash photography is not allowed. When taking pictures, move slowly and carefully.
8) The maximum time visitors are allowed to spend with the Mountain Gorillas is one hour. This is done to limit their disturbance. If the Mountain Gorillas become agitated or nervous, the guide will end the visit early.
9) After the visit, keep your voices low until you are 200 metres away from the Mountain Gorillas.
GENERAL HEALTH RULES
Remember Mountain Gorillas are very susceptible to human diseases. The following are ways to minimize the risk your visit might pose to them;
1) If you are feeling ill, or have a contagious disease when you are already at the park, please volunteer to stay behind. An alternative visit will be arranged for you or you will be refunded your money as per gorilla reservation guidelines.
2) If you feel the urge to cough or sneeze when you are near the Mountain Gorillas, please turn your head away and cover your nose and mouth in order to minimize the spread of viruses or bacteria.
3) Always stay 7 metres (21 feet) away from the Mountain Gorillas. The further back you are, the more relaxed the group will be.
4) Respect the Gorilla limit imposed on the time visitors are allowed with the Mountain Gorillas each day. This minimizes the risk of disease transmission and stress to the group.
5) If you need to go to the “toilet” while in the forest, please ask the guide to dig you a hole and ensure you cover it when you have finished.
6) Do not leave any rubbish in the park.
By following the rules above and through purchase of a permit, you are contributing to the conservation of the Mountain Gorilla.
A percentage of the funds raised from park entrance fees and the community levy on permits is shared with the local communities living adjacent to the parks so as to help contribute to their development projects and also improve on the natural resource management in the region.
Any breach of these rules may lead to termination of tracking without any refund.