Mountain gorilla

After a dramatic decline in numbers following their scientific discovery in 1902, dedicated conservation initiatives have ensured that mountain gorilla numbers are now slowly increasing.
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Mountain gorilla (Gorilla gorilla beringei) family at play Virunga National Park, Democratic Republic of Congo.
© Martin Harvey / WWF-Canon

Key facts

  • Common names

    Mountain gorilla; Gorille de montagne (Fr); (Sp)

  • Scientific name

    Gorilla beringei beringei

  • Location

    Virunga mountains, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Rwanda and Uganda; Bwindi Impenetrable National Park, Uganda

  • Population

    Approximately 880 individuals

  • Status

    Critically Endangered

    More

Physical description

The mountain gorilla became known to science on 17 October 1902, and is a subspecies of eastern gorilla. It has longer hair, jaws and teeth, but slightly shorter arms, than the other subspecies, the eastern lowland gorilla. Adult males grow a patch of silver hair on their back and hips, giving them the name 'silverback'.

Size: On average, adult males weigh 160 kg, and adult females 98 kg.

Gorillas on volcanoes

Mountain gorillas are found at high altitudes (2,500-4,000 m) in montane forests, as well as bamboo forests.

Social structure
A group of mountain gorillas usually consists of a single dominant silverback male, three adult females, and 4-5 offspring. There is an overlap in group territories and the silverback generally defends his group rather than his territory.

Population & distribution

Mountain gorillas are found in two separate locations: the Virunga range of extinct volcanic mountains on the borders of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Rwanda and Uganda, and in the Bwindi Impenetrable National Park in Uganda. Some primatologists believe the Bwindi gorillas may be a separate subspecies.

Previous population
In the 100 years since its discovery, the mountain gorilla has endured uncontrolled hunting, war, disease, destruction of its forest habitat, and capture for the illegal pet trade.

These factors led to a dramatic decline in numbers. Indeed, there were fears that the mountain gorilla would become extinct in the same century it was discovered.

Current population
Thanks to conservation efforts, the population of mountain gorillas has increased from 620 individuals in 1989 to around 880 individuals today. This number is likely to be accurate, as these animals have been intensely monitored since the 1950s.

  • The Virunga population numbers 480, and lives at altitudes ranging from 2,300-4,500 m. Most of these gorillas range within the southern part of Virunga National Park, DRC, and the Volcanoes National Park (Parc National des Volcans), northern Rwanda, while a few use the Mgahinga National Park, southwestern Uganda. 
     
  • The Bwindi population lives at elevations of 1,500- 2,300 m. A 2011census recorded 400 individuals. Additionally, four orphaned mountain gorillas currently reside in a sanctuary in Uganda.
Mountain gorilla mother cradling and kissing foot of 1 week baby, Volcanoes NP, Virunga Mountains, ... / ©: naturepl.com /Andy Rouse / WWF
Mountain gorilla (Gorilla beringei beringei) mother with 1-week old baby, Volcanoes National Park, Virunga Mountains, Rwanda
© naturepl.com /Andy Rouse / WWF

Habitat

Major habitat type
Tropical and Subtropical Moist Broadleaf Forests

Biogeographic realm
Afrotropical

Range States
Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Rwanda, Uganda

Geographical Location
Central Africa

Ecological Region
Albertine Rift Montane Forest
Sabinyo volcano and thick forest, habitat of the endangered mountain gorilla Virunga National Park, ... / ©: Martin Harvey / WWF-Canon
Sabinyo volcano and thick forest, Virunga National Park, Democratic Republic of the Congo.
© Martin Harvey / WWF-Canon

What are the main threats?

Habitat loss
More than 100,000 people live in the remote areas where mountain gorillas are found. Their need for land to cultivate has reduced the forest in which the gorillas live to virtual islands in the middle of expanding human settlements.

Between 1990 and 1994, large numbers of Rwandan refugees fled to camps at the edge of the Virunga National Park, leading to uncontrolled firewood harvesting as well as increased poaching (see below).

In 2004, 1,500 hectares of prime mountain gorilla habitat were cleared by illegal settlers in Virunga National Park, Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), according to evidence uncovered by the Congolese Institute for the Conservation of Nature, one of WWF's partners. Convoys of people from Rwanda and DRC destroyed large tracts of the park, home to mountain gorillas and other endangered species, to create agricultural and pastoral land.

Hunting
In addition to being hunted for meat, mountain gorillas are also illegally hunted for trophies and live infants. 

As many as 15 of Virunga's mountain gorillas may have been killed since the outbreak of civil war in 1990. Between 1990 and 1994, when large numbers of Rwandan refugees fled to camps at the edge of the Virunga National Park, 4 habituated silverback gorillas were killed, along with some of their group members.

In 2007, a further 7 gorillas were killed.

Oil & gas exploration
European oil and gas companies have been granted exploration consessions in Virunga National Park, home to Democratic Republic of the Congo's mountain gorilla population.  While gorilla habitat does not currently fall within an oil concession, development in the park could negatively affect the animals' security.  

War & instability
Although the refugees left the camps  around Virunga National Park in 1996, continued civil unrest and the presence of armed militias makes survey and conservation work difficult in the DRC's protected areas, which are now in rebel-held territory.

Disease
As more people move into their habitat, and more tourists come to see them, mountain gorillas are becoming increasingly exposed to a variety of human ailments.
A cattle herder with his cattle on the edge of Virunga National Park, near the provincial capital ... / ©: Kate Holt / WWF-UK
Livestock and human encroachment is a serious threat to Virunga National Park, an important protected area for mountain gorillas.
© Kate Holt / WWF-UK
4 dead gorillas laid out on the ground / ©: Altor IGCP Goma
In July 2007 one silverback male and three female mountain gorillas were killed in the Virunga National Park in the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC).
© Altor IGCP Goma
Who murdered the Virunga gorillas?

What is WWF doing?

Our 40 years of work to save the mountain gorilla and its forest habitat represents one of our longest-running flagship species programmes.

Early gorilla surveys and aid to protected areas in the Albertine Rift ecoregion started in the 1970s.

In 1991, this effort evolved into today's International Gorilla Conservation Programme (IGCP), a joint initiative of the African Wildlife Foundation (AWF), Fauna and Flora International (FFI), and WWF.

IGCP's mission is to empower the people of Rwanda, DRC and Uganda to jointly manage a network of transboundary protected areas that the mountain gorillas depend on.

In Virunga National Park, IGCP and WWF are working in collaboration with the Congolese Institute for Nature Conservation (ICCN), and have supported:
  • Environmental awareness and education initiatives
     
  • Promotion of sustainable livelihoods
     
  • Reforestation projects
     
  • Equipping and paying salaries for Virunga National Park staff. In 2002, WWF provided additional funding to increase the number, duration, and coverage of anti-poaching patrols in Volcanoes National Park, leading to the arrest of poachers and a drastic reduction in poaching
The 14% in the Virunga population over the last 12 years is thanks largely to this collaborative effort.

WWF is also active in Bwindi Impenetrable National Park, Uganda, the only other habitat harboring mountain gorillas. 

» WWF's work to save gorillas
» WWF African Great Apes Programme

Priority species

Gorillas and other great apes are a WWF priority species. WWF treats priority species as one of the most ecologically, economically and/or culturally important species on our planet. As such, we are working to ensure all great apes can live and thrive in their natural habitats.

How you can help

  • Visit the gorillas! Money earned through gorilla tourism contributes significantly to the conservation of the species – providing funds for  conservation projects and creating jobs and bringing other benefits to local communities living near gorillas.
     
  • Donate to WWF to help support our great ape conservation work.
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  •  / ©: © Martin HARVEY / WWF-Canon
  • Scientific classification

    Kingdom: Animalia
    Phylum: Chordata
    Class: Mammalia
    Order: Primates
    Family: Hominidae
    Genus: Gorilla
    Species: G. beringei
    Subspecies: G. b. berengei

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