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The facts will break your heart.

But we must be brave if we care about the survival of the gentle and mysterious mountain gorillas.

Captain Robert von Beringe shot two large primates while establishing the boundaries of German East Africa in October 1902. He sent one of the apes to the Berlin Zoological Museum and Professor Paul Matschie classified the animal as a new form of the gorilla, naming it Gorilla beringei.

In Europe and the United States, hunters and collectors took note. Within 25 years 59 Mountain Gorillas had been killed.

After Carl Akeley shot five mountain gorillas in 1921 he convinced the Belgian King Albert I, to establish Africa’s first national park in Zaire in 1925. This resulted in almost three decades of relative peace for the mountains and her inhabitants.

George Schaller started a 20 month observation of the Mountain Gorillas in 1959 in the Congo and subsequently published two scientific books about their social organisation, life history and ecology.

The civil war that broke out in 1960 neutralised park protection. Mountain gorillas provided bush meat and parts for desperate people… and they soon figured out that their hands and heads could be sold to tourists;

…remember those popular Mountain gorilla hand ashtrays, anyone?

At the same time, the population explosion was slowly unfurling and large amounts of habitat were lost to the agriculture needed to feed the people living at the foot of the mountain. And there was a sea of people. This area boasted some of the highest human population densities in the world.

Enter the Dian

Fossey started patrolling the forest and removing snares (mostly intended for game like antelope) in the Congo by 1967. She was almost immediately forced to move to the Rwandan side of the Virungus due to concerns for her safety.

In 1968 a whopping 40% of the forest was placed in the hands of a European-sponsored pyrethrum farm scheme. Fossey would have the park boundary lowered from 3,000 meters to 2,500 meters, revising the European Community project.

An international consortium of conservation organizations established the infamous Mountain Gorilla Project and gorilla tourism was born in Rwanda in the late 1970s. The group was involved in covering up gorilla deaths due to poaching and diseases picked up from visitors. As Fossey opposed them they tried to have her declared unstable to remove her. They would not succeed.

Dian considered herself an ‘active conservationist’ and the international conservation groups as practicing ‘theoretical conservation’.

She strongly and vocally opposed and criticized wildlife tourism due to the fact that the gorillas were so very susceptible to human anthroponotic diseases.

The Rwandan people were educated and started to understand the value of preserving the Mountain Gorilla. It remains one of the most successful conservation efforts in changing the attitude of a community and having them lead the charge to play the long game.

Only 254 Mountain Gorillas were counted in Rwanda in 1981.

At one point gorilla safaris were Rwanda’s third largest foreign currency earner. Zaire and Uganda joined the party.

Fossey, increasingly concerned with anti-poaching rather than science, was killed in 1985, believing the Mountain Gorilla would be extinct by the year 2,000.

In 1990 another civil war broke out. The war unequivocally proved the value of working with communities and changing grassroots attitudes. Throughout the wartime, the Mountain Gorillas remain protected. Even while general poaching spiked and thousands of soldiers and refugees had to pass through their habitat to reach safety… but Gorilla tourism was severely impacted and researchers, obvious under great personal risk, were eventually forced to flee.

Recovery has been slow but sure in Rwanda. Neighboring Uganda, home to the largest Mountain Gorilla population has been quick to take up the slack.

Today

All species and sub-species of gorilla are currently listed as Critically Endangered on the IUCN Red List. The lowland gorillas have much more success at playing the survival game, however. It is thought that over 100,000 western lowland gorillas live in the wild (4,000 in captivity). The eastern lowland gorilla has a population of under 5,000 in the wild (24 in captivity). The Mountain gorilla is severely endangered.

Threats include habitat destruction, poaching for bushmeat and curios and the Ebola virus(several hundred gorillas were essentially wiped out in the Odzala National Park in the DRC in 2004)

But, in the Virungas, Mountain Gorilla numbers had grown from 480 in 2010 to 604 in June 2016 (this is the most up to date census as extensive genetic work has to be completed to ensure accurate numbers). The Bwindi population make up the rest of the numbers (and even though it is the only wild ape showing a growth in population) and an estimated population of only about 800 are alive in the wild (they do not survive in captivity).

Location, location, location

For the Mountain Gorilla habitat is a matter of life and death. Dense vegetation in high cloud forests is where they thrive and half of the world’s population can be found in Uganda’s Bwindi Impenetrable Forest National Park (The Place of Darkness), with the other half living along the dormant volcanic Virunga (Mufumbiro)mountain range that runs from Volcanoes National Park across Uganda’s Mgahinga Gorilla and Virunga National Parks and into the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

Threats and Tips

Gorillas, like us, are very dependent on their home. As the communities around the parks are large it was inevitable that logging and farming would start to encroach on the gorilla habitat. If you travel with a company that supports local porters (a resident of the area and often a reformed poacher) to assist with crossing rivers and getting around on the treacherous, wet and steep terrain. You can also stay in accommodation that offers fair employment for local communities… and champion local tours and experiences run by tribe elders or other community members.

Permits permitting

Access to mountain gorillas is very restricted. Permit costs may vary depending on the season and you should book your permit a minimum of six months in advance.

A permit will buy you a grueling walk which will hopefully (no guarantees)end with one hour spent in silence at a safe distance from a gorilla group.

High altitude and challenging terrain warning

Gorilla trekking is very hard work. Walking through a forest that has been named ‘Impenatrable’, with no paths or signs or directions, your way literally being cleared by the park rangers’ machetes is no joke. Add to that the fact that nothing is on the level: you are constantly moving uphill or downhill through the vines, thorns, and roots (that must surely be the inspiration for Sleeping Beauty’s story) takes things up another couple of notches.

A Better Alternative to Gorilla Trekking

Now, there is an even more important part for you to play in the conservation of the Gorillas.

A Gorilla Habituation Experience is a learning activity that is restricted to only 4 people a day. It is used to train wild gorillas to become used to the sight of people. It takes around 2 to 3 years for wild gorillas to complete their habituation and by taking part you will join trackers, conservationists, researchers and rangers in securing the future for this incredible group of primates.

Gorilla Habituation allows you to spend 4 hours with the gorillas. It is currently only available inside Ugandan borders at the Bwindi Impenetrable Forest National Park.

In Bwindi, there are around 11 habituated Gorilla groups including Habinyanja, Rushegura, and Mubare which are found at Buhoma, North of the park, at Rushaga in the South you will find Mishaya, Bweza, Nshonji, Kahungye, Busingye, and the Nkuringo gorilla group. Far off in the East at Ruhija are the Oruzogo, Kyaguriro and Bitukura gorilla groups.

Only the two groups at Nkuringo and Rushaga are set aside for habituation.

During a Habituation Experience, you will be able to learn much more about each individual gorilla, your deeper understanding of their behaviors, personalities, and appearance you may even be able to name each one individually.

When the wild gorillas are considered safe in the presence of people the researchers conduct a mock exercise and if the group pass their test they are then available for trekking.

Sartorial Savvy for Fierce Forests 

The dark and impenetrable forest requires you to think Fossey, not Vogue.

  • Long comfortable and quick drying shirts and trousers.
  • Waterproof (and broken in!) Hiking Boots
  • Insect repellent (as much and as potent as you can stand).
  • Something warm for cool nights and early mornings.
  • Sturdy gloves and a hat.
  • Light poncho/rain jacket.
  • Waterproof daypack.
Our beautiful images via: Holger LinkMike ArneyGhost PresenterJeffrey Hamilton

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