Mountain Gorillas are the best known inhabitants of Volcanoes National Park. These great apes are the true stars of the Virunga Mountains and have made the park famous around the world. Over 300 mountain gorillas live in PNV and gorilla trekking is the ultimate wildlife experience that you cannot miss within the park.
The Volcanoes National Park is notably known for mountain gorillas scientifically known as Gorilla beringei beringei. Noted to be descendants of the Old World Monkey, the mountain gorillas are among the two sub species of the eastern gorilla.
They occur in two populations with one thriving in the Virunga massif where Volcanoes National Park is a member along with Uganda’s Mgahinga Gorilla National Park and Congo’s Virunga National Park while another thrives in Bwindi Impenetrable National Park Uganda.
Mountain Gorillas are rare animals living in fragile habitats and with low birth rates which explains their listing as critically endangered on the red list of International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN). Apparently, the global population of Mountain Gorillas is estimated at 1060 individuals.
Quick Facts About Mountain Gorillas
Noted to be descendants of ancestral apes and monkeys that thrived in the parts of Arabia and Africa at the beginning of the Oligocene epoch about 34 – 24 million years ago, the fossils evidence indicate the existence of Apes in the region of East Africa at approximately 22 – 32 million years ago. It is believed that at around nine (9) million years ago, the Primate group that would evolve into Gorillas separated from their common ancestor with Chimpanzees and humans leading to the emergence of genus Gorilla. Though this earliest relative of the gorilla is not clear, it was connected to the early ape Procunsul Africanus.
The Mountain Gorillas are believed to have separated from the Eastern Lowland Gorillas around 400,000 years but these two taxa are believed to have split from the Western Lowland Gorillas around two (2) million years ago. The classification of Mountain Gorillas has been surrounded by unresolved debate. The initial genus was referred to as Troglodytes in the year 1847 before it was renamed back to Gorilla in the year 1852. Colin Groves in 1967 proposed that all Gorillas be grouped as one species called Gorilla gorilla with three (3) sub species namely Gorilla gorilla gorilla for western lowland gorilla, Gorilla gorilla beringei for Mountain Gorillas and Gorilla gorilla graueri for Eastern lowland gorillas. But the in the year 2003, the World Conservation Union classified them into two (2) species namely; Gorilla beringei and Gorilla gorilla.
The Mountain Gorilla fur is considerably thicker and longer than that of other gorilla sub species which enables it to thrive in colder temperatures. The nose print of each Gorilla is unique to itself and is used for identification. The Male Gorillas can stretch to 195kg in weight with a standing height of 150cm. The males can weigh twice the females.
Mountain Gorillas are noted to be the second largest primates after the Eastern lowland gorillas. The mature adult Mountain Gorillas feature bony crests on the top and at the back of their skulls that pose a conical shape on their heads. The crests anchor in strong temporalis muscles which are fixed on the lower jaw. The mature females also feature such crests though they are less pronounced. The eyes of Mountain Gorillas are dark brown framed by a black ring around the iris. The mature males are named Silverbacks after the saddle of silver-colored hair on their back that grows with age.
Mountain Gorillas are terrestrial animals and are quadrupedal. But at times, they climb into fruiting trees where the branches can sustain their weight and can as well run bipedally up to 6m. Just like other Great Apes except the humans, the arms are longer than the legs. The Mountain Gorillas move by knuckle walking just like the Common Chimpanzee sustaining its weight on the backs of the curved fingers other than the palms.
They are notably diurnal and tend to be active between 6am and 6pm where they spend great deal of time eating large quantities of food that is required to support their gigantic bodies. Mountain Gorillas can forage in the morning, take a rest in the mid morning and Midday and then resumes foraging again in the afternoon before retiring for overnight. Every Mountain Gorilla constructs a nest using the available materials to sleep in every night but the infants share with their mothers. It is interesting to note that even though the gorillas are so close to the nests that they slept in the previous night, they still build up new nests.
History of the Mountain Gorillas in Rwanda
“Between the 23th and 24th October  I passed a wonderful primeval forest, where the natives claim a big human like ape lives.” Thus, wrote Robert von Beringe in his report on the expedition from Bukoba on the shores of Lake Victoria to Lake Edward, skirting the north west edge of today’s Bwindi Impenetrable Forest. Three years later on the 17th October 1902, during a diplomatic visit to the King of Rwanda and the German outposts, on the slopes of the Sabinyo Volcano he was the first white man to see a troop of mountain gorillas and shot two: the photographs and remains of one demonstrated the presence of gorillas beyond West Africa and were identified as Gorilla Gorilla Beringei by the Berlin Natural Science Museum.
Robert von Beringe (1865 – 1940), who joined as a volunteer in 1894 and was promoted to Captain in 1899, was part of the small elite of white professional officers of the German East Africa Protectorate Force, created in 1891. Germany had started the penetration of Tanzania in the mid 1880’s and consolidated its position in the 1890’s, pushing inland along the caravan routes. In 1896 the German had set up a military station in Usumbura (Bujumbura), in charge of both Burundi and Rwanda, of which Beringe was the ‘Resident’ from August 1902 to February 1904.
His expeditions were endeavoring to establish German ascendancy over the local rulers and territorial claims vis-?-vis the Belgians, pushing east from Congo. In addition, officers like Beringe were building on the geographical discoveries of the explorers who first opened this area – mainly the Austrian Oskar Baumann (1864 – 1899) who first entered Rwanda in 1892 and the German Gustav Adolf von Götzen (1966 – 1910) who discovered Lake Kivu in 1894. In particular, Beringe is credited for contributing to the detailed mapping out of the volcanoes region and especially for discovering Lake Bunyonyi in 1899. These officers were also encouraged by the Natural Science Museum’s authorities to contribute to their collections: Beringe for instance also sent to the Museum a collection of coleoptera probably from south east Tanzania in 1987.
The two mountain populations, one in the Virunga Volcanoes area on the border between the Democratic Republic of Congo and Rwanda and the other in the Bwindi National Park in Uganda, belong to the Eastern group, which changes their classification to Gorilla Beringei Beringei. After chimpanzees, gorillas are our closest relatives and share about 97.7% of our DNA. Mountain gorillas are the largest living primates, an adult male weighing up to 180 kilograms (400 pounds), with an arm span of about two meters (seven feet). They have longer, thicker fur than Lowland gorillas and a slightly different nose shape among other skeletal differences.
Mountain gorillas do not survive in captivity, which is why they are not seen in zoos. Tracking the mountain gorilla through the misty forests requires patience and stamina, often walking for hours in the mud and the wet. Finally meeting them in the undergrowth is an inspiring moment. Quietly chewing away at their vegetarian delicacies, they seem like a marooned human family. The tender grooming and firm disciplining of their offspring seems all too familiar. The gorilla family cast a wary glance at the sudden human intrusion into their private world, but is comforted by the clucking made by the trackers. When provoked, the noisy but harmless silverback grunts, screeches, bares his fangs and beats his chest, before slithering off with attendant females, offspring and other mature males.
Trekking amongst the mountain gorillas of Rwanda is a heartwarming and memorable life changing experience – one of the richest and exciting wildlife safari experiences on earth. Each gorilla trek immerses you in the gorilla’s kingdom, surrounding you with fantastic views of bamboo forests, lush jungle and the exotic sounds of Turaco bird calls and the chatter of golden monkeys. Gorilla Trekking is a worthwhile adventure and Africa’s undisputed safari highlight.
The lush and forested slopes form a dramatic natural setting for your face-to-face encounter with the gorillas. Trekking with these gentle giants through the damp, misty undergrowth gives you the adventurous experience of the first explorers. And standing amongst them as they eat, play, groom and rest – acting in every way like our own families – will take your breath away and leave you smiling for ages.
Meeting mountain gorillas in their misty natural habitat, where the courageous and famous American primatologist Dian Fossey lived, died and was buried while protecting them, is a privilege one shouldn’t miss in life. As Sir David Attenborough said, “There is more meaning and understanding in exchanging a glance with a gorilla than any other animal I know.”