Mountain Gorillas

Mountain Gorillas are of course the best known inhabitants of the Virungas. They are the true stars of the Virunga forests and have made the region famous around the world.

There are four subspecies of gorillas leaving in Africa. The mountain Gorilla ( Gorilla beringei beringei ) is the biggest of them, mature adult males ( known as “ silverbacks” due to the presence of grey hair on their massive back. ) can reach over 200 kg. The virunga forest is the only place in the world where mountain gorillas still survive , together with Bwindi ( the impenetrable”) forest national park in Uganda , situated some 50 km away from the virunga forest , but that has been separated from it by a growing “ocean” of intensively cultivated land (a process that probably started as early as 500 years ago.)

Almost 500 mountain gorillas live in the virunga forest straddling across the three countries of the virunga range. The latest detailed census ( performed in 2010 by teams of volcanoes national park and Karisoke Research Centre ) revealed that the mountain gorillas population in volcanoes national park increased by more than 20% during the last decade. These highly social apes live in family groups led by one dominant silverback accompanied by females , juveniles and infants (as well as, in certain groups, other subordinate males.) The largest group of mountain gorillas in volcanoes national park- in the world- is currently (2010) group pablo , with 44 gorillas.

Mountain gorillas have established home ranges that sometimes overlap with the ones of other neighbouring groups. Interactions can become violent when two silverback males fight with each other , but most often they will avoid violent confrontation. The groups move also according to the seasons, they tend to spend much more time in the bamboo forests when bamboo shoots are plenty , while in the dry season they have to move much more in order to find enough food of good quality. At the time of the year , they sometimes climb much higher on the slopes of the volcanoes.

Gorilla Parks

The Virunga region comprise of three national parks that protect the endangered gorillas. Learn about each park, location – directions/map, history, weather conditions and more.

Virunga National Park

Also refered to as Parc National des Virungas, this is the first place where gorilla tourism was started.  Find information on gorilla tourism in the park, location – directions/map, history, weather conditions and more.

Mgahinga National Park

The Mgahinga National Park protects the Ugandan part of the Virunga. It is one of the most scenic places. Learn about location, getting there, things to see & do, weather & climate, directions/map and more.

Volcanoes National Park

Since 1980s, this is the best place to view the mountain gorillas in the wild. Learn about Volcanoes National Park,  location – directions/map, history, weather conditions and more.

Gorilla Trekking

Gorilla tracking is the main activity that brings tourists to the Virunga region. Get started with planning a gorilla trek in the Virunga Region, best places to go, how to book gorilla permits or all inclusive gorilla safaris and more.

Scientific classification: Kingdom: Animalia, Phylum: Chordata, Class: Mammalia, Order: Primates, Family: Hominidae, Genus: Gorilla, Species: Gorilla. Berengei Subspecies: Gorilla. Berengei. Berengei.

Learn about Mountain Gorillas

Mountain gorillas are one of the world’s most endangered species, with only some 600-700 left in the wild. These magnificent animals live in small troops, each within its own defined boundaries and each with several females and their young being led by a single dominant male – the magnificent ‘Silverback’. Distinct from their cousins who live in the open plains and lowland forests of West Africa, mountain gorillas are normally found in at an altitude of between 1520m and 3650m.

There are several locations to go mountain gorilla tracking in two unique locations – Bwindi Impenetrable Forest National Park in southern Uganda and in the Virunga massif of Rwanda’s Parc National des Volcans.

At both locations, gorilla tracking is limited to a daily maximum group size of six people for each habituated gorilla family group. You will be accompanied by expert trackers and park rangers and, although sightings of gorillas can never be guaranteed, the fact that the family groups are tracked daily means that locating the families is easier.

The mountain gorilla (Gorilla beringei beringei) is the largest of all the gorillas and is the most endangered. The world’s remaining 820 mountain gorillas live in three different countries in Central Africa: Democratic Republic of Congo, Rwanda, and Uganda. Although this makes their range seem large, the mountain gorillas actually inhabit a small geographic area where the borders of these three countries meet. Over half of the world’s mountain gorillas can be found amidst the Virunga chain of volcanoes and the remaining populations live in Uganda’s Bwindi Impenetrable Forest some 75 km to the north.

Unlike their lowland counterparts, the mountain gorillas have long hair, which helps them handle the temperature extremes found at altitude. Mountain gorillas live in large family units led by a single dominant adult male, known as the “Silverback” — a name derived from the grey hair that develops on male’s back as it reaches adulthood. The Silverback is responsible for protecting the family from predators or other threats, including solitary Silverbacks intent on claiming females as their own. The dominant Silverback also takes on the role of mediator when disputes arise in the family. Some families contain more than one Silverback, but only one is dominant and that male alone is responsible for mating with the adult females of the group.

The sub-adult males of the family are known as “Blackbacks”. Adult females are generally half the size of the males and it is their responsibility to initiate mating with the dominant male, as well as care for the infants.

Despite all the lore about the ferocity of the mountain gorilla, in general they are very peaceful creatures. Most days are spent foraging for food, playing, and grooming. Aside from mock fighting amongst juveniles, displays of aggression are reserved for challenges to the Silverback’s dominance or direct threats to the family’s well being.

The mountain gorilla’s fierceness has been seen protecting its young from illegal animal traffickers’ intent on capturing baby gorillas. For every mountain gorilla baby that is found in the marketplace, an entire family of gorillas has died trying to protect it.

In addition to the threat posed by the illegal animal trade, the major threats to the mountain gorilla’s continued existence are habitat destruction, poaching, human diseases and war and civil unrest. Although Virunga National Park is a UNESCO World Heritage site and the mountain gorilla its “flagship” species, the war raging in eastern Congo since 1994 has rendered this distinction moot. Over 300,000 refugees now inhabit the area just below the park’s southern border. Due to the shattered infrastructure of eastern Congo, these refugees have had no choice but to enter mountain gorilla habitat for fuel and food.

Disease is arguably one of the gravest threats to the mountain gorilla. With people encroaching more and more into gorilla habitat, one of the few remaining ways to protect mountain gorillas is tourism. Unfortunately, tourism brings with it one of the biggest potential threats — disease. Because mountain gorillas share approximately 97% of our DNA, they are susceptible to the same diseases as humans. Unlike humans, however, their resistance is much lower. Sicknesses that the average human can beat with bed rest and antibiotics can prove fatal to the mountain gorilla. More serious outbreaks, such as Ebola or virulent strains of influenza could take the few remaining mountain gorilla populations beyond the point of return. Because of this vulnerability, it is imperative that tourists only visit gorillas when healthy and keep a minimum distance of 25 feet (7 meters) away. In the bigger scheme, the mountain gorilla’s range needs to be expanded to provide discrete populations with the geographic isolation needed to prevent the widespread transmission of disease.