The mountain gorilla is listed as Critically Endangered in the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s Red List of Threatened Species.
There are only around 782 mountain gorillas surviving in the wild and 4 in captivity. Their numbers are split between the Virunga volcanic mountain range (480) − which spans the border area of Rwanda, Uganda and the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) − and the Bwindi Impenetrable National Park in Uganda (302).
They are primarily vegetarian and around 85% of their diet is composed of leaves, shoots and stems. They also eat small amounts of wood, roots, flowers and fruit, and occasionally larvae, snails and ants.
Mountain gorillas are generally larger than the other three surviving gorilla subspecies and have longer hair. On average, adult males weigh 160kg and adult females 98kg. Dominant adult males are known as 'silverbacks' because of the patch of silver hair on their back and hips. A male becomes a silver back when they are about 7-9 years old. The longer hair helps them keep warm in the high altitude cloud forests where they are found.
Challenges and threats
The mountain gorilla has endured a combination of hunting, regional conflict, destruction of its forest habitat, and capture for the illegal pet trade. These factors have led to a dramatic decline in gorilla numbers, although efforts by government, conservation organisations and local people are now leading to a small, gradual increase in numbers.
Loss of habitat is still a great threat. The two areas where the mountain gorillas survive are virtual islands in one of the most densely populated regions of Africa.
Every square kilometre contains an average of over 400 people. Over 90% of the population practice subsistence farming. Over 95% of these people rely on firewood, often harvested unsustainably, as their main energy supply.
Forested parks are often the last remaining source of fuel. In DRC, the illegal charcoal trade and mining are also key threats to the forest habitat of the mountain gorillas. Despite the high rainfall, the volcanic rock means that during the dry season people often run out of drinking water forcing them into the forest to get access to drinking water. One of the biggest threats is disease passed to gorillas by people entering the forest. As we share much of the same DNA, gorillas are able to contract diseases but do not have the immune system to fight them, so even something like a cold can kill a gorilla!
The region's ongoing conflict and civil unrest are an ever-present risk, as is poaching. Whilst targeted poaching of the gorillas is extremely rare, they are often the accidental victims of snares set to catch antelope, bush pigs and other wildlife. Gorillas are targeted in hunts to catch and sell their young as pets.
WWF in action
Research by scientists, such as George Schaller and Dian Fossey, highlighted the plight of the mountain gorilla and inspired WWF and other conservation organisations to work together to protect the remaining populations.
In 1991, WWF co-founded the International Gorilla Conservation Programme (IGCP) with Fauna and Flora International, the African Wildlife Foundation, and the protected area authorities of the governments of Rwanda, Uganda and the DRC. There was a 10% increase in the mountain gorilla population within 10 years of the programme’s launch, and that increase is gradually continuing.
The IGCP focuses on encouraging regional collaboration between Rwanda, Uganda and the DRC, working in close partnership with the park staff of all three countries. A vital part of these activities is to implement more sophisticated monitoring and patrolling techniques throughout the protected areas, alongside helping to meet the needs of the local people.
By improving livelihoods, encouraging sustainable use of resources, and tackling other local issues via a range of community initiatives, the programme is influencing attitudes to conservation at all levels and reducing the threats facing the parks, forests and wildlife.
At the same time, the IGCP works with key decision-makers to influence policy and ensure that each country, as well as the local people, benefits from conservation.