About mountain gorillas
The powerful mountain gorilla is one of four surviving gorilla subspecies. They’re found in just two isolated populations – in the Bwindi Impenetrable National Park in Uganda, and the Virunga volcanoes – which span the borders of Rwanda, Uganda and the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC).
Mountain gorillas generally live in groups with several females and their young, and one dominant male. Dominant males are known as ‘silverbacks’ because they have a patch of silver hair on their back and hips – which they develop when they’re about 12-15 years old.
They’re found in high-altitude montane and bamboo forests – sometimes at elevations of 4,000m – where they mainly eat leaves, shoots and stems.
The main threat to gorillas is people – the encroachment of human civilisation. With only around 880 individuals in the wild, the mountain gorilla is listed as critically endangered.
Find out how you can help save gorillas
Why mountain gorillas matter
Gorillas, like all animals, play an important role in their ecosystem. Without the gorillas, which are large-scale grazers, eating a variety of vegetation, the natural balance in the food chain would be disrupted. This could negatively affect other wildlife, their habitats, and ultimately the people who depend on that environment for food, water and other resources.
By protecting mountain gorillas, we’re helping make sure their environment remains healthy for the people and other wildlife that depend on it.
Ecotourism – socially and environmentally responsible tourism, including carefully guided tours to spot gorillas – can also be an important way for local people to earn a living. One mountain gorilla can indirectly generate £2.5 million over its lifetime from tourist income.
Find out more about mountain gorilla habitat
Threats to mountain gorillas
Mountain gorillas live in some of the most densely-populated parts of Africa – and a lot of their habitat has been lost to make more room for people. The gorillas are now confined to isolated high-altitude forests.
Local people use the natural resources found in the gorilla’s habitat – particularly wood for fuel – often in an unsustainable way. This puts more strain on the gorilla’s natural environment. Some areas are also affected by social conflict and civil unrest, making the job of protecting the gorillas dangerous and even more challenging.
Gorillas catch human illnesses
Because gorillas share much of our DNA, they can contract illnesses from people – but they don’t have the immune system to fight them. Even a simple cold can devastate an entire gorilla population. If people don’t keep their distance from gorillas, they risk infecting them.
Although poaching of gorillas is now thankfully uncommon, they can still often get caught in snares set for other wildlife, causing injury and even death.
An emerging threat is the possibility of oil exploration in Virunga National Park – which is home to a quarter of all mountain gorillas. We believe oil exploration will create new and unacceptable risks for Virunga’s environment, people and wildlife.
How WWF is helping protect mountain gorillas
In 1991 we co-founded the International Gorilla Conservation Programme (IGCP) alongside Flora and Fauna International, the African Wildlife Foundation and the three governments of Uganda, Rwanda and DRC.
As well as monitoring the gorillas, we help local people use their natural resources in a sustainable way that doesn’t damage gorilla habitat. We also try to find ways to reduce people’s need to enter gorilla habitat. For instance, we’re developing alternative plantations for wood and charcoal, and installing water-harvesting tanks and better sanitation systems. This eases the pressure on the forests and the risk of people passing on diseases to the gorillas.
We promote ecotourism so people can see the benefit of living alongside gorillas.
In 2013 we launched our Virunga campaign – an international drive to stop oil exploration in Virunga National Park, a precious World Heritage Site that’s home to many people and animals – including gorillas. Read more about our Virunga campaign.