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MOUNTAIN GORILLAS

by Adrian Warren

Mountain Gorilla (Gorilla g. beringei) juvenile on tree
Mountain Gorilla (Gorilla g. beringei), Juvenile on tree, Virunga Volcanoes, Rwanda

Gorillas are apes and, since apes are man's closest relatives, hold a special fascination for us. There is a clear distinction between lesser apes (gibbons and siamang, Family Hylobatidae) and the great apes (gorillas, chimpanzees and orang-utan, Family Pongidae). None of the apes possess a tail, and their forelimbs are longer than their hindlimbs. The lesser apes, which are truly arboreal, move through the trees with spectacular agility, swinging from branch to branch using forelimbs alternately. The great apes, on the other hand, are far less athletic; the orang-utan is the largest arboreal mammal, moving slowly and purposefully through the trees using all four limbs to shift its weight. Gorillas and chimpanzees generally travel along the ground, using the knuckles of their hands as an extra pair of feet.

Fossil evidence of apes dates back to the early Miocene, twenty million years ago, and may even extend back into the Oligocene, up to thirty five million years ago. To put this in perspective, animals have existed on Earth for over 600 million years, mammals for at least 200 million; the first known primate about 70 million years, the first hominids at least 6 million years, the first men (Homo sapiens) 300,000 years and modern man (Homo s. Sapiens) only about 50,000 years.

The modern apes are all essentially vegetarian: gorillas are predominantly leaf-eaters; only the chimpanzees

include a significant proportion of meat in their diet, sometimes hunting cooperatively for colobus monkeys or other medium-sized mammals and they will even share food. Their hunting behaviour, as well as their use of tools such as stones for cracking nuts and twigs for extracting termites, has attracted attention from field researchers for its relevance to the behaviour of early humans.

Mountain Gorillas (Gorilla g. beringei) : mother with baby in her arms
Mountain Gorilla (Gorilla g. beringei), Mother with new born baby, Virunga Volcanoes, Rwanda

There is only one species of gorilla, divided into three subspecies: Gorilla gorilla gorilla (Western Lowland Gorilla); Gorilla gorilla graueri (Eastern Lowland Gorilla) and (Mountain gorilla). Until recently, the Eastern Lowland Gorilla was considered to be a form of Mountain Gorilla. Mountain gorillas live in two isolated populations, one in the Virunga volcanoes which sprawl across the borders of Rwanda, Zaire and Uganda in Central Africa, and the other in the Bwindi National ("Impenetrable") forest in Uganda. There is some speculation that this Bwindi population may be yet another subspecies.

Mountain gorillas are physically distinct from Lowland Gorillas; they are larger, have longer, thicker fur and a slightly different nose shape among other skeletal differences. They are the largest living primates, an adult male weighing up to 180 kilograms (400 pounds), with an arm span of about two metres (seven feet). Adult females weigh about half as much as males. When he reaches maturity, a male develops silvery grey hairs on his back and is called a "silverback" - in a group of gorillas, a silverback is usually the sole dominant member and living with him are several females, infants, juveniles and young adults.

Gorillas are diurnal, sleeping each night in a fresh nest built from leaves and branches. They are nomadic within their range and so, usually, end up in a new location each night. Normally they become active around dawn but if it is a cold overcast morning they may lie in for a while; although close to the equator, it can be very cold where the mountain gorillas live in the Virunga volcanoes at around 3,000 metres or more. On occasion they even venture into the sub-alpine zone in search of different foodplants such as the pith of the giant Senecio and where, at an altitude of over 3,500 metres there can be frost in the mornings.

The mountain gorillas' day is a routine of alternating periods of feeding and resting. They are almost exclusively vegetarian: bamboo, nettles and Gallium being some of their favourite foods. They will occasionally eat grubs, which they find in rotten wood, and even safari ants, scooping them up in huge handfuls to stuff into the mouth until the bites of the ants become overpowering and drive the gorillas away. It is the silverback leader who decides when the activities of the day begin and finish; when he moves, everyone moves; when he stops to rest, everyone stops. He is the emotional centre, the magnet of the group. His power not only derives from his size but the fact that he is the protector and everybody follows him. In a typical rest period, the silverback dozes surrounded by the rest of the group while the juveniles and infants play. Rest periods present good opportunities for social bonding, not only in play behaviour but also in grooming one another. The younger members of the group spend a good proportion of their time climbing, and swinging from branches, but adult gorillas are too heavy, only occasionally hauling their pear-shaped bodies up into a tree to reach an irresistible item of food spotted from the ground. On the ground, gorillas usually walk on all fours, supporting most of their weight on the feet and walking on the large front knuckles.

Being very social, communication is important manifesting itself in a variety of grunts, howls, hoots and barks. There are nearly twenty different vocalisations, each one with its own particular meaning. Gorillas also communicate by beating on their chests, or on the ground. For the silverback male, chestbeating is a show of power, designed to intimidate, but even the infants beat their chests as a kind of displacement activity during play, perhaps in mimic of their elders.

Mountain gorillas may live for thirty-five to forty years, reaching sexual maturity between the ages of eight and eleven. Full maturity for a male is a long haul for, although he begins to develop the "silver back" at the age of twelve or thirteen, he usually leaves his parental group at that time to wander alone, or in the company of other males, for a few years before managing to attract females from other groups to join him, thus forming his own family. It is a logical evolutionary process that sorts out the strong from the weak. When a female leaves her group to join another male, the new silverback will most likely kill an accompanying infant, a seemingly cruel and callous act to us but one which brings the female into oestrus for him to mate and thus ensure his own blood line. In the gorillas' social structure where the breeding in any one group is almost exclusively by a single silverback male, periodic movement of females between groups is essential to ensure genetic variety and to prevent inbreeding, a peril in small populations.

There is no specific breeding season and the gestation period lasts around nine months, so a first-time mother may only be nine or ten years old, though she may continue to have babies well into her thirties. There is a poor survival rate for first babies - it seems that mothers need to gain experience, not only to feed their offspring adequately but also to protect them from over zealous curiosity from other gorillas in the group. Newborn baby gorillas are totally dependant on their mothers for survival and if inexperienced she may allow other, boisterous, youngsters in the group to play with her infant with the risk of causing it unintentional, though perhaps fatal, injury. Normally, only one gorilla is born at a time, clinging tightly to its mother's body for the first few months of its life and, later, riding on her back. Although the baby will start to experiment with food that mother likes to eat when it is one year old it will continue to feed on mother's milk and will not be fully weaned until over three years of age.

A field biologist soon learns to recognise the gorillas individually. Their facial features and individual character are as distinctive as those of human beings: for quick visual reference, the creases on the nose (known as nose prints) are as individual as fingerprints. But after working with a group for a few days, the different personalities reveal themselves and the gorillas are recognised by other things: perhaps in the way they move; some are confident, some are shy; some are nervous, some are calm; some even seem to have a sense of humour. It is impossible to find tedium in gorilla research, even after weeks or months of daily observation, every gorilla experience is totally absorbing and offers something new.

George Schaller wrote: "Probably no animal has fired the imagination of man to the same extent as has the gorilla..." Before their scientific discovery, explorers and hunters, returning to Europe from Africa, told stories of attacks by huge and hairy "men of the woods", and "hellish creatures - half man, half beast", capable of tearing a man limb from limb and reputed to steal native women and carry them off. Some of these stories, at least, may have referred, fancifully to encounters with gorillas. It was fashionable in those days to embellish, exagerate and sensationalise stories from the remoter parts of the world, and only recently has the true nature of the gorilla emerged: like humans in intelligence, like humans in depth of feeling, and utterly unlike humans in their gentleness. The first specimen of a gorilla, a lowland gorilla, was described, in 1847, by Savage, a missionary in Africa, and Wyman, an American anatomist, as a kind of chimpanzee: Troglodytes gorilla. Just 4qover a decade later, in 1858, Geoffrey Saint-Hilaire established the genus Gorilla, and although at a generic level the taxonomy has remained stable, at the specific level controversy has dominated and agreement is not yet in sight.

The first Mountain Gorilla (Gorilla g. beringei) discovered by Captain Robert von Beringe in 1902, with his Askaris and his manservant, Virunga Volcanoes, Rwanda
The first Mountain Gorilla (Gorilla g. beringei) discovered by Captain Robert von Beringe in 1902, with his Askaris and his manservant, Virunga Volcanoes, Rwanda (Courtesy von Beringe private collection)

The first historical documentation of Mountain Gorillas was in 1902. A Captain Robert von Beringe, together with a physician, Dr. Engeland, Corporal Ehrhardt, twenty Askaris, a machine gun and necessary porters set off from Usumbura on 19 August 1902 to visit the Sultan Msinga of Rwanda and then proceed north to reach a "row of volcanoes". The purpose of the trip was to visit the German outposts in what was then German East Africa in order to keep in touch with local chiefs and to confirm good relations, while strengthening the influence and power of the German Government in these regions. On arriving at the volcanoes, an attempt was made to climb Mount Sabyinyo. The following is a translation of Captain von Beringe's report of the expedition:

Captain Robert von Beringe Captain Robert von Beringe
Captain Robert von Beringe
(Courtesy von Beringe private collection)
Captain Robert von Beringe
(Courtesy von Beringe private collection)

"From October 16th. to 18th., senior physician Dr. Engeland and I together with only a few Askaris and the absolutely necessary baggage attempted to climb the so far unknown Kirunga ya Sabyinyo which, according to my estimation must have a height of 3300 metres. At the end of the first day we camped on a plateau at a height of 2500 metres; the natives climbed up to our campsite to generously supply us with food. We left our camp on October 17th. taking with us a tent, 8 loads of water, 5 Askaris and porters as necessary. After four and a half hours of tracking we reached a height of 3100 metres and tracked through bamboo forest; although using elephant trails for most of the way, we encountered much undergrowth which had to be cut before we could pass....After two hours we reached a stony area with vegetation consisting mainly of blackberry and blueberry bushes. Step by step we noticed the vegetation becoming poorer and poorer, the ascent became steeper and steeper, and climbing became more difficult - for the last one and a quarter hours we climbed only over rock. After covering the ground with moss we collected, we erected our tent on a ridge at a height of 3100 metres. The ridge was extremely narrow so that the pegs of the tent had to be secured in the abyss. The Askaris and the porters found shelter in rock caverns, which provided protection against the biting cold wind.

"From our campsite we were able to watch a herd of big, black monkeys which tried to climb the crest of the volcano. We succeeded in killing two of these animals, and with a rumbling noise they tumbled into a ravine, which had its opening in a north-easterly direction. After five hours of strenuous work we succeeded in retrieving one of these animals using a rope. It was a big, human-like male monkey of one and a half metres in height and a weight of more than 200 pounds. His chest had no hair, and his hand and feet were of enormous size. Unfortunately I was unable to determine its type; because of its size, it could not very well be a chimpanzee or a gorilla, and in any case the presence of gorillas had not been established in the area around the lakes".

On the journey back, the skin and one of the hands of the animal that von Beringe collected were taken by a hyena but the rest finally arrived safely at the museum in Berlin. It was later described by a Dr. Matschi as a new subspecies of gorilla after von Beringe.

Mountain Gorilla Image Gallery
Mountain Gorilla (Gorilla g. beringei), Silverback male, Virunga Volcanoes, Rwanda

A number of expeditions followed, notably that of Carl Akeley who, in 1921 went to the Virunga Mountains to collect Mountain Gorilla specimens for a diorama exhibit in the American Museum of Natural History in New York. His expedition team included an eight year old girl, Alice Bradley and he documented the adventure not only with still photographs but also with a 35mm. movie camera which he designed and built himself. With that camera he took the first ever movie shots of Mountain Gorillas. The killing of his first gorilla, a silverback which he called "The Old Man of Mikeno" after the mountain of the same name, was not only a turning point in Akeley's life but also in the destiny of the mountain gorillas. Looking into the dead gorilla's face, he had a change of heart. Recognising their closeness to us, their intelligence, and their gentleness, he didn't want to kill any more. He also recognised their apparent rarity and, therefore, the need for research into their natural history. His party collected five gorillas which still form an important exhibit in New York. Following his expedition, Carl Akeley urged the Belgian Government to set up a permanent sanctuary for the mountain gorillas, and became instrumental in the establishment of the Albert National Park on 21 April 1925, and on 9 July 1929 the boundaries of the Park were extended to include the entire Virunga volcano chain.

Seventy years later, the volcanoes are still protected, though divided by the political boundaries of Zaire, Rwanda and Uganda. Today, the gorillas' home is an island surrounded by cultivated land inhabited by one of the densest population of people to be found anywhere in Africa. In January 1991, standing on the rim of the volcano called Visoke, at around 11,400 feet above sea level, I had a spectacular view of the forest and the line of volcanoes but the view also showed me the stark line between the forest and the endless cultivation; it made me appreciate the isolation and ragility of this tiny piece of pristine land. With me were George and Kay Schaller, returning here after an absence of thirty one years. While we were standing there, breathing in the wonderful unpolluted air and surrounded by that very special community of African sub-alpine plants, including giant Senecios and Lobelias, we could hear intermittent gunfire to the East. The latest round of squabbles between humans trapped by overcrowding problems and obsessed by survival and greed seemed to underline the pathetic and hopeless future for the land on which we stood.

It is to this forest that George and Kay came, in 1959, to conduct the first exhaustive field study of mountain gorillas. George used to do all his own tracking, following the trail of beaten down vegetation, smelling the fresh droppings and touching them to see if they were warm or cool. "Finally, far ahead I would hear a branch snapping, then a sort of grumbling sound and then I used to look for the nearest tree, not to escape but to climb up high enough to look down on them. A couple of times I made a mistake and found myself right in the middle of the group with gorillas all around me - the interesting thing was that they seemed to realise that I'd made a mistake and that I wasn't the least bit aggressive. I used to back away and the gorillas would continue their daily routine. Occasionally a male was annoyed at my presence and roared and beat his chest. It is interesting that I was never once charged by a gorilla, partly, I think, because I didn't push them". By observing from a tree, George gained the gorillas' confidence since they could see him clearly and he had a better view for making his observations. Down below, he could approach much more closely to the gorillas, but never get a good look at one. "You can hear branches breaking, sometimes you see a black arm reaching out but although you know much interesting behaviour is occuring you can't see it because of the dense vegetation". George would stay with his study group all day, and often all night too: "towards dusk, the male would go somewhere to start building his nest, and the others would all go and start building nests, I would blow up my air mattress and lie down near them and sleep pulling a tarp over my head, staying with them until morning when I would watch them awake, stretch their arms, yawn and start eating. It was wonderful to get into the daily routine at their speed, not my speed; trying to adapt to their rhythm of life - that was one of my great field experiences". In little over a year of dedicated and painstaking work ,the Schallers made huge advances in our knowledge of gorillas and their behaviour, and the results of that research are still regarded as the "bible" for those who have followed.

Dian Fossey's Cabin, Karisoke, Rwanda
Dian Fossey's Cabin, Karisoke research centre, Rwanda

The late Dian Fossey,while not recognised as a high calibre field biologist, did much to bring the plight of a dwindling population of mountain gorillas to world attention during the nearly nineteen years that she spent involved in their research. Her work began, in 1967, in Zaire, but due to an unstable political situation she soon moved to Rwanda where she established her research centre high up on the shoulder between two volcanoes, Karisimbi and Visoke, putting these two names together to call her base "Karisoke". Dian devoted herself to the habituation of gorillas to make it possible to observe them at close quarters; in this she was extremely successful, becoming the first person to have "friendly" physical contact with a wild mountain gorilla when a young male she called "Peanuts" approached her, then reached out and touched her hand. That moment set in concrete her emotional bond with the gorillas: she became obsessed with protecting them against the onslaught of the outside world, putting a stop to cattle grazing in the Park; trying to prevent the capture of gorilla infants for zoos, an extremely disruptive process which usually resulted in the death of the infant's mother and put the group into social disarray; and taking controversial action against poachers who, until 1985, were hunting and killing gorillas to provide heads and hands as grisly souvenirs for tourists. The brutal killing, and dismembering, of one of her favourite research animals "Digit", in December 1977, only served to increase her bitterness and resentment against those whom she thought were out to exploit gorillas. In January 1978, she established the "Digit" Fund to help financially support Karisoke Research Centre and gorilla protection work in its vicinity.

Her programme of habituation proved that the gorillas would accept peaceful visits by humans, an achievement regarded by the Government of Rwanda as a possible resource to be exploited by tourism for financial gain. Dian fought the idea with grim determination and this, combined with the severity of her actions against poachers, made many enemies for her. Nobody seems to want to tell the events of the night of 25 December 1985 but, in the early hours of the morning in her cabin at Karisoke, an intruder hacked Dian to death with a machete, a fate which she surely did not deserve. It is perhaps curiously symbolic to the dedication of both Carl Akeley and Dian Fossey that they both died and were buried here in the Virungas; Dian at Karisoke close to the graves of "Digit" and other gorillas that died during her time there; and Akeley at Kabara, in Zaire, following an during a return expedition in 1926.

Gorilla Graveyard/ Dian Fossey's Grave, Karisoke research centre, Virunga Volcanoes, Rwanda Dian Fossey's Grave, Karisoke research centre, Virunga Volcanoes, Rwanda
Gorilla Graveyard/ Dian Fossey's Grave, Karisoke research centre, Virunga Volcanoes, Rwanda
Dian Fossey's Grave, Karisoke research centre, Virunga Volcanoes, Rwanda

Karisoke still functions as an important base for international research; biologists come and go, some studying the gorillas, and some focusing on other aspects of the environment and its wildlife. Karisoke is still funded by the "Digit" fund, although it has recently been re-named "The Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund". But this is not the only organisation involved in funding conservation and management of mountain gorillas; the British based Fauna and Flora Preservation Society, which had responded quickly to the "Digit" appeal in February 1978, re-appraised its fund raising in April of that year in order to broaden the effectiveness of gorilla conservation throughout the Parc des Volcans and to strengthen the Rwandan influence on management. The Mountain Gorilla Project was launched in July 1978 by FFPS in collaboration with the People's Trust for Endangered Species.

The philosophy of the Mountain Gorilla Project were three mutually reinforcing programmes: park protection, tourist development and conservation education and by early 1979, the World Wildlife Fund and the African Wildlife Foundation joined the Mountain Gorilla Project consortium and fieldwork began in September of that year. Meanwhile, in Zaire, the Frankfurt Zoological Society established the Zaire Gorilla Conservation Project in 1984; and, in 1986, the Impenetrable (Bwindi) Forest Conservation Project was established in Uganda. In 1988, the Morris Animal Foundation, affiliated with the Digit Fund, established the Virunga Veterinary Centre to deal with veterinary research and veterinary measures in gorilla conservation. The Mountain Gorilla Project decided, in 1979, to withdraw its field operation in Rwanda, replacing it with the International Gorilla Conservation Programme, supporting the conservation of all mountain gorilla and eastern lowland gorilla populations and their habitats. The Karisoke Research Centre, still supported by the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund, continues its research and local protection work.

Mountain Gorillas (Gorilla g. beringei), group  resting with mother playing with baby in foreground
Mountain Gorilla (Gorilla g. beringei), group resting, Virunga Volcanoes, Rwanda

Anti-poaching patrols remain in the Park day and night to protect all wildlife, and prove their effectiveness by destroying hundreds of snares every year. These snares are set mainly for bushbuck and duiker but prove just as lethal for the gorillas. Park guards also make daily patrols to check on the welfare of all monitored groups of gorillas. The guards know the groups well and can name the gorillas individually: Dian Fossey gave English names to her research animals but, since her death, it has been traditional for the guards, who are normally the first to discover newborn gorilla babies, to give them names in their own Kinyarwandan language. As well as checking for new babies, the guards make sure that all individuals are accounted for and note any abnormal behaviour that might result from sickness or injury.

All the Park staff help in a periodic census which is extremely hard work since a great deal of territory must be covered in as short a time as possible if a reasonably accurate figure of the mountain gorilla population is to be achieved. The result of the November 1989 census was 309 gorillas for the Virungas (a slight increase on the 1986 figure of 295 gorillas). The census is conducted either by counting the animals themselves or by analysing the night nests carefully. There are thirty two groups altogether, the largest group numbering 32 gorillas and the smallest two (males); there are six lone silverbacks. Four habituated groups have been used for tourist visits lasting one hour on a daily basis; a well controlled programme allowing visitors in groups of six or eight persons to observe the gorillas at distances as little as five metres, in the company of park guards. The distance is kept at a minimum of five metres to reduce any risk of disease transmission; the gorillas are susceptible to infections that visitors may unwittingly carry into the forest, but without the advantage of any natural resistance that we might have. A common cold infection could therefore sweep through and devastate an entire group. The guards are very sensitive and conscientious with regard to refusing entry to the forest for any tourists whom they believe are carrying this kind of risk. If the money gained through tourism is essential to secure the conservation of the gorillas, it would be a tragic irony if a disease transmitted during a tourist visit resulted in one or more gorilla deaths.

When the tourism programme is working to capacity, it is financially lucrative for the Park. During 1989, the number of visitors was at saturation point, partly as a result of various films featuring the mountain gorillas and the accompanying publicity. But during 1990, a new and unexpected conflict arose that was to threaten the gorillas' future.

Rebels crossed the border from Uganda into Rwanda on 1st. 4October 1990. Most of them belonged to the Tutsi tribe that used to rule Rwanda, although the rebels claimed that theirs was not a tribal struggle. The government of Rwanda, which the rebels had hoped to overthrow, is dominated by the majority Hutu tribe who claimed that the Tutsis wanted a return to the times prior to 1959 when Tutsi herdsmen owned Hutus as slaves. Civil rebellions between the two tribes in 1959, 1963 and 1973 resulted in bloody slaughter and many thousands of Tutsis fled across the border into Uganda to save their lives. About two million Rwandans live outside their country in neighbouring Uganda, Zaire and Tanzania and the thousands of refugees who found temporary solace in Uganda repeatedly had their requests for a return to Rwandan citizenship turned down. The desire to go home to their own country resulted in the invasion comprising 3,200 Ugandan army deserters who were Rwandan and mostly Tutsi, led by one of Uganda's top army officers, Major General Fred Rwigema, himself a Tutsi.

The rebels' initial thrust into Rwanda was through Akagera National Park in the north-eastern corner of the country, and it was not until much later, in January 1991, that any forays were made in the vicinity of the "Parc des Volcans" - the Virunga volcanoes. At that time rebel forces crossed the border into Rwanda by way of the Park, attacking the local centre at Ruhengeri and the Park Headquarters at Kinigi. Sporadic attacks continued over the ensuing months, convincing Rwandan authorities that the rebels aims were to disrupt rather than invade. In that they were successful: apart from attacks on local people, the gorillas were at risk, although rebel authorities claimed that they had no intention of harming either the gorillas or the environment. Certainly gorilla visits by tourists ground to a halt, damaging not only the country's economy but also its ability to adequately support and maintain its conservation effort, largely funded by tourist income. On 21st. May 1991 came the news that everyone feared: "Mrithi", the silverback leader of group 13, a favourite among tourist visitors and star of many films on mountain gorillas including "Gorillas in the Mist" (Warner Brothers) and "Mountain Gorilla" (Imax Corporation) was shot and killed by military gunfire. It seems that a group of soldiers, whether they were rebels or Rwandese military is unimportant, was wandering through the forest during the early hours of the morning when they stumbled upon group 13. The gorillas were peacefully unaware of what was about to happen, snugly asleep in their night nests. The sudden arrival of soldiers, already nervous with guns loaded, prompted "Mrithi" to bark in alarm; the ensuing burst of gunfire resulting in the death of "Mrithi" from multiple wounds to the chest. Miraculously, the remainder of the group managed to escape unhurt but without a leader their future social structure was questionable.

The event underlined the fragility of the few hundred remaining mountain gorillas in the Parc des Volcans. Rare, surrounded on all sides by people greedy for land, at risk from snares set by poachers, endangered by military groups, and by diseases carried by humans to which they have little or no resistance. No mountain gorillas exist in captivity any more, therefore there are no captive breeding programmes - and even if there were, it would be questionable whether reintroduction to the wild could be a viable proposition for an animal with such a complex, sophisticated social structure. Until the recent political instabilities occured, the conservation efforts in the Virungas had been a model for others to follow, but no amount of hard work or care can divert the increasing pressure for land as the growing human tide continues to greedily consume our planet. Whether or not mountain gorillas have a future is an open question: it is not only for moral responsibility that we should care for our diminishing natural landscapes and wildlife but it is in the interests of the very survival of us all. The mountain gorillas are, like many thousands of other species of the world, on the brink of extinction, and if we ever turn our backs, they will be gone.

Adrian Warren, 1992

 
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