An Overview Of Gorilla Conservation and Why It Matters

Some Basic Facts To Get You Oriented

All wild gorillas live in Africa. There are actually TWO species of gorillas, not just one as many people think. Each species has at least two distinct subspecies:

1. Eastern Gorillas

a. Subspecies: Mountain Gorilla, scientific name: Gorilla gorilla beringei

  • There are only 700 – 850 Mountain Gorilla left!
  • All Mountain Gorillas live in mountainous forests at higher altitudes so they have thicker fur. About half of all Mountain Gorillas are located in the Virunga volcano mountains which straddle the borders of Rwanda, Uganda, and the Democratic Republic of Congo. The other half of Mountain Gorillas live in the Bwindi Impenetrable Forest of Uganda. Some scientists classify the Mountain Gorillas in Bwindi as a separate subspecies (see below).

b. Subspecies: Grauer’s Gorilla, scientific name: Gorilla gorilla graueri

  • Grauer’s Gorillas used to be called Eastern Lowland Gorillas.
  • There are only around 5000 Grauer’s Gorillas left!
  • Grauer’s Gorillas live at intermediate altitudes, lower down than Mountain Gorillas, but not in the lowlands like Western Gorillas.

c. *Subspecies: Bwindi Gorilla, scientific name: Gorilla gorilla bwindi

  • *Some gorilla scientists designate the Mountain Gorillas that live in the Bwindi Impenetrable Forest in Uganda as a separate subspecies because they are mostly isolated from the Mountain Gorillas that live in the Virunga volcano mountains. However, more exchange likely occurred in the Mountain Gorilla’s historic range so many gorilla experts disagree with giving them a separate designation at this time. However, you will read and hear about “Bwindi Gorillas” whether or not they are a separate subspecies.

2. Western Gorillas

a. Subspecies: Western Lowland Gorilla, scientific name: Gorilla gorilla gorilla

  • There are about 100,000 – 200,000 Western Lowland Gorillas left. However, even though there are far more Western Lowland Gorillas left than the other three (or four) subspecies, their numbers are currently being depleted at an alarmingly accelerated rate. In fact, the IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources) lists them as critically endangered because they have tragically lost more than eighty percent of their total population in the last three generations! This means that urgent conservation measures have to be taken immediately or the numbers for Western Lowland Gorillas will dwindle as low as Mountain Gorillas… or worse.
  • Western Lowland Gorillas are located mostly in the lowland forests of Gabon and the Republic of Congo. There are also Western Lowland Gorilla populations in Cameroon, Equatorial Guinea, and Angola.

b. Subspecies: Cross River Gorilla, scientific name: Gorilla gorilla diehli

  • There are only 200-300 of these gorillas left in eight small populations!
  • Cross River Gorillas live in a forest located along the Cameroon and Nigeria border that is seriously fragmented by agriculture. When gorilla habitat is fragmented, the value of the total area of habitat left is greatly diminished since gorillas cannot pass freely throughout the entire area and species diversity (important for food sources, etc) is significantly reduced!

A Summary Of the Conservation Status Of Gorillas

All four subspecies of gorilla are considered CRITICALLY ENDANGERED.

In conservation biology, the term “CRITICALLY ENDANGERED” has a very specific meaning and it is essential that you understand this meaning in order to fully appreciate the herculean effort that is required to save all four (or five) gorilla subspecies from extinction!

When scientists determine that a species or subspecies is “critically endangered,” this means the species has virtually no chance of surviving without ongoing significant human intervention. In other words, the species or subspecies will go extinct unless humans make great efforts to save it!

Critically endangered species also experience another major problem that threatens their long-term survival even if their numbers rebound. The few gorillas that still remain on Earth today have a lower genetic diversity than the once much larger population! This loss of genetic diversity can make the species less resilient to environmental changes and more susceptible to disease. This is sometimes referred to as the “bottleneck effect.”

How Geography Affects Gorilla Conservation

Gorillas have the unfortunate happenstance of living in one of the most poverty stricken and tumultuous war zones in the world. People are literally on the brink of dying from starvation in this region they’ll do almost anything to put meat on the table. This includes killing gorillas for “bushmeat.”

The people in this region are also absolutely desperate for money and the illegal capture of just one young gorilla for the black market pet trade can bring in enough money, up to up to $5000 or more, to feed several families for more than a year! This potential financial windfall makes the temptation to hunt baby gorillas very tempting, regardless of the consequences if they get caught. Unfortunately, capturing a baby gorilla alive usually means killing several adult gorillas because a whole group of gorillas will fight to the death to save one baby! Despicably too, there is also huge profit to be had by cutting off gorilla hands and feet to make ashtrays and other novelty items.

The local people are also extremely desperate to plant crops for food and money. This means forested lands are often cleared, gorillas and gorilla habitat be damned! This intensification of agriculture has encroached on multiple prime areas for gorillas and fragmented gorilla habitat even more. In fact, crops are often times illegally planted INSIDE the borders of areas that are supposed to be protected like national forests and privately owned conservation lands.

The masterminds of the wars occurring in this region has no respect for human life, gorilla life, or the habitat where gorillas live. Life is callously snuffed out with little to no regard for what that means for the future. Every bloody battle leaves a wake of destruction that would take centuries to recover even if the area were left completely undisturbed. Of course the likelihood of these war ravished regions being left undisturbed is slim to none! Further, as refugees flee war zones, this puts even more pressure on gorilla habitat because the refuges go into prime gorilla habitat to collect food and wood for fires!

Mining is another issue that threatens gorilla habitat, especially mining for coltan. This is a metallic ore used in capacitors of electronic devices like cell phones. It is also only available in the parts of Africa where gorillas live!

To combat these problems due to geography, many conservation groups put money into education, building schools and supplying teachers and textbooks. They are hopeful that educating the youth will lead to more responsible decisions in the future. Although this is more of a long-term strategy to save gorillas, and the people who live in the region, these efforts are already beginning to change attitudes so it seems to be a good use of conservation dollars!

Conservationists also put money and time into educating the local people about the value of saving the gorillas and their habitat. The economic improvements due to the development of ecotourism, featuring trips to see gorillas in the wild, has had a significant effect on getting people and their respective governments to understand the value of saving the gorillas and their habitat. The gorillas that are seen on these ecotours are intentionally “habituated” to the presence of people so the ecotours don’t interfere with their natural behavior, at least not to a significant degree. Further, the ecotour operators involved are conservation minded. In fact, most are recruited by conservation groups. Due to the success of these ecotours, there is a push to increase ecotourism of gorillas in their natural habitat while still keeping some gorilla groups completely isolated from people.

Some conservationists also supply food to starving people so they have less pressure to kill gorillas for bushmeat. Others are working on diverting agricultural projects to areas where the forests have already been destroyed or largely degraded, thus saving the pristine areas and lessor degraded forests for gorillas and other wildlife. Small efforts along these lines have been shown to have huge impacts on gorilla protection. Thus, it is thought by some gorilla conservationists that more should be done in this arena!

Many conservationists also advocate for recycling cell phones and other electronics that use coltan so there is less pressure to mine for coltan in gorilla habitat. Thus, if you want to do something very simple to help the gorillas, be sure to recycle your cell pone!

The Legacy Of Dian Fossey

No overview of gorilla conservation would be complete without paying tribute to Dian Fossey, a woman who dedicated most of her adult life to saving gorillas and learning more about them. You can learn more about Dian Fossey’s life and her work by reading this synopsis:
on the website of the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund International.

or by reading her famous book, “Gorillas In the Mist.” You can get more information about this book and read the reviews on Amazon:

Fossey’s book is an engrossing read for anyone interested in any type of conservation and a MUST READ if you are seriously interested in gorilla conservation!

There is also a movie version of the book:

The movie is also called, “Gorillas in the Mist,” with Fossey being portrayed by the always popular Sigourney Weaver. Although the movie gets rave reviews by critics and viewers alike, we encourage you not to forego the book in lieu of the movie because you will miss many of Fossey’s special insights if you do.

Much of the gorilla conservation work done today stands on the shoulders of Dian Fossey, who dedicated most of her adult life to the study of gorillas and saving them from extinction. The research station Fossey started in two tents is now the epicenter for gorilla conservation and is called the Karisoke Research Center, named after two of the active volcanos in sight of the property. However, very few tourists ever see this center because it is such an arduous trek up the mountain and off the beaten path.

Fossey intentionally immersed herself in the heart of gorilla habitat. There, she witnessed firsthand the trials and tribulations the gorillas endured. In doing so, Fossey became convinced that the “standard” way conservation was being done at the time would not suffice to save the gorilla before they went extinct. She reasoned that it would simply take too long and there would be no more gorillas left to save unless she tried something radically different and much more proactive.

Fossey practiced a different style of conservation for her time, something she called “active conservation” designed to have an immediate impact on saving gorillas before they were lost forever. One of her primary methods was recruiting people to actively patrol gorilla habitat, directly guarding against poaching and helping to provide evidence to prosecute poachers. Fossey also used unorthodox methods to protect gorillas, what some people might even consider “crazy methods.” For example, she sometimes wore “voodoo” type masks to scare the poachers and painted trees with symbols that were designed to scare the local people away from prime gorilla habitat. Some of the local people actually thought she was a witch and Fossey was happy to cultivate this impression if it meant saving the gorillas.

To be clear, poaching included the killing of gorillas for meat, capturing young gorillas for the illegal pet trade, killing gorillas for souvenirs, and degrading gorilla habitat in some way such as allowing cattle to graze there. Fossey’s gorilla patrols also recorded anything unusual such as sick or injured gorillas that needed medical help and gorillas ensnared in traps intended to catch other wildlife like antelope. Fossey fostered partnerships with veterinarians and many others who would help out if anything that threatened the gorillas was discovered.

Fossey developed a great affection for the gorillas she observed on a daily basis. She also celebrated with them the dynamics of their family circles. She is well known for imitating their behavior to be accepted more readily by them. To this end, she would walk on all fours placing her knuckles on the ground like they do. She would grunt like they did and eat, or pretend to eat, some of their favorite foods like wild celery in their sight.

Fossey bonded to some of gorillas as closely as people do with other humans. She named her favorite gorilla Digit because he was missing one of his fingers. Digit was the scout gorilla in his troop, always vigilant for any dangers that might threaten his group. When Digit was killed by poachers while fending off the poachers so other gorillas in his group could escape, Fossey declared “war” on gorilla poachers and she beefed up the patrols even more. She also started the “Digit Fund” to raise more funding to support the added patrols.

Sadly, Dian Fossey was murdered December 26, 1985, slashed with a machete while she slept in her field cabin. She is buried at the Karisoke Research Station in Rwanda. Her gravesite is located behind the cabin within a circle of stones adjacent to her beloved Digit and in the same graveyard where several other gorillas killed by poachers are buried. It seems a fitting place for this passionate woman who did so much to protect gorillas to rest.

A plaque on her grave reads:
Dian Fossey 1932 – 1985 No One Loved Gorillas More. Rest In Peace Dear Friend, Eternally Protected In This Sacred Ground For You Are Home Where You Belong

It is said by some that Fossey’s spirit remains at Karisoke, watching over her beloved gorillas and helping those who she inspired to follow their hearts and minds in gorilla conservation and research.

Although she did have her enemies with her radical style of conservation, Fossey’s death was a devastating loss to the gorilla conservation community. Fossey earmarked her entire estate to gorilla conservation work. This included millions of dollars in royalties for her book but her family contested the will and won her estate. However, donations for gorilla research and conservation have poured in ever since because of the movement Fossey started.

Fossey’s efforts continue to have a profound influence on gorilla research and conservation. For example, given how hard she fought against gorilla poaching and the circumstances of her death, many conservationists have worked even harder against gorilla poaching since her death! There are now many more patrols and they are better equipped than ever before. Also, even though Fossey worked primarily with Mountain Gorillas, her “active conservation” methods are now being applied to the other three (or four) subspecies of Gorillas.

Gorilla Conservationists Are Brave and Passionate Souls

Because of the political and social climate in the regions where gorillas live, conservationists risk their own lives to do the research they do. Fossey herself, years before her eventual murder, was captured at one time by Congolese warlords but narrowly escaped. The American Embassy in Rwanda also advised her to leave her research camp but she was so dedicated to saving the gorillas she stayed against their advice.

Field work with gorillas is not for the faint of heart!

It is also very hard to get supplies into the research camps. You can’t run down to the store when you need basic over the counter medicines, shampoo, a new razor, or feminine products! You can’t indulge a craving for ice cream on the spur of the moment. Foods that we take for granted, like fresh vegetables, are a rare treat if you work in the field with gorillas. In order words, to work in the field with gorillas, you have to be prepared to do without a lot of the conveniences we normally have and willing to live rather primitively for a whole. However, the conditions at Karisoke have improved since the early days when Fossey was just starting it.

Although Fossey’s murder is still shrouded in mystery, almost everyone in the conservation community believes it occurred as a direct result of Fossey’s anti-poaching effects. There are many theories about the specifics but the most popular is that Protais Zigiranyirazo, also known as Monsieur Zed, a businessman and high level politician in Rwanda, paid someone to kill her. It is also thought that her death came about because she was about to expose his involvement in gorilla poaching activities and other heinous misdeeds including genocide!

The TRUE Nature Of Gorillas — Facts Versus Fiction

Unfortunately, blockbuster movies like “King Kong” and “Congo” have given people an erroneous impression about gorillas. These fictional fantasy movies portray gorillas as big scary aggressive beasts who become ferocious at the mere sight of weaker humans. However, nothing could be further from the truth! Yes, gorillas possess a great deal of strength. In fact, they are the most powerful animals on the planet. But… as is true for most martial arts experts… regardless of their strength and abilities, gorillas are peaceful creatures unless they are provoked by something threatening their existence. In fact, they are so peaceful under normal circumstances that field biologists and others who work with wild gorillas living in the jungle call them “Gentle Giants.” On the other hand, if a poacher tries to steal a baby gorilla by force or kill a gorilla for meat, the adult gorillas in the group will fiercely fight back to the death to protect their young and each other! As humans we can definitely relate to this, right? Even if you are normally a harmless gentle soul, if someone tries to kidnap your child or kill your spouse, you’d probably fight back with all your might, right? Gorillas are this way too. They don’t go around looking for a fight and they certainly don’t attack without serious provocation. However, they will use their incredible strength to protect their offspring, mate, and other close family and friends if and when the need arises.

Gorillas spend a lot of their time traveling around in a group looking for food and filling their bellies with delicious vegetation like bamboo shoots, berries, wild celery, and tasty leaves. However, they also take long rest periods, and it is during these times, that young gorillas love to play wrestle. And… when the gorilla kids get going… it is really something to see! They hug and cling to each other as they roll and tumble around. They may nip at each other sometimes too but it’s all in good fun as they laugh, grunt, and moan. Just like with humans, the “kids’ play” is sometimes just too infectious for the adults to resist and they join in on the fun too, especially the males. However, no gorilla, young or old, is ever intentionally hurt in any of these wrestling games. In fact, this “play” is an essential part of how the social group becomes closely bonded to one another. Just think about those touch football games that so many Americans enjoy after their big turkey feast on Thanksgiving or how a father may playfully wrestle with and maybe tickle his kids on the living room floor or how the neighborhood kids may zealously play with each other on a warm summer day in the kiddie pool! Play wrestling is an instinctive way that all primates bond with each other and something we humans share with the gorillas.

Just like people, gorillas live in close knit family units and happily engage with one another in tight social circles. When a baby gorilla is born, the baby will cling tightly to the mother’s chest for FIVE months. During this time, the infant will never lose contact with the mother and will sleep in her nest every night…. and if the mother dies, the infant will sleep in the father’s nest! After this five month period, the toddler will begin to move away from the mother but never very far at first. The other female gorillas will begin to touch, smell, caress, hold, and rock the toddler in their arms just like humans fawning over a new child. The older youngsters will attempt to play with the toddler too. The father, usually the dominant male, will also spend quality time with the youngsters, allowing them to climb all over him. In fact, he will vigilantly baby sit the toddlers so the mother can have time to forage on her own. He is also the one to mediate any scuffles so it doesn’t get out of hand. Sound familiar?

When a mother gorilla loses a child, the other female gorillas in the group will do their best to sooth the grieving mother. Judging from the forlorn sounds the mother makes, she is in a great degree of deep emotional pain. If the dominant male in the group dies or is killed, the remaining members of the group will have a sort of “wake” to mourn him. This will often last for several days before they move on or disperse. The whole group, younger males and females, will make almost human-like mournful sounds. They’ll be unusually lethargic in behavior and may refrain from eating while processing the profound loss.

So many times, conservationists are “accused” of being overly anthropomorphic. However, with gorillas, their social dynamics are so truly human-like, it is only natural for those with close contact with gorillas to describe their behavior in human terms. After all, gorillas are one of the closest living species to humans so it is not surprising that we are able to see ourselves reflected in their behavior and use “human” terms to describe it.

Just How Closely Related Are Gorillas To Humans

After chimpanzees, gorillas are more closely related to humans than any other species still walking the Earth today! In fact, as it turns out, fifteen percent of our DNA is actually more similar to gorillas than to chimpanzees! And… in this fifteen percent of shared DNA we find genes that code for brain development! Wow! It may not be so hard for humans to think like a gorilla after all! This amazing revelation only became known to scientists, and now the world, in the last few years after they sequenced the entire gorilla genome and chimpanzee genome and then compared both to the human genome. Quite literally, scientists compared the DNA base codes (A,T,G, and C) gene by gene by gene! Good thing we have computers to help analyze all the billions of base pair data!

It was only ten million years ago that gorillas and humans actually separated on the evolutionary tree. While this may seem like a long time, it is only a drop in the bucket compared to how long there’s been life on planet Earth. DNA-wise, gorillas are more closely related to humans than they are to chimpanzees, another rather shocking surprise revealed by comparing the genomes of all three gene by gene! The latest studies show that gorilla DNA and human DNA is about ninety-eight percent identical!! Again, wow!

Both the physical and behavioral similarities between gorillas and humans are too numerous to actually count when you really stop and think about it. The next time you are at a zoo (or on a guided safari), take a close look at a gorilla’s palm and you will feel an immediate bond with the magnanimous creature curiously looking back at you. Reproductively, we are also very similar. A female gorilla has a monthly hormonal cycle just like a female human. If a female gorilla doesn’t get pregnant during the month, she menstruates just like a female human! Furthermore, a female gorilla’s sexual urge peaks at the precise time she is most fertile just like has been proven with human females, although sex is possible at any time during the cycle if the male can get her in the mood! Both gorillas and humans have an exceptionally long pregnancy and then spend many more years supporting their young who are born completely helpless. When female gorillas get pregnant, the gestation period is an average of 257 days verus 265 days on average for female humans… that’s only a difference of about one week!

Both gorillas and people communicate in large part through highly animated facial expressions and body language. Moreover, if you spend any time around gorillas, you’ll soon realize that they demonstrate the same range and variety of emotions as humans… and the personality of each gorilla is as unique as that of any human. There are friendly ones, cranky ones, jokesters, serious ones, smart ones, playful ones, soulful ones, selfish ones, generous ones, and the list goes on! Gorilla youngsters learn life’s most important lessons by imitating what they see the adults do just like our kids do. Both species also actively teach the younger members things that help our respective species flourish. For example, older gorillas teach younger gorillas how to disarm traps and avoid them altogether, just as we teach our youngsters how to avoid dangers like abandoned mines and busy highways!

Gorillas find great comfort in grooming each other and their offspring. While a human may look upon gorilla grooming as “excessive,” we can surely relate to this behavior too by remembering how comforting it can be to have someone we are close with brush or comb our hair, especially if we are feeling low! Men can always go to the barbershop but many actually prefer their wife to cut their hair. We clip each other’s toenails, do each other’s hair, and paint each other’s fingernails…. and there’s nothing better than having someone scratch that area on your back you can’t quite reach or give you a stimulating back rub or foot massage! When you think about it, there’s a little gorilla in all of us just waiting to be groomed by another gorilla!

The similarities between gorillas and humans are endless… almost eerily so! The next time you look in the mirror, you may see a gorilla staring back at you! The next time you people watch at the park or mall, you may start to notice how gorilla-like people are! Don’t believe us? Analyze people in a group dynamic for ten minutes and we promise you’ll be amused! Gorillas are so similar to people, they are like our extended family. So how could we not make every effort possible to protect them from extinction! In a way, protecting gorillas is the same as protecting another genetic version of ourselves!

How We Are Helping With Gorilla Conservation

We aren’t the kind of people who just sit around and fret over a serious problem. We like to take action and help as much as we can in providing a solution to the problem. This is why we have proudly joined in the effort to save gorillas from extinction. To this end, we donate five percent of our profits to Gearing Up For Gorillas. We also strive to help raise public awareness about this crisis through online articles and other means. We actively encourage others to donate to Gearing Up For Gorillas and other non-profits that are dedicated in helping to save the gorilla. In doing so, you not only save gorillas but you also help to save the tropical forests in which they live and the thousands of other species that live there too! We believe you also help to save humanity in the process.

The Gearing Up For Gorillas project raises money to support anti-poaching protection programs for the Mountain Gorillas who live in the Virunga National Park. This is a highly diverse biological hotspot located in the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). The protected area encompasses a vast area, three thousand square miles, so it is difficult for the hardworking people who work there to patrol the area looking for poachers and flagging other problems like injured gorillas who need medical help. They need a lot of funding to keep enough people employed with enough supplies and training to cover the whole area adequately. Virunga National Park, with its bubbling volcanos, is home to about two hundred mountain gorillas. Sadly, this small number represents more than a quarter of the entire population left for this critically endangered species. Gearing Up For Gorillas has also funded a Mountain Gorilla orphan facility to house and raise baby gorillas who have lost their mothers and fathers due to poachers killing them. This is extremely important as baby gorillas could never survive without parents or intensive human intervention. We believe every dime that we (and you) put into Gearing Up For Gorillas is money very wisely spent and we are very proud of our ongoing association with them.

A Final Note About Gorillas Living In Zoos

Almost all the gorillas people seen in zoos are Western Lowland Gorillas. The few Eastern Gorillas that have been kept in captivity have died.

You should keep in mind that Western Lowland Gorillas are the smallest of the four subspecies of gorilla. Therefore, if the only gorilla you have seen in person is a gorilla in a zoo, you likely have an erroneous impression of just how big a gorilla can get! Western Lowland Gorillas are also much lighter than Eastern Gorillas and they have shorter and less dense fur.

Gorillas are, of course, one of the most popular exhibits at zoos worldwide. Kids and adults alike enjoy watching their zany antics and their facial expressions are priceless! People also love to watch how gorillas use various objects as tools. Of course, zoo gorillas also often stick their tongue at you, in a charming and playful way of course!

All of this is in good fun and zoo gorillas certainly do help to educate the public about their plight and gain emotional support for this critically endangered species. However, gorillas in zoos serve another important purpose for gorilla conservation other than entertaining and educating their human cousins. Zoos who house gorillas are almost all involved in an international captive gorilla breeding effort that trade gorillas in a way that maximizes genetic diversity and reduces inbreeding in the new born gorillas.

It is thought by some conservationists that Western Lowland Gorillas born in captivity provide a safety net to ensure the survival of the species in case all the Western Lowland Gorillas in the wild are killed. Other conservationists are not as enthusiastic about captive breeding programs and consider this practice only useful as a last resort. Some conservationists believe too that captive breeding programs are sometimes used as an excuse to not protect as diligently the gorillas living in the wild.