For many years gorillas were classified as a single species within the genus Gorilla. However, recent genetic evidence suggests that this classification should be modified to distinguish two separate species: the western and eastern gorillas each represented by several subspecies.
Western gorillas live in the western portion of central Africa. Eastern gorillas live in eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC, formerly Zaire), Rwanda, and Uganda in what is generally known as the Virunga.
Although nearly all gorillas found in zoos are western gorillas rather than eastern gorillas, a subspecies of the eastern gorilla commonly known as the mountain gorilla is the most familiar due to extensive research.
Mountain gorillas are one of the most endangered animals in the world. They are mostly found in and around the Congo basin. This is the species under threat of extinction.
The gorillas face a number of serious threats which include: poaching for bush meat, diseases, erosion of their habitats and general insecurity that has made he work of their protection cumbersome and in some cases impossible.
Loss and degradation of ecosystems pose the most serious direct threat to biodiversity. Entire communities of plants and animals may become impoverished, or vanish. This impact occurs in instances of intensive deforestation, particularly in mountainous regions where erosion leads to loss of organic matter in the soil and prevents any regeneration of new growth. Pollution, fires and land cleared for agricultural purposes are some of the other factors that may imperil the ecosystems.
The most serious problems can however be traced in areas that have been devastated by instability in the region.
The persistent armed conflict in a region, particularly the civil war that has left several armed groups roaming all over, is a serious threat to the Mountain Gorillas.
The precarious and chaotic situation in some parts of the great lakes region therefore, poses a serious challenge to those who are determined to keep the gorillas safe.
Why should we care about the species?
The complex and superior lifestyle of the species, attracts people of all kinds. Gorillas have thus boosted the tourist industries of the countries that are privileged to host them. There interesting behavioural traits typical of a human’s, create a lot of curiosity.
Gorillas mainly live on land. They walk using both feet and hands, with the knuckles of the hands carrying the weight of the upper body. They feed on fruits and spend most of their time climbing trees and swing over them.
Unlike the other great apes, gorillas travel, eat, play, and sleep in stable family groups. These groups may range from several individuals to more than 50, but a typical family consists of one or two adult males, three or four unrelated females, and their young.
Gorillas spend much of their day eating, consuming a primarily vegetarian diet of leaves, stems, shoots, and fruit. They travel between feedings, covering a distance of several hundred yards to a mile or more in a day.
At night a family settles wherever it has finished feeding. Each member constructs its own nest, either on the ground or in a tree, by bending nearby vegetation to form a flexible platform.
Apart from humans, gorillas have few or no predators. In some isolated cases, only leopards have been known to occasionally attack gorillas. If threatened, adult gorillas(especially males), defend others in the group by roaring, screaming, beating their chest with cupped hands, and eventually charging if the threat is serious.
Interestingly, gorillas demonstrate extreme tolerance of people as long as people approach them respectfully. That is why some scientists have occasionally wanted to know their relationship with human beings.
One of the recent behavioural traits exhibited by gorillas which scientists found out was that; they have the intelligence to use tools and actually can test the depth of water using a stick. They also found out that gorillas can use a broken tree trunk as a support while moving. They have at the same time demonstrated the capacity to use tree trunks as bridges.
Gorilla’s capacity to use tools undoubtedly demonstrates their closeness to humans. Their behaviour has thus attracted many people who come to enjoy the way they interact with the environment and themselves. Scientists and other tourist, who come, have boosted the tourist industry especially in the countries that have managed to protect the species.
The problem of protecting the species however, remains paradoxical because the primates’ habitat extends beyond a single border of a given country. One country’s peaceful environment is not enough as conflict in the other automatically affects the gorillas. It cannot be wholesomely addressed in isolation. Only a uniform protection would protect the mountain gorillas.
Can the species be protected?
An international consortium of conservation organizations, established the Mountain Gorilla Project to educate people about the gorillas and their protection. The integrated program of anti-poaching, tourism, and education, has had a profound effect on the local people’s attitudes.
he future of mountain gorillas however, depends on whether a peaceful environment free of armed groups can be restored in areas where insecurity and armed conflicts still go on unabated in some parts of the great lakes. It is the instability that creates room for poachers and traffickers to jeopardise the existence of the species.