Gorillas are the largest members of the primate family and are closely related to humans, with 98% of their DNA identical to that of humans. Unlike other primates they are terrestrial, meaning they do not climb trees and are land dwelling, inhabiting the tropical rainforests of central Africa. Historically the gorilla has been portrayed as a vicious killer; however they are shy gentle creatures that would not attack humans unless provoked.
Gorillas are classified as mammals, which is defined as a ‘Warm-blooded vertebrate animal that has hair or fur, secretes milk, and bears live young thu8s qualifying to be a mammal. Upon their discovery, gorillas were classified as one species, however they are now separated into two species and four sub species according to geographical location and physical characteristics. They live in groups called a troop led by a dominant silverback male, and are highly sociable animals, maintaining strong bonds between group members.
In the wild their only predators are leopards, which can attack vulnerable youngsters and the biggest threat to gorillas is man. In recent decades gorilla populations have been affected by habitat loss, disease and poaching. Subsequently all gorilla species are classified as endangered. Due to the vast dense areas in which they live it is difficult to monitor and protect gorilla populations and therefore difficult to implement successful conservation techniques. However conservation efforts persist and several governmental and nongovernmental organizations have partnered together to further improve gorilla conservation.
There are two recognized gorilla species the Eastern Gorilla and Western Gorilla, defined by the areas in Africa which they inhabit. Within these classifications are four subspecies including the Eastern Lowland Gorilla, Mountain Gorilla, Cross River Gorilla and Western Lowland Gorilla. All subspecies live in varying habitats, have unique physical characteristics and have differing populations.
Gorillas inhabit forests of Central Africa, and are the largest and most powerful of all primates. Adult males stand 6 ft upright and weigh up to 200 kg, while females are much smaller. Gorillas live up to about 44 years. Mature males over 13 years or silverbacks are marked by a band of silver-gray hair on their back and the rest of the body is otherwise dark-colored.
Gorillas live in small family groups of several females and their young, led by a dominant silverback male. The females comprise a harem for the silverback.
Female gorillas produce one infant after a gestation period of nine months. The large size and great strength of the silverback are advantages in competing with other males for dominance of the group, and in defending against outside threats.
Gorillas are herbivores. During the day these ground-living apes move slowly through the forest, selecting species of leaves, fruit, and stems to eat from the surrounding vegetation. At night the family group sleeps in trees, resting on platform nests that they make from branches; silverbacks usually sleep at the foot of the tree.
Gorillas belong to the family Pongidae, which also includes chimpanzees, orangutans, and gibbons. Chimpanzees and gorillas are the animal species most closely related to humans. Gorilla numbers are declining rapidly, and only about 50,000 survive in the wild. There are three subspecies: the western lowland gorilla, the eastern lowland gorilla and the mountain gorilla. All species are endangered, and the mountain gorilla critically so.
The rusty-gray, western lowland gorilla is found in Angola, Cameroon, Central African Republic, Congo, Equatorial Guinea, Gabon, Nigeria, and the Republic of Congo. The black-haired eastern lowland gorilla is found in eastern Republic of Congo. Deforestation and hunting are serious and intensifying threats to lowland gorillas throughout their range.
The mountain gorilla has been well-studied in the field especially by Dian Fossey and the film Gorillas in the Mist is based on the work of this great primatology. This critically endangered subspecies inhabits forest in the mountains of eastern Rwanda, Republic of Congo, and Uganda and field research has shown these powerful primates to be intelligent, peaceful, shy, and of little danger to humans unless provoked.
Other than humans, adult gorillas have no important predators, although leopards occasionally take young individuals. Illegal hunting, capture for the live-animal trade where it is said that a mountain gorilla is reputedly worth $150,000 and habitat loss are causing populations of all gorillas to decline rapidly. The shrinking forest refuge of these great apes is being progressively deforested to accommodate the ever-expanding human population of all countries of Central Africa.
Mountain gorillas are somewhat safeguarded in the Virunga Volcanoes National Park in Rwanda, although the recent civil war there has threatened their population and status. The protection of gorillas in that park has been funded by closely controlled, small-group, gorilla-viewing ecotourism, existing alongside long-term field research programs, although these enterprises were seriously disrupted by the civil war.
All three subspecies of gorillas are in serious trouble. These evolutionarily close relatives of humans could easily become extinct if people do not treat them and their habitat in a more compassionate manner.