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Gorillas In The Mist

May 15, 2011 by Chelsea Slone

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The mountain gorilla, is one of the two most endangered apes in the world. There are only approximately 655 mountain gorillas living today, all of them which are found in the wild. These gorillas exist in two small protected forest areas in northwest Rwanda, southwest Uganda, and the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo. In Rwanda, where we visited the gorillas, there are eighteen groups of gorillas found and ten of which are seen for research purposes only. With only eight groups and sixty four permits allowed daily, visiting these gorillas was an experience of a lifetime.

The mountain gorillas live in stable family groups with a dominant silverback male, several females, and their offspring. The groups range from 2 to 40 individuals, averaging about 11. The silverback is named for the silvery gray hairs that grow when the male matures and is the chief decision maker for where the group sleeps, eats, and arbitrates disputes. While these gorillas can be ferocious creatures when threatened, they are normally very gentle and peaceful. One of the most fascinating facts of the mountain gorillas is they are 98% genetically identical to humans.

Mountain gorillas have a slow rate of reproduction. This slow reproduction makes this species even more threatened. In a 40-50 year lifetime, a female might have only 2-6 living offspring. Females give birth for the first time at about age 10 and will have offspring every four years or more, as they are able to Concorde only three days out of every month. A male reaches sexual maturity between 10 and 12 years. The newborn gorillas weighing around four pounds are tiny and weak. The awkward infant movements are similar to those of humans, but they develop much faster. In around three or four months the infant can sit up alone, and stand soon after with a little support, and at the age of three years it becomes completely independent.

The threats to the mountain gorillas and their habitat are many. Poaching, pressure on the land for agriculture, harvesting of wood for fuel, construction and other human activities all threaten the habitat of the gorillas. Also, humans are potentially a source of disease that, once transmitted to gorillas, could devastate the entire population. Because while humans and gorillas are genetically similar enough that gorillas are vulnerable to many human diseases they have not developed the immunities to resist the diseases and infections. For this reason, all tourist groups are only allowed one hour with a group of gorillas.

Our trip to visit the gorillas was unbelievable in every sense of the word. Before arriving in Rwanda we were told to do everything in our power to get Francois as our guide. We requested to have him, and with some luck and begging we were able to get it done. As we began to enter the forest and begin our trek Francois yanked some leaves off of a tree, smelled them, and began to chew them up, then immediately began “talking” in gorilla language. He then picked up a thistle, slid his fingers down the plant to remove the thorns and began to eat it as well. It was absolutely insane and completely fascinating!

As we continued our trek through the gorgeous lush rainforest bursting with bamboo our bodies were filled with great anticipation for what was to come. After two hours of trekking Francois said the signs of gorillas were evident were there and we were getting close. When we reached the Hirwa group of gorillas he told us to leave all our belongings where we were, minus our cameras and quietly follow him. As our group of eight people did what he said and followed him quietly until suddenly we were all standing in front of an enormous silverback and his entire family. For a second I don’t even think Tyler took a picture… We all just stood in amazement. Two rare twin gorillas were wrestling together, and rolling on the ground, one female was stretching her legs as if she was doing the splits while lying down, two other females were swinging through the trees, and the huge male was just sitting and observing his family. After about twenty minutes the gorillas began to move back a little deeper into the forest and we witness the silverback mating with one of the females. A man in our group had been ten times previous and said this was his first time to witness any sort of mating between the gorillas. After another few minutes the gorillas moved back further, going to join the rest of their group. We slowly followed them into a small area that had been flattened out and made a temporary home. As we entered the area we saw one of the females holding her tiny, two month old baby. It was surreal. For minutes at a time the gorillas would stare with the kindest looking eyes, making you feel as if they would never harm you. Before we could blink an hour was spent with the gorillas and it was already time to head back. I truly believe it was one of the most amazing, if not the most amazing hour of my life.


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One thought on “Gorillas In The Mist

  1. Looking back, this was most definitely one of those life altering experiences. To have to opportunity to be so close to an animal that shares so many characteristics as us in there natural habitat was truly amazing. 

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