Endangered Species of the Week: Mountain Gorilla

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The world’s smallest population of mountain gorillas—a subspecies of the eastern gorilla—is split in two and scientists have debated whether they may be two separate subspecies. A bit more than half live in the Virunga Mountains, a range of extinct volcanoes that border the Democratic Republic of Congo, Rwanda and Uganda. The remainder can be found in the Bwindi Impenetrable National Park in Uganda. Since the discovery of the mountain gorilla subspecies in 1902, its population has endured years of war, hunting, habitat destruction and disease—threats so severe that it was once thought the species might be extinct by the end of the twentieth century.

As their name implies, mountain gorillas live in forests high in the mountains, at elevations of 8,000 to 13,000 feet. They have thicker fur, and more of it, compared to other great apes. The fur helps them to survive in a habitat where temperatures often drop below freezing. But as humans have moved more and more into the gorillas’ territory, the gorillas have been pushed farther up into the mountains for longer periods, forcing them to endure dangerous and sometimes deadly conditions.

What might have been a bleak outlook for the subspecies just a couple of decades ago has brightened in recent years due to conservation efforts. Despite ongoing civil conflict, poaching and an encroaching human population, both populations of mountain gorillas have increased in numbers.

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HABITAT LOSS

As humans have moved into areas near mountain gorillas, they have cleared land for agriculture and livestock. Even land within protected areas is not safe from clearing—in 2004, for example, illegal settlers cleared 3,700 acres of gorilla forest in Virunga National Park.

DISEASE

Gorillas that come into contact with humans can be vulnerable to human diseases, which gorillas experience in more severe forms. Mountain gorillas can even die from the common cold. However, studies have found that mountain gorillas that are regularly habituated with researchers and tourists have survived better than unvisited gorillas; they benefit from the greater protection available in those areas and from regular monitoring. Increased survival is also largely due to better veterinary care of sick and injured gorillas.

CHARCOAL MAKING

Inside gorilla habitat in Virunga National Park, people harvest charcoal for use as a fuel source in cooking and heating. This charcoal production—an illegal, multi-million dollar industry—has destroyed gorilla habitat.

 

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