Gorillas: In the Midst of Destruction

Gorillas live in one of the most violent places on earth and are essentially sitting ducks. The two gorilla species live within and around the Congo River basin. This is an area roughly half the size of the United States and is largely unexplored due to inaccessibility and hostile groups and poachers. Each species has lowland and upland subspecies. Norwegian Refugee Council’s DR Congo director, Ulrika Blom, has stated that, “It’s a mega-crisis. The scale of people fleeing violence is off the charts, outpacing Syria, Yemen and Iraq.” According to the BBC, the Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre has estimated that an average of 5,500 people fled their homes every day during 2017 in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC).

General Gorilla Facts

There are two gorilla species: Eastern and Western. Each has two subspecies. Eastern gorillas are made up of the Cross River gorilla and Western Lowland gorilla subspecies. Western gorillas include the Mountain gorilla and Eastern Lowland gorilla. This makes a total of four distinct subspecies of gorilla.

Gorilla Distribution Map
Historical sampling reveals dramatic demographic changes in western gorilla populations – Scientific Figure on ResearchGate. Available from: https://www.researchgate.net/Gorilla-distribution-map-Approximate-current-distribution-of-gorillas-in-Equatorial_fig1_50986570 [accessed 5 Apr, 2018]
In the wild, gorillas live approximately 30-40 years. They typically form groups compromised of as little as 5-10 individuals, but groups as large as several dozen including extended family have been documented. Groups are lead by the silverback, an adult male that has reached sexual maturity; signified by silver fur on his back. Groups can be made up of blackbacks (adult males that have not yet become sexually mature), adult females, juveniles (4-8 years of age), and infants. It has been documented that a silverback, after acquiring a group after battle, will kill the infants sired from the previous leader in order to ensure that the next generation are his own.

Never stare at a silverback. Staring is a challenge and he may charge.

A blackback will eventually leave his natal group and become solitary until he forms a group of his own. However, some solitary males are never able to win a fight against a dominant silverback or attract females of his own. A solitary male can form a group by attracting a female that has left her group or take control of a group through defeating the dominant silverback in battle.

Gorilla etiquette:

If a silverback charges:

  1. Go down on your knees.
  2. Bow your head.
  3. Put a leaf in your mouth; it’s a sign that you come in peace.

Physical Differences Between Eastern vs. Western Gorillas

  • The Eastern silverback has a more defined patch on his back, while the lighter hair on a Western silverback spreads to his thighs.
  • Eastern gorillas, especially Mountain gorillas, have long, black hair that helps to protect them in the cold and wet mountain conditions. Western gorillas have shorter, more bristly hair that is slightly brown to grey.

Eastern Gorilla (Gorilla beringei)

1. Mountain gorilla (Gorilla beringei beringei)

Mountain gorillas live at elevations from 8,000 – 13,000 ft. According to Gorilla Doctors, there are currently around 880 individuals. About 480 of them live in the Virunga Volcanoes Massif, an area of land that includes Rwanda’s Volcanoes National Park, DRC’s Virunga National Park, and Uganda’s Mgahinga National Park. The other 400 gorillas live in Bwindi Impenetrable National Park in Uganda.

Distribution of the mountain gorilla (© Angela Meder). Gorilla number: 880

Paul Rafaele, author of Among the Great Apes, explains that the mountain gorilla enjoys a leisurely lifestyle. The silverback begins his day with waking his family at 5 a.m. by beating his chest and charging them. A single family forages over 500 yards each day and activities include “playing alot and taking mid-morning and mid-afternoon naps.” At around 6 p.m., the silverback chooses a place for his family to sleep for the night.

2. Eastern Lowland or Grauer’s gorilla (Gorilla beringei graueri)

The Eastern Lowland or Grauers gorilla is the largest of the four gorilla species. These gorillas inhabit the lowland forests of eastern DRC and the Albertine Rift. Until the 1990s, populations were estimated to be around 17,000 individuals, but recent surveys estimate far lower numbers at only 4,000 individuals.

Current data indicates that these gorillas only occupy about 13% of their former range. Surveys from both the WCS and FFI document that the Grauer’s gorillas has declined at least 77% in the last 20 years.

Western gorilla (Gorilla gorilla)

1. Western Lowland gorilla (Gorilla gorilla gorilla)

Distribution of the Western Lowland Gorilla (© Angela Meder). Gorilla number: 100,000-200,000

The Western Lowland gorilla live in the dense rain forests of Cameroon, Central African Republic, Congo, Rio Muni (Equatorial Guinea), Gabon, Angola, and the DRC. They currently inhabit the largest geographic range and has the largest population of the four gorilla species. The total population is estimated to be as many as 100,000 individuals, but accurate counts are not easily attained due to the forest density and remoteness. They have been recorded at densities as high as 10 individuals per square kilometer.

2. Cross River gorilla (Gorilla gorilla diehli)

Distribution of the Cross River gorilla (© Angela Meder, with information from Rich Bergl). Gorilla number: 250-300

The Cross River gorilla can only be found within highland forests on the border of Cameroon and Nigeria. This is currently the world’s rarest ape. Their population is currently estimated to be around 250-300 individuals divided into several sub-populations as illustrated in the above distribution map.

Conservation Threats


Over the past decade, the largest drivers of deforestation have been clearing for charcoal and fuelwood, small-scale subsistence farming, mining, and urban sprawl. Industrial logging has opened up vast areas of the Congo to commercial hunting, leading to a poaching epidemic.

The charcoal traders have already destroyed about a quarter of the hardwood old-growth forests in the southern section of the Virunga National Park.

-Paul Raffaele


Congo is one of the planet’s largest producers of copper, gold, zinc, tin, diamonds, and other metals like coltan. The problem with mining in Congo is that armed groups are most often in control and benefit directly from mining activity.

The southern copper belt is one of the world’s richest sources of copper. Congo has recently emerged as the world’s leading cobalt producer, a by-product of the copper smelting process and an important component of electric cars.

Congo is also responsible for 80% of the world’s coltan. Coltan is the common name for columbite-tantilite, the mineral used to extract Tantilum, a metal widely used in cell phones and other electronics to coat capacitors for energy storage. Tantilum holds an electric charge better than any other material.

Gorilla Zoonosis

Zoonotic diseases are those that can be transmitted between both animals and humans. Gorillas are at constant risk of contracting such zoonotic diseases from humans. Human transmitted diseases include polio, malaria, measles, strep throat, tuberculosis, herpes, and Ebola. Animal transmitted diseases include salmonella, rabies.

For example, in 1985, a gorilla contracted measles from human visitors. Veterinarians reacted by vaccinating 65 gorillas with a dart gun to keep the disease from spreading. All survived.

How can you help?

  • Use electronics for as long as possible. Think twice before casting your perfectly good phone away for the newest model.
  • Recycle electronics when no longer useful.
  • Purchase only sustainable wood.
  • Purchase from companies that use conflict free minerals. Intel explains that “Conflict free” and “conflict-free” as defined by the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission, refers to “products that do not contain conflict minerals (tin, tantalum, tungsten and/or gold) that directly or indirectly finance or benefit armed groups in the Democratic Republic of the Congo or adjoining countries”.
  • Donate to gorilla conservation organizations.
  • Visit the gorillas. Conservation is dependent upon a future of global tourism.

Visit the organizations below:

logologo (1)berggorilla-evlogo (2)Virunga National ParkDianFosseylogoLarge.60460f70C04-K0L_400x400



Butler, Rhett. “Congo Deforestation.” Mongabay.com, 23 Jan. 2016, rainforests.mongabay.com/congo/deforestation.html.

“Conflict Minerals.” The Price of Precious, ngm.nationalgeographic.com/2013/10/conflict-minerals/gettleman-text.

“Cross River Gorilla.” Cross River Gorilla – Berggorilla & Regenwald Direkthilfe E.V., http://www.berggorilla.org/en/gorillas/species/western-gorillas/cross-river-gorilla/.

“DR Congo Displacement Crisis ‘Worse than Middle East’.” BBC News, BBC, 6 Dec. 2017, http://www.bbc.com/news/world-africa-42250230.

“Mining Firms Are Dismayed by a New Congolese Mining Law.” The Economist, The Economist Newspaper, 10 Feb. 2018, http://www.economist.com/news/business/21736595-they-have-more-lose-if-president-joseph-kabila-falls-power-mining-firms-are-dismayed.

Raffaele, Paul. Among the Great Apes: Adventures on the Trail of Our Closest Relatives. Smithsonian Books, 2011.

“Western Lowland Gorilla.” Smithsonian’s National Zoo, 5 May 2017, nationalzoo.si.edu/animals/western-lowland-gorilla.

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