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Gorilla

Facts

  • Population
    100,000 to 200,000
  • Scientific Name
    Gorilla gorilla and Gorilla beringei
  • Height
    4-6 ft.
  • Weight
    up to 440 pounds

Gorillas are gentle giants and display many human-like behaviors and emotions, such as laughter and sadness. In fact, gorillas share 98.3% of their genetic code with humans, making them our closest cousins after chimpanzees and bonobos. The largest of the great apes, gorillas are stocky animals with broad chests and shoulders, large, human-like hands, and small eyes set into hairless faces. The two gorilla species live in equatorial Africa, separated by about 560 miles of Congo Basin forest. Each has a lowland and upland subspecies. Gorillas live in family groups of usually five to 10, but sometimes two to more than 50, led by a dominant adult male—or silverback—who holds his position for years. The bond between the silverback and his females forms the basis of gorilla social life. Females become sexually mature around seven or eight years old but don’t begin to breed until a couple of years later. Males mature at an even greater age. Once a female begins to breed, she'll likely give birth to only one baby every four to six years and only three or four over her entire lifetime. This low rate of reproduction makes it difficult for gorillas to recover from population declines. Both gorilla species have been decreasing in numbers for decades, and a 2010 United Nations report suggests that they may disappear from large parts of the Congo Basin by the mid-2020s.

Conservation efforts by WWF, other organizations, and governments are making a difference for gorillas. New protected areas are being designated for some gorilla populations, and the population of mountain gorillas has continued to increase in recent years, leading to its downlisting from Critically Endangered to Endangered in November 2018.

The first rule of gorilla tracking? Listen well

Twenty years ago, a gorilla habitation program provided the Ba’Aka living near the Dzanga Sanga Park with a new opportunity. And by 2020, Dzanga-Sangha employed more than 50 Ba’Aka as gorilla trackers.

Ossolo Dacko, a BaAka tracker for the western lowland gorilla habituation program, Dzanga-Sangha Special Reserve, Central African Republic

Why They Matter

  • Our Closest Cousins

    Gorillas share 98.3% of their DNA with humans, making them our closest cousins after chimpanzees and bonobos. These charismatic, intelligent animals often surprise us with behaviors and emotions so similar to our human experience.

  • Gorillas Help Maintain Forests

    Gorillas are mainly vegetarian and spend almost half of the day feeding on stems, bamboo shoots, and a variety of fruits, supplemented with bark and invertebrates. Gorillas play a key role in maintaining the biodiversity of their forest homes by spreading the seeds of the trees they eat and by opening up gaps in the trees as they move around, letting in light and helping sun-loving plants grow.

  • Protecting Gorilla Habitat Helps Humans

    In Central Africa, humans depend on the same environment as gorillas for their food, water, medicine, and other forest products. Protecting the tropical forests of the Congo Basin where the gorillas live also conserves these forests and their resources on which the local and indigenous people of the region depend. The Congo Basin is home to the second largest tropical rainforest on Earth, which serves as the green heart of Africa. Moisture generated by this forest falls as rain in the United States, meaning that the impact of the loss of this forest will be felt globally.

Threats

  • Population 100,000 to 200,000
Western lowland gorilla (Gorilla gorilla gorilla) female 'Malui' walking through a cloud of butterflies she has disturbed in Bai Hokou, Dzanga Sangha Special Dense Forest Reserve, Central African Republic.

Like humans, gorillas reproduce slowly, giving birth to only one baby at a time and then raising that infant for several years before giving birth again. This slow reproduction rate makes gorillas especially vulnerable to any population declines.

Habitat destruction is a problem across their central African range. Gorillas are also killed for the bushmeat trade, or accidently killed or maimed by iron snares that are set in the forests in search for other bushmeat species such as pigs (red river hog). That trade has helped spread the Ebola virus, which is deadly to both gorillas and humans. Efforts to protect gorillas are often hampered by weak law enforcement, lack of rule of law, and civil unrest in many places where gorillas live.

HABITAT LOSS

Only 17% of the gorilla population currently lives in protected regions, and vast areas of gorilla forest has already been lost. That destruction continues as logging companies open up fast tracks of forest, forests are cleared to make space for subsistence farming or ape habitat becomes fragmented by road building.

There is also a strong link between habitat loss and the bushmeat trade. As previously inaccessible forests are opened up by timber companies, commercial hunters gain access to areas where gorillas roam and often use logging vehicles to transport bushmeat to far away markets, as well as sell meat to employees of the logging companies.

HUNTING AND TRADE

The commercial trade in bushmeat, which occurs throughout west and central Africa, is the biggest threat to gorillas today. Apes are being killed primarily to supply high-end demand for meat in urban centers, where the consumption of ape meat is considered to be prestigious amongst the wealthy elite. Although gorillas may constitute only a small proportion of all animals killed for the bushmeat trade, they present easy targets for hunters, and in many areas gorillas are favored by hunters because of the weight of meat they can sell.

Gorillas' low reproductive rates means that even low levels of hunting can cause a population decline, which could take many generations to be reversed.

DISEASE

Ebola hemorrhagic fever is a severe, infectious, often fatal disease that has devastated many African great ape populations. Scientists in 2003 estimated that a third of the wild gorilla population had been killed by the Ebola virus, and the species remain at risk. Additionally, because gorillas share so many traits with humans, they are susceptible to other human diseases. Populations of gorillas that are in frequent contact with humans are particularly vulnerable to deadly respiratory infections. In mountain gorilla range, where gorillas frequently raid farms or come in contact with humans through tourism, they are susceptible to scabies, TB, and a host of other diseases from human transmission.

WEAK LAW ENFORCEMENT

Both the killing of gorillas and trade in gorilla products are illegal across the animals' range, but due to weaknesses in law enforcement capacity and broader governance issues in some of the regions where the gorillas live, poachers, traders, and consumers are rarely apprehended.

What WWF Is Doing

Guard with hand held GPS device for recording gorilla locations

Guard with a handheld GPS device to record location in Virunga National Park, habitat of the mountain gorilla.

PREVENTING POACHING AND ILLEGAL WILDLIFE TRADE

Because poaching is a problem across central Africa, WWF works with TRAFFIC, the world's largest wildlife trade monitoring network, and the World Conservation Union to monitor the illegal trade of gorillas and other great apes. WWF also advocates for nations to more effectively enforce wildlife laws and raises awareness in local villages of the dangers of eating bushmeat. In addition, WWF has trained local wildlife authorities in modern methods of antipoaching and gorilla monitoring and provided equipment and provisions for antipoaching teams in several nations.

DEVELOPING TOURISM

Ecotourism provides opportunities for protecting gorillas and their forest homes and for helping the local people. WWF has habituated gorilla groups to humans to develop opportunities for gorilla tourism. For instance in the Dzanga-Sangha Protected Areas, located in the south western Central African Republic, WWF has run a Primate Habituation Program since 1997 that habituates western lowland gorillas for tourism and research. It plays a vital role in the park’s management strategy by generating significant revenue and strengthening the vital link with the community. The program is the major employer of Indigenous people in the region and currently employs 60 people, including 45 indigenous Ba'Aka. Today, tourism is regaining its grounds and more investments are being made to further develop ecotourism in Dzanga-Sangha with the projection to attain at least 1,000 tourists annually by 2025.

MONITORING POPULATIONS

WWF conducts research into the ecology, distribution, and population biology of gorillas. We also support research into the spread of diseases between humans and gorillas and the natural spread of diseases such as Ebola, as well as disease prevention. Park rangers are often the ones monitoring gorillas, and so WWF and our partners have established a ranger-based monitoring program for mountain gorillas that documented a 17% increase in gorilla numbers in the Virunga Mountains over a 14-year period.

PRESERVING HABITAT

Forest, East province, Cameroon

Habitat destruction is a concern for both eastern and westerns gorillas. WWF has worked to designate new protected areas for gorillas in many places, like in Cameroon, where gorilla sanctuaries would provide havens for the rare cross river gorilla as well as the western lowland gorilla. WWF also collaborates with local governments in the Congo Basin, logging companies, and international lending institutions to promote dialogue, encourage the best environmental practices and promote the adoption of forest certification standards such as the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) certification.

Experts

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