Saving gorillas poses a great challenge to conservationists. Currently, gorilla populations suffer from habitat loss, hunting, and disease. The four subspecies of the large, black-haired great apes are found in Uganda, Rwanda, Zaire, Congo, Cameroon, and Nigeria. There are approximately 94,000 western lowland gorillas (Gorilla gorilla gorilla), 17,000 eastern lowland or Grauer’s gorillas (G. g. graueri), 700 mountain gorillas (G. g. beringei), and 200 Cross River gorillas (G. g. diehli) left.
Gorillas belong to the same family as humans, Hominidae. They have the most herbaceous diet and are one of the most terrestrial primates. They loco-mote using quadrupedal knuckle-walking. Gorillas typically live in harem groups, consisting of one male, multiple females, and offspring.
Most of the early information on gorilla behavior was compiled by George Schaller and Dian Fossey, the famous aggressive mountain gorilla conservationist, and their associates. Fossey founded Karasoke Research Station at Parc National des Volcans (PNV) in Rwanda in 1967. Gorilla ecotourism was founded at PNV in 1978. Today, tourists pay between $250.00 and $400.00 (U.S.) for a permit to see the mountain gorillas for a few hours. Even with strict guidelines, such as most ecotourism agencies allowing only one visit of no more than six to eight people per day per gorilla group, the annual revenue earned directly from gorilla tourism has been estimated at $3 million. When this figure is combined with the additional income received by funds earned indirectly (by hotels, restaurants, etc.), the total revenue may exceed $20 million. This money is shared between Rwanda, Uganda, and the Democratic Republic of Congo (formerly Zaire). Such programs have aided mountain gorilla conservation by preventing farmers, poachers, trophy hunters, and loggers from endangering the gorillas and their habitat.
However, wars, conflict, and civil unrest beginning in the 1990s caused many gorilla ecotourism programs to close intermittently. Wars also drive many refugees into the mountain gorillas’ previously undisturbed habitat, resulting in gorillas being hunted for food. Research on gorillas indicates that hunting pressure generally has a greater effect on gorilla populations than habitat disturbance. In 1996, the World Society for the Protection of Animals (WSPA) and the Cameroon Ministry of Environment and Forests (MINEF) held a conference in Cameroon and addressed such issues. Although the official title of the conference was “The Impact of Forest Exploitation on Wildlife,” it is commonly referred to as “The Bushmeat Conference.” The attendees concluded that the bushmeat crisis is directly linked to the timber industry and is having a devastating affect on many animal populations, including gorillas. Gorilla meat is considered a delicacy in wild game markets. Logging brings humans and gorillas into closer contact. It is responsible for the demise of gorilla populations due not only to habitat loss and hunting but also to transmission of diseases such as cholera.
Western lowland gorillas and Eastern lowland gorillas are endangered, while mountain gorillas and Cross River gorillas are critically endangered. It is hoped that as research and conservation efforts continue, awareness of the plight of gorillas will increase so that our largest living relatives can be saved.
- Cowlishaw, G., & Dunbar, R. (2000) Primate conservation biology. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
- Fossey, D. (2000). Gorillas in the mist. Boston: Mariner Books, Houghton Mifflin Company. International Gorilla Conservation Programme. (2005). Tourism in the realm of the mountain gorilla.
- Mowat, F. (1988). Woman in the mist. Boston: Warner Books.
- Rowe, N. (1996). The pictorial guide to the living primates. Charlestown, RI: Pongonias Press.
- Vedder, A., & Weber, B. (2001). In the kingdom of gorillas: Fragile species in a dangerous land. New York: Simon & Schuster.