Hell would freeze over before you bump into one in Portugal, but that isn’t a good reason to ignore them. They are on the list of potentially disappearing creatures due to climate change and man’s destruction of their habitat. As we share so much DNA – around an astonishing 98% - gorillas are our closest cousins after chimpanzees.
Conservation has increased their numbers from 620 in 1989 to over 1,000 today. Out of the relatively few remaining on Earth, about half live in the forests of the Virunga mountains in Central Africa. Mountain Gorillas are a subspecies of the Eastern Gorilla (Gorilla beringei), but are distinctly different, including fur, facial features and colour. As their name hints, they live in the mountains at quite high elevations.
Peaceful unless poked
Mountain gorillas are peaceful animals and will not attack anyone or anything if they haven’t been aggravated! Apparently, if you happen across them (unlikely I know), and whatever you are doing doesn't affect them, you will come out of their presence unharmed. I think we might all recall the images of David Attenborough visiting the mountain gorillas of Rwanda 40 years ago when they were on the brink of extinction. Now, decades later, their increased number includes the descendants of those David met - what an achievement, but they are still considered an endangered species.
Adult males are called Silverbacks because of the silver saddle of hair on their backs. They have a stocky build, with broad chests, long, muscular arms and wide feet and hands. An average-sized silverback can weigh up to an enormous 180kg. Mountain gorillas live in ‘troops’ that are led by a dominant silverback, who will lead the group's daily activities, and defend them from outside intruders. When two groups meet, the leaders often fight – with the winning silverback leader known to kill gorilla babies from the opposition after taking over a troop. When confronted, silverbacks may stand upright, throw things, make aggressive charges, and pound their huge chests while barking out powerful hoots or unleashing a frightening roar. Despite these violent displays and the animals' obvious physical power, gorillas are generally calm and non-aggressive unless they are provoked.
Females give birth to only one infant at a time, and the tiny newborns are only just able to cling to their mother's fur. They will ride on their mothers' backs from aged four months through the first 2-3 years of their lives. Youngsters from three to six years are just like human kids, with much of their time spent in play.
Koko – no clown!
Chimps are more intelligent and have bigger brains, but gorillas are also highly intelligent. A few individuals in captivity, such as Koko, a western lowland gorilla (who died in California in 2018, aged 46), had been taught by her instructor and caregiver, Francine Patterson, who reported that Koko had an active vocabulary of more than 1,000 signs of ‘Gorilla Sign Language’. In 1978, Koko gained worldwide attention as she was pictured on the cover of National Geographic magazine - taking her own picture in a mirror. She even had her own pet kitten named All Ball, and both were featured on another cover of National Geographic in 1985.
Like the other great apes, gorillas can laugh, grieve, have ‘rich emotional lives’, develop strong family bonds, make and use tools, and weirdly are afraid of certain insects and reptiles – avoiding caterpillars and chameleons if they can!
Habitat loss is a major threat: agriculture, illegal mining, and forest destruction have degraded their forests, and they often get caught in snares set for bushmeat. Climate change also poses a threat, and while gorillas move to higher elevations to adapt, those areas are densely populated with little forest remaining.
Some of the main reasons for their continued increase has been ‘gorilla tourism’, along with stringent measures put in place to protect them and their researchers. Specialist vets attend to any health issues due to injuries or infections, as even catching a cold could be potentially detrimental as they lack the necessary immunities, but sadly they still face the risk of extinction.
Marilyn writes regularly for The Portugal News, and has lived in the Algarve for some years. A dog-lover, she has lived in Ireland, UK, Bermuda and the Isle of Man.