By Assaf Levy
Have you ever wondered what it is like to stand face to face with a creature so powerful yet so achingly human in its gaze? Imagine, for a moment, being in the heart of Africa’s mystical forests, surrounded by towering trees and the ethereal sounds of nature. And there, in that sacred realm, you find yourself in the presence of gorillas – these gentle giants, our kin in the animal kingdom, who hold a mirror to our own humanity. A question tugs at the soul: What is it like to share a moment, a connection, with these magnificent beings?
As we embark on this journey, we’ll delve deep into their world, discovering not just their extraordinary physicality but also their intricate social structures, boundless resilience, and undeniable charm. These are not just creatures of the wild; they are living legends, each with their own unique story.
Gorillas, those magnificent forest guardians, have long captured our imagination with their immense strength and remarkable intelligence. These gentle giants, divided into two distinct species, the Eastern Gorilla (Gorilla beringei) and the Western Gorilla (Gorilla gorilla), each boast their own unique charm.
In the heart of Africa, the Eastern Gorilla comes in two distinct flavours – the Mountain Gorilla, shrouded in the mists of the Virunga Mountains, and the Eastern Lowland Gorilla, a giant of the lush, lowland rainforests. Meanwhile, on the other side of the continent, the Western Gorilla reigns supreme, with the Western Lowland Gorilla reigning in the vast lowland forests and the Cross River Gorilla fighting for survival on the border between Nigeria and Cameroon.
In recent years, the fate of these incredible creatures has hung in balance. The Mountain Gorilla population has shown signs of a miraculous resurgence, with roughly 1,000 individuals spotted in a recent count. In stark contrast, the Eastern Lowland Gorilla faces an alarming decline, with fewer than 6,800 individuals navigating a perilous path through a landscape marred by habitat loss and poaching. Western Lowland Gorillas, though more numerous with an estimated 150,000-250,000 individuals, are far from secure, grappling with the ever-encroaching threats of habitat degradation and disease. The Cross River Gorilla, meanwhile, remains a rare gem, with just 200-300 individuals clinging to the brink of extinction.
This tapestry of gorilla diversity is fraying at the edges, with all four subspecies listed as endangered or critically endangered by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN). The culprits behind their decline are all too familiar: deforestation, mining, agriculture, and the relentless illegal trade in bush meat and live animals.
Threats, Challenges and Conservation Efforts
The decline of gorilla populations is a tragic consequence of a multitude of interconnected factors. One of the foremost contributors is habitat destruction due to deforestation, mining activities, and agricultural expansion. As human populations grow, pristine forests are cleared to make way for settlements and agriculture, leaving gorillas with dwindling territories. This habitat loss disrupts their foraging grounds and fragments their communities, making it more challenging for gorilla groups to find adequate food and maintain healthy social structures.
Compounding this issue is the insidious illegal wildlife trade, which relentlessly targets gorillas for bush meat and captures them for the pet trade or the entertainment industry. Poaching takes a heavy toll on their numbers, as they are killed or captured in alarming numbers, adding to the peril they face. Furthermore, disease outbreaks, often linked to human interaction, threaten gorillas, particularly the spread of illnesses like Ebola. The entire population of what was once the world’s second-largest protected community of gorillas and chimpanzees was wiped out by the 1994 outbreak in Minkébé, located in northern Gabon. These multifaceted threats combine to cast a shadow of uncertainty over the future of these incredible beings.
Central to the survival of gorillas are the dedicated and tireless efforts of conservation organisations that have made it their mission to protect these magnificent creatures and their habitats. The Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund is a beacon of hope among them. Named after the renowned primatologist Dian Fossey, whose groundbreaking work with Mountain Gorillas inspired countless others, the organisation conducts a multifaceted approach to gorilla conservation. They have forged a path toward coexistence through scientific research, anti-poaching measures, and community engagement. Their work not only safeguards gorillas but also empowers local communities, ensuring that the well-being of both humans and gorillas is intertwined. Additionally, the Jane Goodall Institute, famous for its work with chimpanzees, extends its dedication to gorilla conservation through community-based programmes that reduce poaching and habitat destruction while promoting sustainable livelihoods.
These organisations, along with others like the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) and the African Wildlife Foundation (AWF), play pivotal roles in protecting the great apes, reminding us that collective action is essential to secure the future of these extraordinary beings.
As Dian Fossey, the tireless guardian of Mountain Gorillas, once said, “When you realise the value of all life, you dwell less on what is past and concentrate more on the preservation of the future.”
Her words echo through time, a poignant reminder of the urgency that surrounds gorilla conservation. Their future is the mirror in which we see the value we place on all life, a reflection of our commitment to preserving the intricate web of existence that sustains us. With their strength, gentle souls, and resolute spirit, Gorillas call upon us to protect their world – a world that is, ultimately, our shared heritage.
(The author is the Founder & CEO of BioDB.com – a group tasked with collecting conservation data, raising awareness for biodiversity loss and fundraising.)