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High among the Virunga Mountains in Rwanda lives the majestic silverback gorilla, named for the silver mane that graces the backs of the males.
This mountain gorilla species, only discovered in 1902, was brought to the verge of extinction before primatologist Dian Fossey drew attention to their plight. Her experiences with the silverbacks are depicted in the 1988 film Gorillas in the Mist.
Here are five facts about the silverback gorilla.
1. They Have the High Ground
The silverbacks live at elevations of around 8,000 to 13,000 feet, the same altitude at which a skydiver leaps from a plane. Their thick coats keep them warm amidst the cold mountain tops.
There are two separate groups; one in Volcanoes National Park (named for the eight volcanoes that make up the Virunga mountain range) in Rwanda, and the other in Bwindi Impenetrable National Park in Uganda.
Both groups are nomadic; roaming the mountain slopes and building nests out of branches each night. They have a close-knit family life; forming stable family groups of around 10 individuals (a dominant male and several females along with children). Males and females both take care of the children.
When young silverbacks reach a certain age, most males and 60% of females leave the group to join another, so as to prevent inbreeding.
2. They're the Strongest Primate
At six feet tall (five feet for females), the silverback gorilla is six times stronger than the average human, with tremendous bite force around twice as strong as that of a lion.
They communicate through body language and vocalisations, and they view staring as an act of aggression, so don't look too hard or too long if you encounter one on a safari.
Although a silverback gorilla beating its chest makes for an intimidating sight, they are primarily gentle giants. Chimpanzees are much more aggressive despite being nowhere as strong. In fact, experts have observed chimps attacking and killing lowland gorillas in Gabon. A single chimp is not a match for a gorilla but they can be deadly if they band together and target one at a time.
3. They're Mostly Vegetarian
As mentioned, the silverback gorilla has one of the strongest bites in the animal kingdom. And what does it use this bite for? Chewing on plants.
Indeed, silverback gorillas, which spend at least a quarter of the day eating, are basically vegetarians. Around 85% of their diet is made up of leaves, shoots and stems.
This makes them similar to the bonobos that live in the Congo Jungle, as opposed to chimps, who have been observed catching and eating monkeys.
4. They're the Only Great Ape That is Growing in Population
When Dian Fossey arrived in 1967, there were only 240 silverbacks left in the park. Now there are an estimated 1,063. Fossey's efforts triggered a reversal of the decline, although there is much work still to be done.
Fossey believed in doing more than just observing the gorillas. She basically lived among them for eighteen years and would try to win their trust by imitating their facial expressions and vocalisations.
Fossey was unfortunately murdered in 1985. The motive is unknown. One theory is that she found out about an illicit gold trading operation.
Poppy, the last gorilla to have met Dian Fossey, died recently at the age of 42.
5. They're the Most Endangered Gorilla
Despite the encouraging population increase, the silverback remains an endangered species. They are surrounded by agricultural operations that frequently come into conflict with the gorillas. They are also suffering from deforestation and poaching.
Furthermore, the silverback shares 98% of our DNA, which makes them vulnerable to human illnesses as they are susceptible to the same ailments yet lack the immunity that we have. Tourism operations have to take this into account and minimise contact with the gorillas.
The World Wildlife Fund (WWF) is engaged in efforts to protect the silverback. These include creative solutions such as growing tea on the borders of the farms that surround the park (the silverbacks dislike the smell of tea and are consequently discouraged from encroaching on the territory of hostile farmers).
Another measure is to help locals become self-sustainable so they don't have to venture into the forest to find water and other resources.
Together with Conservation International and Fauna & Flora International, the WWF has formed the International Gorilla Conservation Programme (IGCP) to try and save one of humanity's closest relatives.
General information. World Wildlife Fund.
General information. National Geographic.
Rob Picheta. 2021, July 22. Chimpanzees have been spotted attacking and killing gorillas in the wild for the first time. CNN.
Erika Archibald, Ph.D. 2019, June 5. Poppy, last gorilla made famous by Dian Fossey, presumed dead at age 43. Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund.