As a child, I remember being excited over my little demonstration on volcanoes using the common vinegar and baking soda trick for an erupting science project. Little did I know that there was a dire problem erupting for 1,000 remaining members of a gorilla species tucked away in their nests on the volcanic slopes of the Virunga Mountains.
Home for the mountain gorillas consists of eight volcanoes in the Virunga Mountain Range. Mount Nyamulagira and Mount Nyiragongo in The Congo are two of the most active volcanos in the world and combined account for almost 40 percent of Africa’s recorded volcanic eruptions. Although the other six are dormant, these two have erupted within the last 20 years and are continuously monitored for future eruptions. Andrew Mweti explains the severity facing this subspecies of the eastern gorilla known as the mountain gorilla. “They are on the verge of extinction from human greed and selfishness, that’s why a lot of protection and conservation efforts are being made,” he said.
In Uganda, the Bwindi Impenetrable National Park is home to about half of the mountain gorillas. The larger half of this group of herbivores is located in the Virunga Mountains. The gorillas are protected by armed guards because they are under attack in several ways: habitat destruction, poaching, too-close human interaction, snares and illegal sales to zoos are just a few of the top threats to the gorillas.
As scary as encroaching lava, the mountain gorilla’s livelihood is being destroyed by human settlers overtaking their habitats. As I crawl under my warm fuzzy blanket, I’m sadly reminded of the colder temperatures that these animals are being forced into. Even though the mountain gorilla has a thicker, heavier fur than many other species (due to their need to stay warm in their natural habit of the highly elevated mountain forests), the areas they are being forced into are colder than they can sometimes withstand. The illegal charcoal industry and civil wars add another facet to their habitat destruction, along with natural threats like the infants falling down the steep slopes of the mountain sides.
Can you imagine inhaling the toxic fumes from a volcano’s lava? Our breath is nearly as deadly as those fumes: human airborne viruses can be deadly to the gorillas. Much as we can become quite sick from a virus that our bodies have not built an immunity, the gorillas can become deathly ill just from the transmission of the human cold. Therefore, rules are set in place to encourage visitors to keep a distance of at least twenty-three feet, or approximately seven meters.
“The maximum number of eight visitors [are] able to visit a group of habituated mountain gorillas in a day,” Mweti said. “This minimizes behavioral disturbance to the gorillas and the risk of their exposure to human-borne diseases.”
Between the poachers, the volcano, the encroaching villages and human viruses, the opportunity for visitors to see the mountain gorillas in their natural habitat diminishes more each day.
Snares are a huge concern for gorillas and the rangers that protect them. Although some experienced adult males may be able to free younger gorillas from a snare, many do not escape. The Karisoke Research Center, founded by Dr. Dain Fossey and supported by Ellen DeGeneres, has stepped up to help with this challenge. Their efforts have led to the removal of nearly a thousand snares by Karisoke’s guards alone.
The illegal sale of infants to zoos is also a huge concern. Each stolen infant sold indicates that the death of an alpha leader has occurred. One mature male silverback leads their family group which consists of between five to thirty members. This alpha male will fight to death for his family unit and, in the event of his death, the group may disassemble to find a new suitable leader. If your heart isn’t aching enough yet, when a poacher or invader causes the death of this alpha, the new alpha may kill all the infants fathered by the previous leader.
Educating the local people, visitors and the world on the safety and needs of this remarkable species is of dire importance to the mountain gorillas’ continued existence.
It’s time to help these loving gorillas rise from the ashes! How can we help? Tourism provides rangers with a better opportunity to keep a census detailing the growth and health of our gorilla friends. It replenishes the funds desperately needed to educate, maintain conservation facilities and really help protect this endangered species.
Mweti explained, “We basically combine both wildlife safari in Kenya — searching for the lions, elephants, leopards, cheetahs, buffalos, zebras, giraffes among other wildlife — [and ] visiting some of the world’s best wildlife conservation sites [to] learn and understand the plight of various wildlife and take part in supporting those projects through a direct contribution or by fostering (elephant, rhino, chimpanzee etc).”
If visiting the mountain gorillas is on your bucket list, time is of the utmost importance—because there may not be much left.
If we could get closer than 23 feet, they might offer us a hug for our efforts to help them but then again, one mountain gorilla silverback had the arm span of almost nine feet! Now that’s a hug! With or preferably without the hug, the thought of just seeing these amazing creatures from a distance is phenomenal enough for me!
For those interested in making the trek to see the gorillas, a permit and a guide are required. Due to these factors, Mweti suggests beginning the planning process at least six months in advance. Gorilla viewing permits are issued by the Ugandan Wildlife Authority and can take a bit of time to process, but once finalized, the permit enables you trek to the mountain gorilla areas in the Bwindi Impenetrable National Park or the Mgahinga National Park in Uganda.
“A permit allows you to view gorillas for only one hour, but the trekking itself can take a minimum of 30 minutes or up to 9 hours while looking for gorillas in the forest” Mweti said.
If that’s not enough excitement and adventure, Mweti revealed another cool trip.
“After the tracking,” he said, “guests can pay a visit to the Ndorobo community, the shortest people in the world, learn about their culture, tradition and way of life preserved for generations.”