About This Species
Mountain gorillas live high in the mountains, at elevations of between 8,000 and 13,000 feet. They live in small groups, typically a dominant silverback male with three adult females and four or five offspring. The silverback, with a trademark silver patch of hair on its back and hips, defends his group from other groups. Mountain gorillas have thicker fur—and more of it—compared to other great apes, allowing them to survive at such high altitudes, where temperatures often drop below freezing. This ability to cope with a variety of temperatures, as well as minimal freshwater needs and a wide-ranging diet, have helped make the gorillas somewhat resilient to climate changes. But other traits are increasingly limiting their ability to adapt: a long generation time, a low reproductive rate. little genetic variation, as well as humans encroaching in their habitat for climate-related reasons.
Mountain gorillas are critically endangered. There are just 880 of them in the wild, split between two national parks in central Africa. Since the species was discovered a century ago, its population has faced uncontrolled hunting, war, disease, destruction of its forest habitat, and capture for illegal trade, all of which have caused its numbers to plummet. After dwindling to just 620 in 1980, conservation efforts have helped bring the numbers back up. But new threats are emerging as humans move further into the gorillas' habitat, and they are still gravely at risk.
The Mountain Gorilla's Range
Mountain gorillas live in two regions in central Africa: the Virunga mountains, which span the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Rwanda and Uganda; and Bwindi Impenetrable National Park in Uganda.
As climate change drives temperatures up and increases drought frequency in Africa, humans are pushing further into the gorillas' habitat. For example, in northern Rwanda, people in communities with dwindling water resources often enter Volcanoes National Park to collect water. While in the area, they sometimes set traps for antelopes, but often ensnare baby gorillas instead. As people push further into the habitat, the gorillas are driven higher into the mountains, where they can suffer from exposure to harsher temperatures and have less access to vegetation they typically eat. Increased overlap with humans also exposes the gorillas to another threat that is being exacerbated by climate change: disease. Gorillas are highly susceptible to disease, which can be passed from humans to gorillas, and with a small population and limited distribution, they are particularly vulnerable. The World Health Organization reports that infectious diseases are on the rise, and that these changes in disease transmission patterns are "likely a major consequence of climate change."