For many naturalists, silverback mountain gorillas are one of the most majestic creatures on the planet. Their gentle nature and high intelligence have made the great apes of Africa popular among wildlife adventure seekers across the world. The best way to observe these “gentle giants” is by joining the daily gorilla trekking excursions in Uganda and Rwanda.
Gorilla trekking is a guided hike through dense rainforests to observe and spend time with gorillas in their natural habitat. But before embarking on a gorilla safari trip, it would help if you get to know the primates a little bit more.
The silverbacks are male gorillas that develop a silver coat on their backs as they age (at about 15 years old). Mountain gorillas live in patriarchal groups, and the silverback heads the family, with several females (usually related) and young ones. The great apes’ social lives can be related to primitive human families.
Here’s our list of 10 other facts about silverback mountain gorillas that you will find fascinating.
There are two species of gorillas in the world: the eastern gorilla and the western gorilla. However, each species is split into two groups. The four gorilla subspecies are eastern mountain gorillas, eastern lowland gorillas, western cross-river gorillas and western lowland gorillas.
Silverbacks are eastern mountain gorillas living in forests of the Virunga Mountains, a mountain range bordering Rwanda, Uganda and Congo. Uganda gorillas live at elevations from 8,000 to 13,000 feet – the same height a skydiver jumps out of a plane! Silverback Mountain Gorillas have longer and thicker fur and longer arms and legs compared to other species. They are quadrupedal primates which means they walk on four limbs.
Silverback mountain gorillas stick to a vegetarian diet. They eat stems, bamboo shoots and fruits. However, they have a limited choice of fruit due to the high altitude of their habitat.
Adult male gorillas can consume more than 18 kg of vegetation daily and use their incredible strength to break apart trees and trunks. For example, they can take apart a whole banana tree to get to the tender interior pith.
Uganda Gorillas are selective foragers and don’t overexploit an area for food. Instead, they harvest vegetation in a way that allows for quick replenishment.
Silverback Mountain Gorillas rarely consume water because their diet mainly consists of succulent vegetation with water and morning dew. These animals get their needed moisture from the food they eat. And they eat A LOT – they spend half of their day eating.
Dian Fossey, an American primatologist known for her extensive studies on mountain gorilla groups, wrote that the primates have an “obvious dislike of rain, and they seem to dislike water in general.”
Silverback Gorillas are one of the biggest and strongest primates, and they can grow four to six feet tall and weigh from 135 kg to 220 kg. The tallest Silverback recorded was 6′ 3″ tall with an arm span of 2.8 meters and a chest measuring 1.98 meters across.
Silverbacks are stronger than any human being, and they are known to be 20 times stronger compared to adult humans and can lift or throw up to 815 kg. Despite their size, they are also fast runners and can reach speeds between 23 and 25 mph. In addition, their bites are incomparable to any other animal. Their large canines can cover 1,300 pounds per square inch, which is higher than predatory lions, whose bite covers 650 pounds per square inch.
Silverback Mountain Gorillas may be strong and large, but they rarely show off their power in the wild. Instead, they are gentle creatures that prefer to forage for food and laze around all day. Those who have gone gorilla trekking in Rwanda noted that the great apes are shy and reserved around humans. But once they get to know a person, they become friendly and affectionate. Due to these characteristics, they are often called gentle giants.
However, Silverbacks can be very aggressive when they are provoked or threatened. They won’t think twice about showing off their strength when this happens. They often “charge” at threats, but most of the time, these attacks are fake. They only act aggressively to give their family time to flee for safety.
Gorillas are social animals and live in groups called troops. One troop generally consists of one to four adult males, some young males, several adult females and young. The oldest and strongest Silverback is the leader of the troop. When the head of the group dies, the group dissolves, or a young Silverback male, usually the dead leader’s son, takes over.
The size of a gorilla troop varies, but the average group contains four to ten members. The largest mountain gorilla troop was discovered in Rwanda, consisting of 65 gorillas. Members have solid relationships and are highly synchronized in their activity patterns.
Mountain gorillas are intelligent creatures. Although they are less curious and adaptable than chimpanzees, gorillas can also use tools. Scientists have observed them using branches to gauge the depth of streams and rivers, making ladders to help their young reach treetops and even using sticks as a form of cutlery when eating ants to avoid being bitten.
Moreover, Mountain Gorillas are known for their impressive communication skills. They have been recorded making 25 different vocalizations to communicate distress, alarm, contentment and aggression. A Mountain Gorilla named Koko even learned human sign language. Over her lifetime, she learned over 1,000 signs and can understand over 2,000 English words.
Most Mountain Gorillas look distinctly different from one another. They differ in body size and facial features, making it easy for researchers to identify each. However, sometimes, two primates look too much alike. Therefore, primatologist Dian Fossey developed a method for easy identification of Mountain Gorillas. She noted that every Mountain Gorilla has unique nose prints, just like human fingerprints.
Mountain Gorillas have the most apparent nose prints out of the four subspecies of gorillas. As a result, these prints have become a crucial part of studies involving primates.
In the wild, a Mountain Gorilla has a 35 to 40 years lifespan, but they often live longer in captivity, sometimes over 50 years. This is because they have plenty of food and are not threatened by predators. Due to their size, they have few natural predators aside from leopards. However, their most significant threat is humans who hunt them. In addition, poachers often kill Mountain Gorillas for their heads, hands and feet, which are then sold to collectors.
In recent decades, the gorilla population has declined due to three main reasons: habitat loss, disease and poaching.
Forests where gorillas live are being destroyed for commercial logging and agricultural use, forcing them to live in challenging conditions. Disease outbreaks also affect their population. For example, in 2022, 95 per cent of Mountain Gorillas died from an Ebola outbreak in Congo. Similarly, an entire gorilla population was wiped out in Gabon due to a disease outbreak in 1994.
As mentioned above, poachers hunt gorillas to sell to wealthy collectors who use them as trophies or pets. But sometimes, they are killed in traps set for other animals.
Thankfully, the conversation initiative which Dian Fossey started has raised awareness. In recent years, the gorilla population has increased, which prompted the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) to change the gorillas’ status from critically endangered to endangered.
Explore East Africa’s fascinating wildlife with Nkuringo Safaris. We can tailor your holiday so you can have an unforgettable experience and create memories that will last a lifetime. Whether you want to spend time with the silverback mountain gorillas in the rainforest mountains or explore Uganda’s picturesque countryside, our team can make it happen.
Let our experts know your great bucket list and expected experiences, and we will customize your trip with a personal safari expert guiding you through the process.