With their large developed brains, ability to walk upright for some time and lack of tails, great apes – gorillas, chimpanzees, bonobos and orangutans – are man’s closest living relations.
Protecting the gorillas
Through all the years of instability in the DR Congo, many locals have done their utmost to protect the gorillas during the worst periods of fighting, often risking or giving up their own lives to do so.
Gorillas are the largest of the great apes and are thought to have split from humans and chimps around nine million years ago. Around three million years ago, chimps and humans split in their lines of development.
The Virunga National Park in the east of the DR Congo is home to both chimpanzees and Eastern gorillas (Gorilla beringei).
There are two subspecies of Eastern gorilla. One is the mountain gorilla (Gorilla beringei beringei), which has few animals left – fewer than 800. The only populations of mountain gorilla are found in the forests of the Virunga volcanoes (straddling DR Congo, Rwanda and Uganda) and in the Bwindi Impenetrable Forest in Uganda – see Uganda Geography & Wildlife. But thanks to the work of the renowned Dian Fossey – see Rwanda Tourism & Communications – the mountain gorilla is perhaps the best understood of all the wild populations.
The other Eastern subspecies is the Grauer’s Gorilla (Gorilla beringei graueri), previously known as the Eastern Lowland gorilla. This is the largest of the gorillas. Scientists don’t have a good idea how many Grauer’s are left in the wild – estimates vary from 6,000 to 26,000.