Celebrated each September 24 since 2017, World Gorilla Day is meant to inspire international awareness and appreciation of what pioneering primatologist Dian Fossey called “the greatest of the great apes.”
And while there is much to celebrate, World Gorilla Day also reminds us that there’s equal cause for concern: Sadly, some 40 years after Fossey’s passing and her unprecedented efforts to save gorillas from extinction, all four subspecies found in Africa still face uncertain fates.
No doubt, creating a safe path forward will require a global village—and concerted efforts, including deepening our collective understanding and connection with these creatures. As Fossey famously observed, “One of the basic steps in saving a threatened species is to learn more about it.”
We at Natural Habitat Adventures couldn’t agree more. From fascinating gorilla facts to our sustainable mountain gorilla safaris in Uganda and Rwanda, here are eight of our favorite reasons to celebrate—and help save—gorillas, both on September 24 and beyond.
1. Gorillas Are So Much Like Us (Or Maybe We’re So Much Like Them!)
On a quest to find that long-lost cousin? As human beings, we share 98.3% of our DNA with gorillas, along with a common ancestor dating back some 10 million years. It’s no wonder, then, that gorillas display so many “human” behaviors (or should we say humans display “gorilla” behaviors?), including laughter, sadness and a propensity for developing individual personalities and strong social bonds.
2. Gorillas Are Really Big Deals
Despite all our shared attributes, size and strength easily go to the gorilla, our planet’s strongest and largest primate. In fact, silverback gorillas (dominant males that preside over their troops and sport patches of silver hair on their back and hips) are typically ten times stronger than an adult human! Although mountain gorillas skew a bit smaller than their lowland relatives, members of both the eastern and western species can stand four to six feet tall when standing on two feet and weigh more than 400 pounds.
(A quick primer on gorilla taxonomy and geography: One of two gorilla species that inhabit equatorial Africa, eastern gorillas comprise two subspecies: mountain gorillas and eastern lowland gorillas. Western gorillas also comprise two subspecies: western lowland gorillas and Cross River gorillas. Mountain gorillas, the focus of Fossey’s work as well as Nat Hab safaris, reside at higher elevations in Uganda’s Bwindi Impenetrable National Park, along with the Virunga Mountains bordering Uganda, Rwanda and the less-visited/less-stable Democratic Republic of the Congo.)
3. Gorillas Are Gentle Giants (Still, Safe Distance Is a Good Thing)
Despite their large size and strength, gorillas are mainly vegetarians and are known for displaying a surprising sweetness, particularly toward the younger and elder members of their troops. This includes males, who are actively involved in child rearing. “The extraordinary gentleness of the adult male,” Fossey wrote in her 1982 book, Gorillas in the Mist, “dispels all the King Kong mythology.”
Sure, silverbacks are also known for fearlessly defending their troops when needed, but sans threats, “gorillas are seriously chilled creatures,” says Nat Hab Expedition Leader Richard de Gouveia, who’s led dozens of treks to behold human-habituated mountain gorillas in the dense forests of Rwanda and Uganda.
“Once you get in there,” de Gouveia adds, you learn “they’re some of the most relaxed creatures in the world.”
Nevertheless, maintaining a healthy distance is not only advised, but also required. Remember that 98.3% of shared DNA and corresponding similarities? This includes our ability to share communicable diseases, including COVID-19, meaning that masks and safe distances are essential to securing the gorilla’s future.
4. Gorillas Are All About the Group
Gorillas, which live in tight-knit troops typically consisting of between five and ten members, “are almost altruistic in nature,” Fossey once told a reporter. “There’s very little if any ‘me-itis.’”
As many of her observations and subsequent research revealed, individual survival for gorillas is synonymous with troop survival, which often hinges on maintaining a group mindset and helping others. While on the move, for instance, a troop’s swiftest members will often pause so that slower or more senior members can catch up. It’s also common for gorillas to adopt orphans, and those who have witnessed deaths caused by poachers’ snares often work together to dismantle the deadly traps so that others won’t meet similar ends.
5. Gorillas Are Natural Environmentalists (and Philanthropists)
Mega-grazers, gorillas spend roughly a quarter of each day snacking on vegetation and fruits. Such feasting and foraging might sound self-indulgent, but entire ecosystems benefit: Seeds spread in gorilla scat help maintain forest biodiversity, and gaps left in the forest by gorilla banquets or a troop’s movement create space for plants that need more sunlight to thrive.
Healthy gorillas also benefit human beings. Conserving their habitats in equatorial Africa also means conserving the homes of local and Indigenous people in surrounding areas whose well-being requires access to food, water and other natural resources that these forests provide.
6. Gorillas Need Our Help
One of our favorite gorilla facts: Following a 2018 census, the wild population of mountain gorillas in Africa stood at 1,063, up from only about 250 in the 1980s. It’s excellent news—and a development that prompted IUCN reclassification from Critically Endangered to Endangered—given that scientists feared the subspecies would be extinct by the end of the twentieth century.
“The future for mountain gorillas looks hopeful,” Bas Huijbregts, African Species Director for Nat Hab’s partner, World Wildlife Fund, said in a statement. Still, he added, “the threats they have endured for years, like civil unrest, poaching, habitat destruction, disease and improper management of tourism, remain.”
Such threats extend to the gorilla’s other three subspecies, all of which remain Critically Endangered. What’s more, only 17% of Africa’s gorilla population currently resides in protected regions.
Fortunately, WWF is working with a host of governments and NGOs across Central Africa to create new protected areas, prevent poaching, curb the bushmeat trade, curtail human-wildlife conflicts and develop gorilla-friendly tourism that also creates sustainable economic opportunities for locals.
What can we do? Consider donating to worthy organizations such as the Diane Fossey Gorilla Fund and making a symbolic gorilla adoption through WWF. Want to do more? Visit WWF’s Action Center to take additional steps toward stopping wildlife crimes and the sale of products from illegally deforested lands.
7. Gorillas (and Local Communities) Benefit from Ecotourism
Well-managed, sustainable tourism can provide immense benefits for gorillas, their habitats and locals. Permit fees to enter Uganda’s Bwindi Impenetrable National Park and Rwanda’s Volcanoes National Park, for instance, have been integral to bolstering local communities and bringing mountain gorillas back from the brink of extinction.
Conservation and community support are both paramount on Nat Hab’s Great Uganda Gorilla Safari and our Ultimate Gorilla Safari, which also travels to neighboring Rwanda. In both countries, we work with WWF to support wildlife monitoring programs and help fund a collection of schools and social enterprises, including Ride 4 a Woman, which helps women living in Bwindi, Uganda, start their own small businesses. Travelers can even visit schools and libraries we support, along with Gorilla Conservation Coffee, a sustainable co-op in Uganda that generates income for local farmers while also benefitting gorilla conservation.
8. Gorillas Can Change Our Lives, Too
Sustainable gorilla tourism doesn’t only have the power to save gorillas and uplift local communities, however. While travelers can expect challenging treks at higher altitudes, once you encounter mountain gorillas in the wild, it’s all worth it, and you’ll never be the same again, says Expedition Leader Richard de Gouveia. Even after his dozens of gorilla treks, he says, “they just get better and better and better. They truly are life changing.”