Endangered Species Handbook

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Vanishing Species

Human Tragedy and the Looting of Virunga's Treasures: Page 3

     The effects of burgeoning human populations on wildlife and the once magnificent forests that covered the region have been tragic.  Long before the forests of the Virunga Mountains became divided into the separate countries of Zaire, Rwanda and Uganda, and before the forests were replaced by agriculture in the latter two countries, thousands of Mountain Gorillas inhabited the region.  As human populations rose, Gorillas declined to their present endangered status.  These peaceful primates wander in the forest throughout most of the daylight hours, feeding on the luxuriant vegetation.  As the largest and most powerful of all primates, the Gorilla male has an enormous chest, 20 inches across and up to 5.7 feet (1.75 meters) in circumference.  He weighs up to 605 pounds, while females are much smaller, about half the weight of the male (Nowak 1999).  The Mountain Gorillas' forests can become quite cold at night, and to adapt, they have developed longer, thicker hair than the Lowland and other races of Gorillas. 
 
     Gorillas travel in family groups led by silverbacks, named for the whitish-gray hair on their backs.  These are the strongest and largest males, usually more than 20 years old, who guide and protect the band.  Males compete for this role as soon as they are teenagers.  Silverbacks father the babies in the family group, although sometimes females mate with "outside" males.  These groups often travel long distances to locate fruiting trees and edible plants and tubers.  Almost entirely vegetarian, Gorillas eat 40 pounds of food a day, feeding on 70 or more species of leaves, bark, fruit, roots, fungi, flowers and bamboo.  They rarely drink water, obtaining moisture from the dew-laden plants, and the only animal matter they consume consists of insects.  Gorillas consider army ants a delicacy and occasionally eat grubs and other insects.
 
     In Rwanda's north, contiguous to Virunga National Park, where about 250 Mountain Gorillas survive, Volcanoes National Park, a 48-square-mile forest reserve, is home to about 100 Mountain Gorillas (Fisher 2001).  The latter forest was once much larger, but the needs of agriculture had greater priority, and some 65 square miles were carved out of the park, squeezing the Gorillas into a fraction of their original range in the country.


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