- CLASS: Mammalia (Mammals)
- ORDER: Primates
- FAMILY: Hominidae
- GENUS: Gorilla
- SPECIES: gorilla (western gorilla), beringei (eastern gorilla)
- SUBSPECIES: Gorilla gorilla gorilla (western lowland gorilla), Gorilla beringei beringei (mountain gorilla), Gorilla beringei graueri (Grauer's gorilla), Gorilla beringei (Bwindi gorilla)
Gentle giants. Ever since King Kong first gave Fay Wray that unexpected lift to the top of the Empire State Building in 1933, Hollywood has gone ape depicting the gorilla as perfect monster material. They seem to be forever typecast as the heavy. But the truth is, they’re peaceful, family oriented, plant-eating animals that live in complex social groups. They are the largest of all primates—the group of animals that includes monkeys, lemurs, orangutans, chimpanzees, and humans.
Many people like to compare gorillas with humans, but there are several differences. Although they are able to stand upright, gorillas prefer to walk using their hands as well as their legs. Their arms are much longer than their legs, and gorillas can use the backs of their fingers like extra feet when they walk. This is called the knuckle walk.
Like all great apes (except humans), gorillas require rain forests to make their living, and the forest depends upon them, too. The gorilla’s fibrous scat acts as rich fertilizer for the forest, and seedlings sprout from it rapidly, making these animals important forest regenerators.
HABITAT AND DIET
Can you imagine waking up each morning surrounded by food? Almost everything a gorilla eats is plant material, so life in the forest is like living in a huge restaurant! And gorillas love to eat—it’s their favorite activity! An adult male eats up to 40 pounds (18 kilograms) of food each day. A gorilla’s large stomach can hold the bulky food it eats. Strong jaws help the gorilla chew tough stems.
Gorilla food includes leaves, stems, fruits, seeds, roots, ants, and termites. Unlike chimpanzees, gorillas don’t use tools to get those termites; instead, they just smash the termite mound to get the tasty insects living inside! At the San DIego Zoo and San Diego Zoo Safari Park, our gorillas are fed a variety of produce and browse material six times a day, as well as special treats like Cheerios and Wheat Chex cereals. This food is scattered all about the exhibit, giving the gorillas plenty of opportunities to hunt for their meals.
A group of gorillas living together is called a “troop.” There can be 5 to 30 gorillas in one troop, led by a strong, experienced male known as a "silverback." His job is a big one. He is responsible for the safety and well being of the members of his troop. The silverback makes all the decisions, such as where the troop travels for food each day, when they stop to eat or rest, and where they spend the night.
A gorilla troop doesn’t stay in the same place for more than a day. After all, the troop doesn’t want to deplete its food source! Each morning the silverback leads his troop to a new area where food is plentiful. After a morning of munching, each adult gorilla gathers leaves, twigs, and branches to make a day nest for resting while the youngsters play. After their nap, the gorillas eat again until bedtime, when they make yet another nest, either on the ground or in a tree, for a good night’s sleep. Gorillas never use the same nest twice.
Gorillas are generally peaceful creatures, but sometimes a younger male from another troop challenges the silverback. To scare unwanted gorillas away, he beats his chest with cupped hands to make a loud noise, screams, bares his teeth, and then charges forward. Sometimes he breaks off branches and shakes them at the intruder. It is an awesome display!
A female gorilla is ready to have babies of her own when she is about eight years old. But first, she must leave the safety of her own troop and find another troop or a lone silverback to live with. The tiny infants only weigh a few pounds at birth, and the mother is generally over 200 pounds (91 kilograms), so the births are quick and easy. A mother carries her baby against her chest for the first several months until the little one can hang on to Mom’s back, which frees up her hands to walk and carry food items.
A newborn grows quickly. At five to six months old it learns to walk, and by 18 months of age it can follow Mom on foot for short distances. Still, the safest place for the youngster is its mother's back as she travels through the dense vegetation of their forest home.
Young gorillas learn by imitating what the others in the troop are doing and by play fighting with other youngsters. Even the stern silverbacks are gentle with the little ones as they practice new skills. A young gorilla stays close to its mom, sharing her nest, until it is four to six years old. Gorillas have been known to nurse for up to three years.
AT THE ZOO
Gorillas have long been popular at the San Diego Zoo and San Diego Zoo Safari Park. A 1936 issue of our member magazine, ZOONOOZ, stated, “More people ask for the gorillas than for any single exhibit, even more than inquire about the penguins.”
Gorillas at the Zoo: The Zoo’s first gorillas arrived here as youngsters in 1931, captured in the mountains of what was then the Belgian Congo in Africa in 1930 by famed explorers Martin and Osa Johnson and paid for by a generous donation from early Zoo benefactors Ellen B. Scripps and her nephew, Robert P. Scripps. The young gorillas were about five or six years old and it was hoped that one was male and the other female. As it turned out, they were both male, but no matter! The awesome apes enchanted Zoo visitors, and the two served as wonderful ambassadors for their species. They are immortalized in two bronze busts on the Zoo's front plaza.
Another famous gorilla resident at the Zoo was Albert. Born in Africa, Albert arrived at the Zoo in August 1949 at about four months of age. He and two baby female lowland gorillas were hand raised at the Zoo hospital. In 1965, he fathered Alvila, the first lowland gorilla conceived and born at the San Diego Zoo, and only the seventh gorilla born in managed care. During his years here, Albert endeared himself to an international audience through his majestic stature, mischievous behavior, and gentle demeanor. His spirit continues through his great-grandchildren living at the San Diego Zoo and San Diego Zoo Safari Park and the ambiance of his namesake restaurant, Albert’s, a full-service restaurant located on the spot of our former open-air gorilla grotto, where Albert lived.
Today, the Zoo has a wonderful, naturalistic gorilla habitat that is home to seven gorillas, divided into smaller groups, that alternate days on and off exhibit: while one group is outside being admired by Zoo visitors, the others spends the “off” day indoors in the spacious gorilla “bedrooms.” Memba is the only wild-born gorilla at the Zoo. He arrived at the Zoo in 1984 when he was about 15 years old and has fathered seven offspring. His sons Ekuba, Mandazzi, and Maka are here as well. Now an adult, Maka has a genetic defect that has made him smaller than other male gorillas his age. You can usually see Memba, Ekuba, and Mandazzi, or Maka and his two brothers first thing in the morning.
Paul Donn, born at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park in 1989, heads the Zoo’s other troop. He has fathered three offspring. Members of Paul Donn’s troop are females Ndjia and Jessica. His group can usually be seen in the afternoon.
Gorillas at the Safari Park: The San Diego Zoo Safari Park opened to the public in 1972 with gorilla silverback Trib and his mate, Dolly. They produced the first gorilla born at the Park when little Jim arrived in 1973. Dolly lost interest in caring for her infant, so he was transferred to the Animal Care Center to be hand raised. Over the years, the Park’s troop has grown and is now led by silverback Winston. He watches over females Vila, Kamilah, Kokamo, Kokamo’s son Monroe (the 16th gorilla born at the Park, in 2011), and Kokamo's new baby girl named Leslie, born October 19, 2016. Other members of Winston’s troop are Imani and Frank, who moved to the Park from the Zoo in January 2013; and Imani's daughter Joanne, born at the Park in 2014.
Frank has a special story: born at the Zoo in September 2008, his mother, Azizi, a hand-raised, first-time mom, was not able to hold Frank correctly to nurse him, so keepers had to intervene. Rather than removing Frank from his troop to raise him in the nursery, the committed keepers devised a “rear assisting” program that allowed Azizi (and his aunt, Imani) to raise Frank while keepers helped out by feeding him and quickly returning him to his family. This strategy was wildly successful, as Frank is now a rotund, confident young gorilla, adored by his family and fans. He has a great time playing with Monroe!
Vila is our oldest gorilla. She turned 59 in October 2016! Born in Africa in 1957 and hand raised at the San Diego Zoo’s Children’s Zoo, she gave birth in 1965 to the first gorilla born at the Zoo: Alvila. Vila was moved to the Safari Park in 1975 and quickly endeared herself to visitors and staff. Vila is one of the three oldest known gorillas living today. Although she is “up there” in age, Vila is in excellent health, has a good appetite, and normal behavior. She does have some age-related issues, so she receives senior vitamins and medicine for arthritis, which works well: she has no trouble getting around. Living in Southern California helps as well, as the temperate climate is very easy on an aging gorilla. Even though she is missing a few teeth, corn on the cob is one of her favorite foods, and she never misses a kernel!
Another gorilla with a remarkable story is Joanne, born via emergency C-section on March 12, 2014. She had to remain at the Park’s veterinary medical center for several days, due to health issues. When she was well, the infant was successfully introduced to her mother, Imani, and the rest of the gorilla troop. They can all be seen daily in the Safari Park’s gorilla habitat!
Gorillas have no natural enemies or predators, yet these peaceful creatures are at critical risk because of humans. People hunt gorillas for food called bushmeat, and logging and mining companies destroy gorilla habitat. The recent armed conflict in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo has caused refugees to pour into previous gorilla habitat. Disease epidemics such as the Ebola virus have recently decimated gorilla populations that were previously considered secure within their natural habitat.
The past 15 years have seen a dramatic decline in gorilla population size, with almost half of the entire eastern gorilla population suspected to have been wiped out. Illegal hunting has become a lucrative activity in the region. While hunters often lay snares targeting other mammals, sadly, many gorillas die or lose limbs after being accidentally ensnared. An illegal pet trade is also on the rise. Behind each infant gorilla caught by poachers, several family members are often killed.
In 2000, San Diego Zoo Global established a long-term field program in Cameroon, which is now part of our Central Africa Program, focusing on the behavior and habitat use of gorillas and other primate species in the mountainous southwestern Cameroon rain forest. It isn’t clear whether gorillas in the area’s Ebo Forest are western lowland gorillas Gorilla gorilla gorilla or Cross River gorillas Gorilla gorilla diehli—or something else. In 2005, we received permission to establish permanent study sites inside the Ebo Forest, where surveys gathering ecological and behavioral data for various species, including gorillas, are collected daily. In 2012, the Central Africa Program has established Clubs des Amis des Gorilles (Gorilla Guardian Clubs) in the villages closest to the gorillas to promote community-led conservation initiatives and to promote pride in the unique Ebo gorillas.
The critical conservation status of gorillas underscores the urgency for gorilla conservation science. In collaboration with wildlife managers and conservation scientists in countries where gorilla populations survive, San Diego Zoo Global is involved in the training of range-country scientists in the application of genetic tools and field methods in assessing and monitoring surviving gorilla populations. Performing the first genetic studies on populations of wild mountain gorillas, it was discovered that regionally, these animals are genetically distinct.
Genetic differences were also found within western lowland gorilla populations, which had been considered a single subspecies. By gathering and analyzing fecal samples from wild gorillas, researchers from San Diego Zoo Global and wildlife authorities and conservationists in Uganda, Rwanda, Democratic Republic of the Congo, and Cameroon can shed light on the genetic variation across regions.
Africa may seem far away, but there are some things you can do to help! When you buy wood or furniture, ask if the wood has been certified. This means the wood was taken in a way approved by forestry experts. Buying certified wood encourages logging companies in Africa to follow wildlife laws that help protect gorillas and other African animals.
Did you know that cellphones have a connection to the well-being of gorillas and other animals in central Africa? Here's the 411: cellphones contain a rare ore called coltan (short for columbite-tantalite). This metal is found in central Africa, and increased mining operations to get the coltan means habitat loss and increased hunting pressure on gorillas and other wildlife. Surprisingly, wildlife reserves suffer most from mining. With the increased popularity of cellphones, thousands of illegal miners have invaded the protected parks. Needing food, they have hunted gorillas and elephants to near extinction in these areas.
San Diego Zoo Global, along with Eco-Cell, a cellular phone recycling company, has a cellphone-recycling program at both the San Diego Zoo and the San Diego Zoo Safari Park to encourage visitors to recycle. Our cellphone recycling program helps to keep those obsolete cellphones, chargers, and old batteries out of landfills and to reduce a little of the coltan demand at the same time. We have cellphone collection boxes at our two facilities, so it's really easy to simply drop off those old phones and accessories, working or not. There is no recycling fee to drop off your phone. All cellphones and accessories collected are reused or properly recycled. Every little bit helps!
You can help us bring species back from the brink by supporting the San Diego Zoo Global Wildlife Conservancy. Together we can save and protect wildlife around the globe.