Why Are Gorillas Endangered?

Both gorilla species face an extremely high risk of extinction.

mountain gorilla peeking through vegetation in Uganda
A mountain gorilla peeks through vegetation at Bwindi Impenetrable Forest in Uganda.

Rod Waddington / Flickr / CC BY-SA 2.0

There are two species of gorillas on Earth, both of which are critically endangered. Each has two subspecies: The western gorilla is divided into western lowland and Cross River gorillas, while the eastern gorilla is split into eastern lowland and mountain gorillas.

Western lowland gorillas are the most abundant subspecies by far, with an estimated wild population of more than 300,000. But given the threats they face, their declining population, and their slow reproductive rate, they aren’t nearly as safe as that number seems to suggest. The other western subspecies, the Cross River gorilla, is much rarer and also in steep decline. Down to a total population of about 250, it’s considered highly vulnerable to extinction.

Eastern lowland gorillas, also known as Grauer’s gorillas, have suffered dramatic losses in recent decades, with their population falling by 77% between 1996 and 2016. Fewer than 3,800 are thought to remain in the wild. Mountain gorillas, while still scarce and at risk, offer a rare ray of hope for gorilla conservation. Only about 1,000 exist, but that’s a big improvement from the early 1980s, when their total population had fallen to 240. Thanks to "extreme conservation" over the last few decades, including intensive day-to-day protection of gorilla families, that number is now believed to stand at 1,069.

Threats to Gorillas

All four subspecies of gorillas are endangered, but the nature and severity of those threats vary from place to place. Overall, the most pressing dangers for wild gorilla populations are poaching, infectious disease, and the loss and fragmentation of their habitat.

Poaching

All capturing, killing, and consumption of gorillas is illegal, but that hasn’t stopped the illegal bushmeat trade from decimating wild populations in many important gorilla habitats. While gorillas are targeted by some poachers, they also commonly fall victim to opportunistic hunters as well as snares meant for other wildlife, according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN). Poaching is the primary threat to both western and eastern lowland gorillas, and the threat is growing as logging and mining roads make it easier for poachers to get in and out of dense forests.

Disease

After poaching, the No. 2 cause of declines among western lowland gorillas is disease, according to the IUCN. The Ebola virus specifically has caused a series of great ape die-offs since the 1980s, the worst of which often had mortality rates as high as 95%. Populations in protected areas began to recover in about a decade, research shows, although a full recovery would reportedly take 75 to 130 years — and that’s only if all poaching stopped, which the IUCN notes is “an unlikely scenario.” Transmission of human diseases is a big concern for Cross River and eastern gorillas, too.

Habitat Loss and Fragmentation

Loss of habitat is a widespread threat to all great apes, including gorillas, but it differs from place to place. Western lowland gorillas have an emerging problem with oil-palm plantations and industrial-scale mining, for example, both due to the habitat they displace directly and the development corridors they enable, which can further fragment the forest and isolate gorilla populations. For many Cross River and eastern gorillas, habitat is being lost mainly to encroaching human settlement, which often means forest is removed by illegal logging or the expansion of villages, farmland, and pastures. Between 1995 and 2010 alone, Cross River gorillas reportedly lost 59% of their habitat.

What Can We Do to Help?

Humans and gorillas shared a common ancestor about 10 million years ago, and today we’re still roughly 98% identical on a genetic level. Gorillas are close members of our evolutionary family, but that’s hardly the only reason why we should help them. Gorillas are also important members of their ecosystems, performing services like dispersing seeds of the fruit they eat as they roam across large swaths of forest. They’re also highly intelligent social creatures who deserve to exist for their own sake, even if they didn’t benefit the world around them.

And since gorillas’ troubles are largely caused by human activities, we certainly owe them a helping hand. Here are a few ways to contribute.

Support Gorilla Guardians

Conservationists are working to reduce pressure from poaching, habitat loss, disease, and other threats. Anyone can assist those efforts by supporting groups like the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund (DFGF), the African Wildlife Foundation (AWF), or the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), to name a few. You can also directly support gorilla sanctuaries like Virunga National Park in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), as well as Virunga’s Fallen Rangers Fund, which provides “critical support, employment, and training to the widows and children of those Virunga Rangers killed in the line of duty.”

Visit Mountain Gorillas Responsibly

Responsible tourism is partly credited with the nascent rebound among mountain gorillas, essentially making gorillas more valuable to local economies alive than dead. This only works if local communities are involved and can benefit from conservation efforts, and if tourists can be made to behave. People visiting mountain gorillas are expected to stay at least 7 meters (21 feet) away and to skip the excursion if they’re sick, given the risk of spreading disease to wild gorillas.

Recycle Phones and Electronics

Eastern gorillas in the DRC are losing habitat to mining, according to the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund, and those mines are often created in search of metals that will later be used in cellphones and other electronics. Mining of an ore called coltan, for instance, is seen as particularly dangerous to eastern gorillas. By recycling electronic items as much as possible, we can help reduce the demand for mining. That could not only protect gorillas from the loss of habitat to mining, but also from the hunting that often occurs when mining camps are built in deep forests. Options for electronics recycling vary by location, but DFGF cites Eco-Cell as one recycling company that places a high priority on gorilla conservation.

Buy Sustainable Palm Oil

The palm plantations that have long plagued Southeast Asia’s orangutans are increasingly poised to wreak similar havoc in western gorilla habitat, the IUCN warns. "As oil-palm plantations in Asia reach capacity, Africa is becoming the new frontier for this crop, offering excellent economic prospects in countries with appropriate rainfall, soil, and temperatures," the group explains. Unfortunately, that also describes nearly three-quarters of the western lowland gorilla’s habitat. To help reduce this threat, the DFGF and other conservation groups recommend avoiding products with palm oil unless they use certified sustainable palm oil.